Wes Jackson, “Agriculture: A Reversible Accident?”
Annals of Earth
Volume XX, Number 3
From the beginning, cellular life and later among all other hierarchical levels of structure; tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, ecosystems and the ecosphere itself, life has had to operate within the constraints of the laws of thermodynamics. The hypothesis has a sort of corollary assumption: Darwinian selection operates up and down the hierarchy and optimum efficiencies have been derived through integration.
Stated otherwise, selection pressure is on the entire system, with all of its subsystems, including infrastructure we have yet to comprehend and, more importantly, infrastructure we will never comprehend. Implied in the hypothesis is the assumption that ecosystems featuring minimal human impact are operating at levels that are optimal wherever they may be found across the ecological mosaic of the planet.
If it is as good as it can get in all of these ecosystems, why is photosynthesis less than two percent efficient, given the hundreds of millions of years available to produce a better solar collector? Surely, life could have come up with more efficient energy-collecting molecules. Humans can build a better, simple, flat plate solar collector. Maybe life is stuck with the QWERTY phenomenon, the analog of the early typewriter. This seems too easy an out without further exploration. Perhaps if plans actually harvested too much beyond two percent they might have run into a materials crisis, since only eighteen or so of the one hundred and five elements on the periodic chart make up life. Those few elements are relatively common where life exists.
So what is my point? What’s my agenda? I want agriculture to act like a natural ecosystem. I want to know what level of energy and material throughput through a natural ecosystem mimic would be sustainable. These are bizarre considerations coming at a time when we have yet to adequately reckon with the underlying structure that has given us our so-called technological efficiencies. The technologies are suspect because nearly all have accumulated in the industrial age. All are dependent primarily on non-renewable, energy-rich carbon molecules to support the infrastructure that spawned. Whether we are building photovoltaic cells or wind machines, flat plate collectors or nuclear power plants, the infrastructure standing under them is mostly sponsored by fossil fuels and soils.
A small but simple exercise may help here. Let’s imagine determining all the energy embodied in making a street brick. Over that brick we transport the goods and services necessary to build efficiency gadgets. But the brick uses ecological capital and depends on cultivated capital to make it, which in turn is a consequence of civilization—very early civilization. As already stated, civilization would not have been possible without agriculture.
Agriculture sponsored the critical number of people necessary to think up, and develop and practice brick making. The wood for the early kilns, such as they were, cost the Earth timber and soil. Brick streets, like all streets, need repair. In a high-energy society only a minority of bricks need be broken or require resetting for a contractor or city manager to conclude it is not worth it. In an exclusively sun-powered world we would use human labor to reposition the brick. But new kiln-produced bricks would again draw down capital stock. Far in the future we may give brick (or asphalt or concrete) street-hood low priority.