A Nonprofit Birthday Party Carries a Perennial Message

Print Share on LinkedIn More

40th Birthday at home / Dave Haygarth

September 24, 2016; Salina Journal

The Land Institute celebrated its 40th birthday at its 38th annual Prairie Festival in Salina, Kansas, with more than 1200 in attendance. The mission of the organization reads as follows:

When people, land, and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited. By consulting Nature as the source and measure of that membership, The Land Institute seeks to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned, while promoting a community life at once prosperous and enduring.

In line with this, the outgoing president of the organization called attendees to remake farming in a sustainable rather than extractive model by focusing on the use of perennial plants such as some types of wheat and sorghum.

“I’m not talking about mere nostalgia,” Wes Jackson, Institute co-founder and outgoing president, said. “I’m talking about a practical necessity.”

Jackson emphasized that an extractive economy is not sustainable. “We’re so steeped in the Industrial Revolution, we don’t know where we are in it,” he said. “Somewhere 100 or 200 years in the future, whatever humans are around will say, ‘The Industrial Revolution was a bad idea.’”

Don Worster, a former Land Institute board member, provided a historical perspective. “We learned the Land Institute couldn’t succeed by secession.” Rather than seeing capitalism and industry as the enemy, he said the Institute found a peaceful path to coexistence. Wealth wasn’t “an unmitigated evil.”

“If we were going to do real service,” Worster said, “we were going to need money.”

The Land Institute is designing an Ecosphere Studies Curriculum which would entail “a major rearranging of the philosophical furniture”—not only of agriculture, but of community and the economy.

That is certainly the case, but we were struck by the commonalities between what was being discussed in that crowded barn in the middle of Kansas and what Douglas Rushkoff said to us in a recent interview about the importance of the nonprofit role in turning the corner from an extractive to sustainable economy.

We live on a planet that—I mean, I hate to admit it, but we might have a fixed quantity of real estate on the planet. From space, it looks like a sphere; it doesn’t look like it’s growing to me. This looks like it’s about it, and it may be able to go on for a whole long time, way longer than people think, but it needs to start thinking about itself as a regenerative system, more like a coral reef or a forest than like a corporate marketplace that’s supposed to expand forever.

Whenever I say this, people accuse me of being Malthusian, that I’m saying things are limited and we’re all going to die, and I’m really not saying that. Things are limited, but you can still grow. It doesn’t mean you can’t have progress and change. You can have all sorts of innovations and shifts of stuff, but even if we may be able to grow, even grow forever, there’s a certain point at which you can only extract so much water from an aquifer before it can’t replenish itself fast enough and the aquifer is gone. Yes, in a billion years, assuming the planet is not gone, the aquifer will replenish itself, but maybe not fast enough for the human beings who want so much more water from it than it can really supply.

So, happy birthday, Land Institute, and perennial happy returns!—Ruth McCambridge