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Altars of Unhewn Stone

Science and the Earth

by Wes Jackson

158 pages, paperback, North Point Press, 1987

In Altars of Unhewn Stone, Wes Jackson shows how recent scientific findings support traditional attitudes about farming, land and resource use, and the interrelations of cultural and biological communities. He describes his research with perennial grains, a dependable high- yield polyculture food source that does not deplete soil resources. He argues that agribusiness interests have appropriated scientific contributions piecemeal, destroying much of what traditional farming had respectfully preserved.

Praise for Altars of Unhewn Stone

"With this book, Wes Jackson again shows himself to be one of the more original and important thinkers on matters relating to agriculture and preservation." --Earth First!

"Jackson stands out among proponents of sustainable agriculture by asking tough philosophical questions that require complex ethical and practical answers." --Bloomsbury Review

"A fine collection . . . The general truths [the essays] articulate . . . will speak clearly to any reader." --Lewis Hyde, The New York Times Book Review

Quotes from Altars of Unhewn Stone

"The human race was born out of nature and it is out of nature that the human race and all life is sustained every second of every minute of every hour. This has to be our beginning point in thinking about the different economic orders that now exist on the earth. It turns out that neither of the two dominating economic ideologies, neither capitalism nor Marxism, is fit for our planet. Fundamental to both of these nearly identical twin orthodoxies is a barbaric plunder of nature.* Marx especially was explicit about this. He saw this plunder as necessary and inevitable if progress is to be made toward a better world for humanity. He endorsed this plunder wholeheartedly, perhaps because he was a city boy who believed in 'historical necessity.' . . It wasn't just nature that had to be sacrificed in the name of human progress. Native cultures were to be sacrificed too, for they were mere anachronisms. Historical necessity meant that the destruction of these cultures was inevitable during the creation of the material basis for civilization. For example, he commented once that England had a double mission in India: Destroy the old Asiatic society, and in turn lay the material foundations of Western society. (To his credit, Marx did recognize the finitude and value of the soil. He wrote that 'all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the laborer, but of robbing the soil.')

"Couple Marx's materialistic view of nature with the notion of John Maynard Keynes, the architect of modern capitalism: 'Foul is useful and fair is not,' said Keynes. 'We must have foul a little longer.' He meant that we must use greed and envy in order to open up the mines and well heads and get the raw materials for consumption spread around the earth. When there is enough for everyone then we can suspend greed and envy." * . . .

"Spread across the land surface of the planet, tuned to local environments, with potential to renew the earth and run on sunlight, species and individual organisms are special creations for the spaces they inhabit. The loss of such diversity from the landscape is very serious. Like my professor friend, I worry about this loss of genetic stock, for it is a loss of the most important form of information on the planet. But the loss of cultural diversity across the land surface, cultural diversity that was just beginning to be more tuned to the local environments of our recently discovered America, is also serious. I suspect that we pay this disappearing diversity such little respect because of the illusion that knowledge overall is more plentiful. Species diversity has been hard won. Numerous deaths stand in the background, in the evolution of the current life on earth. Cultural information, including agricultural information, has been hard won, too. Countless deaths stand behind this information, as does lots of anguish and hurt. That is why rural places have traditionally been the source of the lasting values of a culture. What my professor friend and most of his allies have not grasped is that the war against the tropics is the same war that is being waged against agriculture and rural culture."*

Table of Contents of Altars of Unhewn Stone

  1. Introduction: Altars of Unhewn Stone
  2. The Information Implosion
  3. Old Salsola
  4. Biotechnology and Supply-Side Thinking
  5. Scientific Balloons
  6. Building a Sustainable Society
  7. Hell is Now Technologically Feasible
  8. How to Avoid Building Pyramids
  9. Pre-Copernican Minds of the Space Age
  10. Land Wisdom vs. Lab Success
  11. Meeting the Expectations of the Land
  12. Living Nets in a New Prairie Sea
  13. Oracles, Prophets, and Modern Heroes
  14. Farm Debt
  15. Falsehoods of Farming
  16. New Roots for American Agriculture
  17. A Search for the Unifying Concept for Sustainable Agriculture
  18. Conclusion: Toward a Common Covenant

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