Reviews | Restless and Relentless Minds: Thinking Like a “Species Out of Context”
This is an excerpt from the opening speech of the online conference on “Changing Configurations and New Directions” at Ajeenkya DY Patil University in Pune, India on July 27, 2021.
The stability of Earth’s ecosystems, and therefore the future of the human species, depends on the recognition and response of people to the multiple cascading social and ecological crises that can easily overwhelm our imaginations. We must cultivate restless and relentless minds to deal with unprecedented analytical questions and moral challenges if we are to move beyond failed approaches to our current politics. It requires a deeper sense of history than what we typically see in current debates. Since the advent of agriculture over 10,000 years ago, humans have been a “species out of context”. This awareness will help us to formulate “questions that go beyond the available answers”, which are necessary if we are to shape effective responses to crises. In this presentation, Robert Jensen highlights half a century of work by one of his elders, Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Kansas (USA), to suggest avenues for analyzing threats at this time in history. This talk builds on Jensen’s 2021 book The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas) and an upcoming book co-authored with Jackson.
Introduction: Restless and Relentless
I have lived an extraordinary life. I don’t mean to say that as an individual my life has been anything special. In fact, most of the time I have to work hard to get back to normal.
But I was born in 1958 in the United States, the richest society in the history of the world, at a time when people, not only in the United States but all over the world, expected economic expansion without end. It has been a time in human history of an extraordinary level of more — a lot more people and a lot more made possible by a lot more energy. While the world’s wealth is not distributed evenly or equitably, global politics and economics in my lifetime were premised on the assumption that there could be enough for everyone to live comfortably, even abundantly, in consuming at unprecedented levels, however many of us humans may be wandering the face of the earth.
But things are changing. The United States remains the richest society for the time being. Wealth is still considered the norm around the world for the time being. But this dream of endless expansion has left us with nightmare scenarios for the future. Drastic change is inevitable.
Today we face multiple cascading ecological crises including, but not limited to, rapid climate destabilization, accelerated extinction of species and loss of biodiversity, chemical contamination of land and land. water, as well as soil erosion and degradation. These realities will require our species to diminish its power, either consciously through rational planning or as a result of greater forces beyond our control. The decades to come – not in a sci-fi future, but in the lives of many of us – will be marked by permanent contraction. If there is to be a decent human future – perhaps if there is to be a human future at all – we must face the inevitability of fewer people consuming less energy and fewer material resources.
No one knows how the species will get there. No one knows if we can make it happen through rational planning. But our chances of maintaining a significant human presence on Earth, living in a way that we might call human, will be improved if we let go of the illusions about growth, whether related to “drill, baby, drill.” or to a “Green New Deal.” The end of the fossil fuel era is inevitable, and no combination of renewable energy sources can fuel continued expansion.
The scale and scope of the challenge are unprecedented and beyond the reach of conventional policy proposals. But we can increase our chances of success by cultivating restless and relentless minds.
Restless, in the sense of never feeling settled or safe because there is no security, something that vulnerable people understand and which will eventually become a daily reality, even for the rich. Relentless, in the sense of being open to questioning every assumption, doubting every conclusion, taking on every challenge, because the moment we think we got it right is the moment we’ll make our biggest mistakes.
Restless and relentless because we will fail often and we need to develop the determination to persevere, and because when we get something right it means that we will become aware of another set of problems just ahead.
We must cultivate restless and relentless minds not only because of the challenges we face, but also to foster a more joyful participation in Creation.
Wes Jackson is the most restless and relentless spirit I know. He is an elder of two important projects of the last half of the 20th century: the creation of early environmental education programs, and then the construction of a major research institution in sustainable agriculture. These have placed him well for his third act: a frank and honest calculation with the fragile future we face.
Jackson’s awareness of the beauty and complexity of the world began on his family’s farm. His formal education in biology, botany and genetics deepened this reverence. Daily experience and scientific knowledge were part of the process by which Jackson came to see the distress of ecosystems, beginning with agriculture.
For the past four decades, Jackson has suggested that we not only focus on the problems of agriculture, but that we fight “the problem of agriculture.” Since humans became dependent on these annual grains, Jackson points out, we have reduced the planet’s ecological capital beyond replacement levels. From this observation flows what I consider Jackson’s most important aphorism, his description of contemporary humans as “a species out of context.”
For most of our evolutionary history, we were gatherers who lived in small, relatively egalitarian bands that spent less time working for food and shelter than we do today, which the anthropologist says. Marshall Sahlins called “the original rich society”. Surplus, ownership and hierarchy were scarce, existing only in particularly resource-rich places.
The advent of large-scale grain farming, followed by what we call civilization, changed all that. We began to work harder in more unequal societies, often with poorer diets and an overall reduction in human health. Agriculture has led to sedentary communities, cities, empires and the modern nation state, and along the way we have obtained extensive and permanent writings and recording of human creativity in the arts. . We have also had hardened inequalities, not only in economic systems but also in patriarchy and later in white supremacy. We have air conditioning and we have had global warming. We have achieved social mobility and the ability to leave small communities behind when they limit our personal development, as well as the erosion of a sense of stability and meaning as communities atrophy.
We continue to try to remake humans to integrate into contemporary societies. We might want to start wondering how to remake contemporary societies to better match humans. There is no going back to the search for food as the main economy – not with nearly 8 billion people on the planet – but we can move forward with our evolutionary history in mind.
Jackson sees dramatic changes coming, many of which are potentially catastrophic but also some that will be healthy. In the meantime, there is work to be done and a world to be enjoyed.
There is a saying in what is sometimes called the minimalist movement that “less is more” – a good life is not only possible but more likely when you reduce consumption. Fair enough, but I think it is more honest to say “less is less, less is OK”.
It is easy to recognize that people in wealthy societies own too much and that too much can be more of a burden than a blessing. But we also have to recognize that there are benefits to having access to a lot of energy and materials. Anyone who’s ever spent all day digging a hole or a trench with a shovel, a task a backhoe could accomplish in a matter of minutes, knows that sometimes a lot of energy is easier on your back.
But life is a compromise, and too often we focus on the positive effects of energy and materials without considering the downsides. There is no way to identify all the costs and benefits, but we don’t even try to count the full cost, in terms of the ecological, political and psychological consequences of our technologies. We regularly stress the benefits and ignore the real costs.
Honest full cost accounting would take into account all of these complexities of contemporary societies – the pros and cons – so that we can begin to make rational collective decisions about what to cling to during downsizing. It won’t be easy, and often it won’t be fun. Declining power will mean suffering, even if we manage to become more human by taking care of each other.
We need to rethink our ideas about wealth, about what constitutes a good life. Sahlins puts it bluntly: “[T]here are two possible routes to enrich yourself. Needs can be “easily met”, either by producing a lot or by desiring little.
Less is less, but less must be OK because we have no choice. The sooner we realize that the more time we have for rational planning to reduce the pain of a transition to a new way of organizing our lives.
Jackson was walking around his Kansas property one spring day and called me with a simple question, “Why isn’t that enough?” “
Jackson checked off a list of the plants he had cataloged on the boardwalk and described a spider web between two trees he had studied. He spoke of all the questions about these organisms that arose as he observed them.
“Why is that not enough? “
All of that – seeing, feeling, thinking, the emotions that arise in us when we talk about it – may be enough. We can find the authentic foundations of meaning and purpose in our own engagement with the world around us. If we can be happy with what the ecosphere gives us for free – if that can really be enough for us – perhaps we can find the strength to ask the tough questions and the imagination to go beyond the available solutions. Our restless and relentless minds can get down to business.