Cultivating an Ecological Conscience:
Essays of a Farmer Philosopher
(University Press of Kentucky, 2010, Hardback $40.00, 403 pages)
Review by Dan Armstrong
"A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land." -Aldo Leopold
"Now that the issue of sustainability has arisen so urgently and in fact so transformingly, we can see that the correct agricultural agenda following World War II would have been to continue and refine the already established connection between our farms and the sun and to correct, where necessary, the fertility deficit…Instead, the adopted agenda called for a shift from the cheap, clean, and, for all practical purposes, limitless energy of the sun to the expensive, filthy, and limited energy of the fossil fuels. It called for a massive use of chemical fertilizers to offset the destruction of topsoil and the depletion of natural fertility. It called also for the displacement of nearly the entire farming population and the replacement of labor and good farming practices by machines and toxic chemicals." -Wendell Berry
During the 1960s and 70s when environmental awareness was coming of age, and scientists began to understand that our numbers and our industries were undermining the health of the planet, there was also a parallel awakening in agricultural thought. A vanguard of farmers and agriculturists called out for a rejection of industrial farming and a return to natural farming and the agrarian philosophy that has long been a part of American culture. Writers like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson promoted regionalism, expressed concerns about fossil fuel dependency, and advocated knowing the land and every nuance of the biotic community. They pursed a land ethic grounded in a deep reverence for life, the planet, and the grand mystery behind it all.
Though these New Agrarians, as they are now called, were every bit as ecologically sophisticated as the first wave of environmental scientists, the environmentalists were, for the most part, linked to the liberal social movement of the sixties and the New Agrarians tended to be socially conservative with traditional Christian values. One might argue that because of this elemental difference, the two groups never fully connected. Looking back this seems a shame. Both groups had much to offer each other and to the conjoining of the environmental movement with American agriculture. To this day, sadly, environmentalist and farmers are still some distance apart.
The writing and work of farmer, agrarian, and philosopher Frederick L. Kirschenmann, however, provides some hope for bridging this gap. His recently published collection of essays, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience, with its clear concern for the part petroleum plays in modern agriculture, offers significant common ground for farmers and carbon-footprint conscious, twenty-first century environmentalists to agree upon. This alone would make Kirschenmann’s book important, but it also does such a thorough job of describing the current state of agriculture, it would be difficult to find a more comprehensive compilation of essays on the subject.
Kirschenmann is not as widely known as Wendell Berry or Wes Jackson, but he was and still is one of the essential voices of the New Agrarian movement.* Norman Wirzba’s inclusion of Cultivating an Ecological Conscience in his Culture of the Land: A Series in the New Agrarianism is testimony to this. The book’s thirty-seven essays track Kirschenmann’s writing from 1978 to the present and demonstrate an intimate knowledge of natural farming practices, a full understanding of the drawbacks to industrial agriculture, and, most importantly, a post-carbon vision for the future of agriculture. If you are not familiar with Kirschenmann or the New Agrarianism or its related agricultural philosophy, this collection is a good place to start.
Kirschenmann grew up on his family’s farm in North Dakota. As a young man, he left the farm to attend the Hartford Theological Seminary and later received a PhD in Historical Theology at the University of Chicago in preparation for what appeared a budding academic career. Then, in 1977, concern for his father’s health and a growing interest in natural farming compelled Kirschenmann to return to his family’s 3000-acre farm to convert it to organic. In the time since, along with managing the family farm, he formed the North Plains Agricultural Society, was President of Farm Verified Organic for ten years, was on the board of the USDA’s Organic Standards, was a key figure in the Agriculture for the Middle Project, and in 2000 became the second director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a position he held until 2005. Today he’s a farmer and a professor of religion and philosophy, serving as a Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center at Iowa State University. He is also a board member for the Food Alliance, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area, the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and the Nature Institute. Clearly, we are talking about a man who has been actively involved at the leading edge of agriculture for a good portion of his life.
Kirschenmann’s background in religion and philosophy are evident throughout this collection of essays. The word conscience in the book’s title underscores his specific interest in ethics. When applied to the environment, conscience, in Kirschenmann’s words, becomes "the awareness that all of the members of the biotic community of which we are a part are our ‘neighbors’ and that eternal qualities of life await us in those relationships." The second part of this phrase is important because those eternal qualities of life are always there in Kirschenmann’s thoughts and put a deeper perspective on even the most mundane acts that he might be engaged. The book’s opening essay, "Theological Reflections while Castrating Calves," is a perfect example, immediately introducing the reader to the breadth of Kirschenmann’s understanding and his deep compassion for the land, all life, and how they relate to his own beliefs. A passage from that first essay demonstrates this point:
"One Sunday morning, a year ago, my lawyer/wife and I were prevented from gong to church that day by requirements on the farm. We were riding across the prairie that morning, among our cattle, when my wife asked me where, if anyplace, I saw ‘god’ in our farm. I pointed to some Canadian thistles in the fence line and to the calves surrounding us and said, ‘in every thistle in our fields and every calf humping another calf in our pasture.’ I did not say this to be crude or disrespectful of her question but to convey the fact that in my theology, the divine always meets us in the flesh–all flesh–all relationships, not just our relationship with humans or relationships we like."
This sets the tone for the rest of the essays. Throughout there is a pervading theological sentiment, generally understated, but still giving the sense of the sacred to the discussion, and adding a rather uplifting moral quality to caring for the planet and the full set of relationships life engenders.
While the essays dissect a wide spectrum of agricultural issues from the discussion of natural farming practices to an extended critique of biotechnology to the essentials of food and community on a planet with limited natural resources, the book as a whole seems to hinge on one absolutely critical philosophical question. Kirschenmann spells it out in an essay toward the end of the book, "Challenges Facing Philosophy," when he asks rhetorically–who are we "as a species and how [do] our feeding habits affect the world in which we live?" This is a fundamental New Agrarian stance.** One can hardly imagine a more appropriate question for today when it seems to many that humans are overrunning the planet, rushing headlong through the planet’s natural resources, headed to an ecological collapse–which would, of course, take us with it. For Kirschenmann, this is a real scenario and is, presumably, the concern that impelled his return to his family’s farm in 1977 and the cultivation of his own ecological conscience.
A quote from the essay, "Expanding a Vision for Sustainable Agriculture," focuses all Kirschenmann’s concerns for the future into a single task, to which the entire text of the book seems aimed:
"The obvious task is to bring the human population into equilibrium with other species and then to design an agriculture that keeps the human population fed while maintaining that equilibrium. More importantly, agriculture may play a key role in unfurling the ecological revolution ahead."
Cultivating an Ecological Conscience is an absolutely essential read for all those unfamiliar with the direction of cutting edge agriculture and a positively uplifting read for all those who are already there and seeking ways to connect environmental concepts with the production of food in the twenty-first century.
Go to page 2 of review.
*Wendell Berry, Fred Kirschenmann, and Wes Jackson are currently working on a 50-year farm plan for the United States.
** Wendell Berry published a collection of essays in 1990 titled, "What are Humans for?"