Wes Jackson is cofounder and president emeritus of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. A 1992 MacArthur Fellow, he is the author and co-author of numerous books, including Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions. Robert Jensen is professor emeritus in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of many books including Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully. They met with Notre Dame Press to discuss their new book An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity (October 2022).
When did you first get the idea to write this book?
We met in 2010 and started working together closely in 2018, when both of us had retired from our day jobs (Jackson as president of The Land Institute, and Jensen as a professor at the University of Texas at Austin). We worked together on two books (Jackson’s Hogs Are Up: Stories of the Land, with Digressions and Jensen’s The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability) that focused on understanding history—starting with life of Earth, moving to the human species, and finally the modern mess we’re in. When those books were published in 2021, it seemed sensible to turn our attention to the future, not to make predictions or impose prescriptions, but to talk honestly about the ecological crises that many people are afraid to speak about in public.
Certainly these are unprecedented times in the United States and around the world. What can readers find in your book that will resonate with them during this era?
The political and social conflict embroiling the United States today are dramatic but not unprecedented in our history. The multiple cascading ecological crises the world faces are unprecedented, playing out on the global level, with eight billion people in increasingly tense competition for resources extracted from increasingly degraded ecosystems. Our book offers a framework for thinking about how we got to this state of affairs, and how we are going to have to change our expectations for the future if we want to survive.
How did you research this book?
In some sense, we both have been researching this book for decades. It’s the culmination of a lot of years of thinking about social injustice and ecological degradation. To write the book, we looked more closely at recent work on both subjects, especially the growing literature on collapse. The research took us from philosophy to materials science, from the most abstract to the most concrete.
What did you learn while writing it?
Many are the ways that we humans can deceive ourselves. That’s not a new observation, of course, but it is more important than ever to realize the dangers of turning away from harsh realities simply because they scare us. Yet everywhere we see these ecological realities are being ignored, even among many environmentalists who hang on tightly to a fundamentalist faith that technology will allow this high-energy culture to continue. As we researched and wrote, we found more and more evidence for our position: that it is time to let go of that fantasy.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
We ended up writing much more about how our species got into this mess, starting with the invention of agriculture. We don’t mind pointing fingers where they should be pointed, at the cruel and greedy folks in this culture today. But as we say in the book, the moral high ground is a dangerous place to stand even when it’s warranted. We have to understand how our species’ propensities contribute to today’s crises, while at the same time we hold bad actors accountable. We’re in this mess not just because of people making bad decisions in flawed social systems, but also because of the kind of animals we are.
What is your writing schedule like?
We are two retired people who live on properties where something always needs attention, depending on the season. So, writing sometimes took a backseat to things like barn repair and plum harvest. We are both also pretty independent, and so we worked on our own a lot. But we also both like to talk, and so the almost daily phone calls kept us on track.
What advice would you give to a writer who wants to start a book?
Don’t be too nervous if things don’t fall into place right away. A lot of the hardest work of writing a book is often in the early phase, trying to get the right structure and tone. Once that falls into place, it gets a lot easier, and more fun. We went through several outlines before finally settling into the final table of contents.
What project are you working on next?
We are finishing up a “conversations book,” made up of the edited transcripts from our “Podcast from the Prairie” (https://podcastfromtheprairie.com/). That’s going to be published by our friend Bill Vitek on his New Perennials Publishing platform: https://www.newperennialspublishing.org/