Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: CULTIVATING AN ECOLOGICAL CONSCIENCE by Fred Kirschenmann [Vol. 3, #27]

“Working Toward the Flourishing of Creation”

A Review of
Cultivating an Ecological Conscience:
Essays from a Farmer Philosopher
By Fred Kirschenmann

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

“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. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Cultivating an Ecological Conscience:
Essays from a Farmer Philosopher
By Fred Kirschenmann
Hardback: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Cultivating an Ecological Conscience - Fred KirschenmannThe above quote from Aldo Leopold’s seminal book seems like a good place to start, since it’s where the title for a new book of Fred Kirschenmann’s essays, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher draws its name, and it’s the quote that Kirschenmann himself returns to time and again over the three decades represented in this collection. Edited by Constance Falk, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience is the newest in the Culture and the Land series, and this book brings together lectures and essays written by Kirschenmann, but none of which have been gathered in any previous book of essays.

Kirschenmann, farming organically in North Dakota on his family’s land since the 1970s brings a perspective to the sustainability conversation that is rooted in significant farming experience and a commitment early on in the current critique of industrial agriculture to an ecological agriculture; it is this perspective and lived wisdom that is invaluable to current dialogue. If anything, it seems that many essays appearing here could have enjoyed a publication such as this years ago, which would have placed them more in their context, and in starker contrast to the industrial model of agriculture which they critique; however, taken as a body of writing together, these essays trace one farmer’s experience over several decades, and the evolution of his thought. Several ideas repeat and build on one another throughout, most significantly the preservation of the land’s “capacity for self-renewal,” as evidenced by Leopold, and the “dynamic, complex, interdependent activities… in the biotic community” (185) as a measure of agriculture, sustainability, and culture.

Kirschenmann routinely summarizes the ills of industrial agriculture, tracing the beliefs that authorize it back to the Cartesian split of mind from body, subject from object, and humans from other creatures, then through the European colonization of America, right up to the current promise of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). All of these practices share a common distancing and simplification of the complexity of the world: “For the last three hundred years, we have assumed that the whole Earth was a collection of objects put here solely for our use. If we want to survive into the next century, we need to act out of a mythology that recognizes that we are part of an intricate web of life that evolved together – a communion of subjects – and that maintaining the integrity of that web is our only hope” (261). In some ways, this is nothing new for anyone keeping up with a Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, or Bill McKibben; what is interesting about Kirschenmann, though, is his dialogue with philosophy and science to understand solutions for the future of agriculture, and he emphasizes that it must be a comprehensive transformation of the mind, beyond just fixes of technique or scale.

For starters, reading theories in quantum physics that suggest whole epistemological shifts in knowing, linking subject and object back together, is such a useful strategy for rethinking our disconnected age.  Following the lead of Michael Polanyi, Kirschenmann writes “the way we perceive the world has profound effects on the way we relate to the world, and therefore on how we act upon the world… what is scientifically true or false is not the facts we utter, but how we live in the world… The only way to know anything is by dwelling in the clues that point to a meaning we are struggling to understand” (197). This is as significant as the difference between approaching agriculture as a series of parts that need to be controlled or fixed, or working from the ground up, so to speak, seeking to understand why things are the way they are in their context.

Continuing to draw upon current scientific research, Kirschenmann is amazed that “the same ecosystem dynamics that are at work on the organism level are most likely at work at the molecular level as well. In fact, diversity and interconnectedness of the world of single-celled organisms is astonishing” (164). This is particularly interesting because with the development of GMOs, and their effect on organic farming (which we’ll return to later), Kirschenmann asserts that there is a fundamental flaw with the understanding of the gene, elaborating “such observations, made possible by DNA evidence, confirm Richard Lewontin’s suggestion that the ecosystem metaphor is more appropriate for biotechnology that the software ‘operating systems’ metaphor that the biotech industry prefers. Evelyn Fox argues that given the dynamic, ecosystemic nature of the genetic world, the major lesson we are likely to learn from our further research in genetics is ‘humility’” (164). Again, an issue of how we perceive our world. Two other theories referenced by Kirschenmann that are helpful metaphors when thinking about an ecological agriculture are those of emergence, by which ecology and biology are always changing and “constantly moving through adaptive cycles” (347), and a science of systems or networks, in which “it is not only the individual species but also the interactions among species that determine how the community evolves” (85).

Striking examples of how a failure to embrace complexity, diversity, and interdependence come from the interactions from genetically-modified strains of monocultured crops with Kirschenmann’s farm of organic, diversified crops, in a complex crop rotation. Canola, a staple crop within Kirschenmann’s rotation, was quickly eliminated by cross-pollination from Monsanto’s genetically-engineered RoundUp Ready variety of canola; in short, it is impossible to grow organic canola within two miles of any genetically-modified variety, eliminating a profitable crop (both monetarily and within the crop rotation) from the farm. Similar pressure to grow large monocultures rather than diversified crops also led to the removal of sunflowers from Kirschenmann’s rotation.

All in all, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience describes that conscience as an indwelling as humans with the rest of the Creation, acknowledging the diversity and complexity in the world, and working towards its flourishing. An agricultural practice that aims for sustainability will work for the health of the entire community; Kirschenmann’s example, as described in these essays, of good farming is yet another indication that health is, in fact, a possibility.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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