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Ecological Agriculture

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is This speech was delivered at a conference with Chinese guests at the Claremont School of Theology, May 13-14, 2010. Used by permission of the author.


It is my special pleasure to welcome you to Claremont for this conference. The topic is one about which I know very little myself, but about which I have had the good fortune to have met others who know a great deal. They have persuaded me that no topic could be more important for the future of humanity. I want to share that conviction as widely as I can. It is my special hope that China is ready to hear it.

I was awakened to the global environmental crisis in 1969. The threat to the human future came to me as an overwhelming shock. Even before then, I had been aware of particular environmental problems. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had aroused the public in 1962 to stop the widespread use of certain chemicals. In southern California, everyone was aware of smog and hated it. But these were isolated issues to be listed with many others. My Christian upbringing had led me to give priority to issues of justice and peace. As a Southerner coming from a slave-holding family, the injustice we had inflicted for centuries on our Black neighbors seemed particularly important. Smog did not seem to be in the same league so far as importance was concerned.

Awakening to the fact that human activity overall was on a collision course with the capacity of the Earth to support human civilization was a terrible jolt. It meant, for example, that segregated and exploited Blacks were threatened even more by this assault of humanity on nature than by direct human oppression. We could not choose between issues of social justice and ecological degradation. The fate of the Earth needed to be given the central role in all ethical and practical thinking.

One reason that "ecological" functions so prominently in the discussion of the crises in the natural environment is that many of those who first warned us were biologists specializing in ecology. They saw that all over the world the ecological systems they studied were in decay. They saw the connection between our industrial system, the striving everywhere to extract more from the natural world in order to expand the artificial one, and the decay of eco-systems. Their warnings made of me a part of a vast popular movement calling for an end to the abuse of nature and a new relationship to it.


I will not rehearse the story of this movement except to point out one of its glaring omissions: agriculture. The ecologists focused on natural systems and saw agriculture as a kind of necessary evil to be contained as much as possible. Agriculturists in the United States had been so fully drawn into industrial patterns of thought that they continued to assume that their task was to deal with the need for increasing food production for the growing population to which the ecologists pointed with alarm. Their great accomplishment of the sixties and seventies was the "

I am not saying that there were no thinkers involved with agriculture who were thinking in ecological ways. I am simply saying that they were not publicly visible at this time. Ecology as a branch of biology, and agricultural theory as what was taught in schools of agriculture, seemed to be totally disconnected. The ecological movement seemed to have nothing positive to say to farmers. Their job remained production, and economic considerations reigned undisputed.

Of course, there were exceptions. One of them is a key participant in this conference. I refer to Dean Freudenberger. His personal experience as an agricultural missionary in Africa had prepared him to see the damage done by imposing Western-style agriculture on the African landscape. For him it was evident that a vision of an ecologically sustainable world must have a very large place for an ecologically sustainable agriculture. He joined our faculty at the Claremont School of Theology and led our efforts to shape our curriculum in relation to global reality. What little I know about ecological agriculture I have learned directly or indirectly from him. Clearly we can only have an ecological civilization if we can meet the needs of a large population in ways that are genuinely sustainable. Since for ten thousand years agriculture has been practiced in unsustainable ways, and since the application of science to agriculture has thus far only made matters worse, the task is immense.


Nature’s eco-systems are, almost by definition, sustainable over long periods of time. Indeed, since it is they that have built up the soil on this planet, we should say that they are generative. Students of nature had long been impressed by its creativity.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings lived on the products of nature. Like other animal species, they sometimes disrupted nature’s systems, but overall they were subject to its laws. If they overused some elements in the system in such a way as to disrupt it seriously, they paid the price in reduced food supply. Often their numbers in a particular location suffered. Over time they learned their lessons and nature typically recovered.

The balance of hunting and gathering peoples with nature should not be exaggerated. Hunting, especially, was responsible for the extinction of many species. Also planetary weather changes led to the destruction of whole ecosystems. Nevertheless, overall, prior to the rise of agriculture, the planet as a whole supported increasingly diverse ecosystems and biomass. The great reversal came with farming. This was the first massive assertion of the human will over natural systems. Human beings have been impoverishing the soil ever since then in order to extract more of what people want from the land.

There are, of course, huge differences among farmers. Some farming has impoverished the soil only very slowly. Systems have developed that have a large component of recycling. The manure from animals fed from the land is returned to the land as fertilizer. Crops are rotated. Some plants fix nitrogen in the soil. No-till farming has been practiced. At the opposite extreme has been much of the initial exploitation of the land as European farmers moved West across the United States, often turning productive prairie into dust bowls in only a few years.

As long as vast areas of arable land remained untilled, care for the land seemed sentimental. As today in the Amazon region, methods have been used that glean a large profit for a few years and then leave behind a wasteland. But today there is little unused land left for production of crops. In a few areas natural ecosystems with their native animals are protected. And a great deal of land has been taken over for human habitat and industrial purposes. But the reserves that once existed are gone and global food demand has caught up with global food production. Practices that use up the land in a few years are no longer justified even by narrow economic considerations.


The last time the world faced food shortages on a global basis, agricultural scientists produced the green revolution. The whole ethos of the science of agriculture points to further movement along this trajectory. Transgenetic crops are expressions of this technological achievement. They carry forward human domination and exploitation of the land still another step. They express the conviction that human beings are infinitely wiser than nature and can master any challenge nature throws at us.

There is an alternative, and it, too, is attracting worldwide attention. It does not involve any setting aside of human intelligence, but it seeks to use that intelligence in the service of a humbler wisdom. It builds on practices that have developed all over the world out of peasant experience. And it seeks to follow nature’s guidance in the development of agricultural ecosystems that can have the generative capacities of natural ecosystems.

The appeal of organic farming is already widespread. It is as productive per acre as industrial farming. It suggests an alternative trajectory. Thus far in the United States, at least, the resources devoted to advancing along this trajectory are a small fraction of what has been devoted to high tech developments. But popular support grows. Around the fringes of the agricultural establishment more and more individuals are repulsed by the threat to the sustainability of food production built into the industrial model. More and more want to learn from nature.


Probably the greatest obstacle to a major shift of direction in the United States comes from the field of economics. Economics is the science of maximizing profits by the most efficient use of resources. It assumes that resources in general are unlimited, but that labor is limited. Accordingly, it encourages the use of other resources to replace the amount of human work required in production.

This idea was fundamental to the industrial revolution. Factory production reduced the need for labor in part simply by organizing workers in such a way that the task of each was highly simplified and could be repeated rapidly. But it also depended on harnessing the energy found in coal and later in oil. With this organization and substitution of fossil for animal and human energy, it vastly increased the amount that could be produced per man-hour of work. Since fewer hours of work could produce more goods, more people could enjoy more goods and work less. This was the magic of the industrial revolution.

This magic worked best when accompanied by the free market. Building factories and acquiring the needed energy and raw materials requires investment. Investment is also somewhat risky. It is undertaken most when the potential rewards are high. Those with a high stake in the process are likely to seek every means to reduce costs and raise output. The price at which they sell can best be controlled if they compete with other producers in a free market.

This is the basic model with which economists work. They are confident that the magic of the market produces the most, and the most desired, goods at the lowest price. Thus it leads to the greatest growth of the economy as a whole. The larger economy means that overall the largest number of people is better off economically. With more money, they can acquire more of what they most want. Thus the nation that liberates its markets prospers.

There are, of course, other stories to be told. When artisans are replaced by factory workers, the satisfaction gained by work is reduced. Human relations in a factory or in the slums of industrial cities are typically inferior to those in the villages that are displaced. When labor is plentiful, workers must compete for jobs in a race to the bottom. The system in itself leaves out those who are too old or too sick for factory work. The class structure of capitalist and worker is socially undesirable.

Economists as economists minimized these considerations teaching that the greater prosperity resulting from the system more than compensated for such suffering as it engendered. But many of them supported social programs and services that mitigated the problems. Although labor unions did not fit the model, they were eventually tolerated and even given a respected role. National governments saw that their relative power depended to a large extent on their industrialization; so they were prepared to deal with the problems without questioning the system. Ownership of the factories by the government instead of by capitalists was tried, but the quality of life of workers was not greatly improved and the quality and quantity of production was less. It seemed the basic economic theory was vindicated, and economics definitely became the "queen of the sciences." Its object of devotion, economic growth, became the virtually universal object of devotion among the nations of the world.


In this context, it is obvious that the primary focus of thought about agriculture is how to accomplish the same miracle there that factories had accomplished in the production of industrial goods. The goal once again was to replace human and animal labor with fossil energy, in this case chiefly from oil. In much of the "developed" world, this process has gone a very long way. A farmer is primarily an operator of machines rather than one who works directly with the soil. Oil is used to power the machines and process the food. Its products kill the insects and unwanted plants and provide the chemicals that have been depleted in the soil. It may be used also to bring water to the field. Plants are genetically developed in order to fit into this pattern.

This whole process has been brilliantly successful in reducing the need for human labor on the farm. The American countryside is largely depopulated, with the people moving to slums and suburbs of the cities. Those who were once farmers have for the most part lost their land in the process of competing in this new system. The system favors size; so only those able to acquire their neighbors’ land survive.

The objections to this process are much like those to industrialization generally. Not too long ago the independent family farm was the backbone of American culture and life. When urban folk lost their jobs or grew ill and could not work, they often returned to the family farm where they would be housed and fed. Family farms played a large role in mitigating the suffering caused by the great depression. But these farms have now been replaced by technicians and desolate villages. Farmers buy their food at the grocery store along with the rest of us. Sociologically, the losses have seemed far greater than the gains.

But there are other concerns as well. Our food supply is now overwhelmingly dependent of oil. It is unlikely that our oil fields can supply the growing global demand. Already prices are rising. That costs in general in an oil dependent society will rise is certainly a problem, but the most critical problem comes with those things that are essential to life. The products of farms rank very high on this list.

Economic theory assures us that as the price of oil rises, additional sources will be found, it will be used more efficiently, and substitutes will be developed. Standard economists want all this left to the market. Meanwhile their indifference to natural limits, such as soils, supports an agriculture that reduces the quality of the soil and increases dependence on other scarce commodities such as water. And industrial agriculture contributes substantially to the global warming that exacerbates all the other problems.


Since the seventies I have been quite sure that standard economic theory is profoundly mistaken in its basic premises. Natural resources are not inexhaustible as a group. We live in a world of limits. We should be most concerned not about reducing human labor but about protecting sinks and resources. Growth as measured by GDP is not a good, but more a necessary evil. We should aim to meet the needs of all with as little increase in GDP as possible.

Although there is no consensus around any such formulation, I am sad to say that among economists in general and agricultural economists in particular, there are a few who are engaged in fundamental re-thinking. In this regard, we are very fortunate to have John Ikerd with us. From him we will learn in much more precise and sophisticated ways how an economist can think wisely about agriculture. I hope that China will be open to this wisdom.

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