This paper was read at a symposium on the then recently published book by Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead on 21 June 2004, and was later broadcast on CBC Radio 1's Ideas.

A recent re-broadcast (on 23 May 2006) of this program, to commemorate Jacobs' death, brought it to my attention, and I contacted the author, Norman Wirzba, to re-publish here. It appears here then courtesy of and with permission of the author.

The Forgetting of Soil: A Response to Dark Age Ahead

by Norman Wirzba - Georgetown College

As a reader of Jane Jacobs work, I have long admired the originality and singularity of her thought. Books like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Systems of Survival, and The Nature of Economies have trained us to expect that topics like urban development, moral virtue, and economic success will be handled in a genuinely refreshing manner. Historical erudition, a penchant for the significance of concrete life lived in the details, as well as a perspicuity of presentation and analysis, all reflect a mind that has thought rigorously, patiently, and with a measure of charity that are uncommon in our time. And so it is with real anticipation that a book like Dark Age Ahead is to be met. Few people, I believe, are as well-equipped as Ms. Jacobs to offer a critical and constructive perspective on the fate of our cultures today.

I begin these remarks by stressing my fundamental agreement with the broad trajectories of analysis and critique described in the book. In my view, Ms. Jacobs has correctly identified five pillars of culture - community and family, higher education, effective science and technology, responsible/accountable governance, and the self-policing of professions - that we cannot live well without, yet are currently being undermined by various forms of social, educational, civic, and economic malfunction. As these pillars break down, more obvious problems like racism, crime, environmental destruction, and a growing gap between rich and poor become virtually inevitable. If we are to address and rectify these latter concerns we must first attend to the systems and structures (pillars) that are their foundation. If the foundation is in trouble, so is everything else built upon it.

As a philosopher and an agrarian this approach strikes me as appropriate. Given the significance of foundations - roots, if I might change the metaphor - I think it important that we be sure that we have not missed something of fundamental importance, a pillar, so to speak, that is vital to the maintenance of a vibrant culture, but has been mistakenly left out of the building project. That an oversight of this sort can occur is clear, for as Jacobs indicates, one of the characteristics of a dark age is mass amnesia. People can forget what is important or necessary simply because the personal examples or visible reminders that would keep cultural pillars/roots in our minds, and thus on our planning agendas, gradually disappear.

At various points in the book Jacobs tells us that we are living in a postagrarian time. Indeed we are told, 'Now it is the turn of agrarianism to become a cultural loser' (162). What Jacobs is describing is simply the fact that never before in human history have so few people (proportionately speaking) had anything to do with the growth of their own food. The steady migration of people from farms or rural areas to cities or suburbs, a migration pattern now being replicated across the globe, means that very few of us have any realistic or honest idea of where food comes from, and under what conditions it can be expected to be safely and reliably produced. Food is conveniently and cheaply purchased at the store. It is a commodity we don't need to worry ourselves much about because economic efficiency combined with the promise of biotechnology will insure (we presume) that food will always be there when we need it.

If we mean by postagrarian the simple fact that few people today are farmers, then I don't have much to quibble about. But if we mean by it the idea that culture can move beyond the concerns of the land (ager), or that culture can lessen its attention to the limits and the possibilities of the land, then I think we have a problem. Consider the following words from Wendell Berry, a Kentucky poet and the leading contemporary agrarian: 'we and our country create one another, depend on one another, are literally part of one another ... our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land ... we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another, and so cannot possibly flourish alone ... therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.' 1 What Berry is arguing is that as long as we live in bodies we live necessarily through the land, the complex matrix of life that includes soil, watersheds, forests, fields, microbial life, and diverse flora and fauna. Any culture worthy of the name (remembering that the Latin cultura originally referred to the cultivation of soil) will keep the health of the land first and foremost in view. As the land falls to ill-health, so too will our civilizations, no matter how proud or otherwise successful they might temporarily be (consider here the historical examples of ancient Sumeria, the Mediterranean basin, and more recently in the 19th century the eastern seaboard of the United States, all regions in which the compromising of soil led to the compromising of cultural life).

Given the important insight that culture is not primarily transmitted through the written page or computer screen but rather that 'cultures live through word of mouth and example,' (5) a fundamental question emerges: does the victory of urbanization over agrarian life nonetheless signal a long-term defeat if it means the loss of living, concrete examples of sustainable engagement with the land? Who in our society, what face-to-face apprenticeships, will pass on the wisdom we need to live well in bodies that are themselves dependent on the health and vitality of other biological bodies and systems? I would argue that the commendable effort of greening our urban landscapes does not go far enough - we can simply and naively consume them much like we consume everything else - if we do not at the same time foster the understanding that our lives depend on and belong to the possibilities and limits of the land. This sort of understanding, I would argue, needs some form of practical, sustained engagement with the soil.

I am suggesting that it is a mistake to think that a postagrarian culture is desirable or even possible. As long as we need to eat (better yet, as long as we enjoy eating) we will all need to be agrarians in some way. If this is correct, then we need to be able to distinguish agriculture from agrarianism (this distinction is not adequately represented in the book). I am not advocating that we all go back to the land and become farmers. This is neither possible nor desirable. What I am proposing, however, is that we all need to learn to take on agrarian sensitivities and responsibilities no matter where we live.

To be an agrarian is to take up in one's thinking and practices priorities and responsibilities that see the health of the land and the health of human cultures as inextricably tied together. The history of agriculture shows that in many (perhaps most) instances farmers, often out of intense economic pressure, have been willing to sacrifice either the vitality of land and animal or the spirit of human inquisitiveness and creativity or both. In other words, farmers have not themselves always been agrarians. They have just as often been exploiters and profiteers, or agents of cultural stagnation. This is not how agrarianism needs to be. If David Orr is correct, an authentic agrarianism has so far only been attempted, never fully realized, for what is at stake in the agrarian enterprise is the effort to give a detailed, honest accounting of all human activity relating the health of culture to the health of the land.

The significance of agrarianism for culture broadly conceived is that it teaches us that we are biological beings who depend on vibrant humus, clean water, copious amounts of earthworms, chickens, bees, and bear. If these latter go into decline, then human life is sure to follow. If culture can be characterized as a living and dynamic enterprise, then healthy land will necessarily be the place in terms of which it will successfully take root. This point is so fundamental, I believe, that it might warrant separate pillar status. One could even view it as more foundational than the 5 pillars mentioned because the case could be made that ecological insight necessarily feeds into each of them and gives them authentic shape and sense (as one example, can we speak well of community responsibilities or appropriate technology if we do not see how ecological realities limit, sustain, and inspire these works at their very core?).

I have offered these remarks on agrarianism as a way of suggesting that some kind of 'biological wisdom,' a wisdom rooted in practical engagement with the land, needs better representation among the pillars of a vibrant culture. I think this is important because the 5 pillars, as they currently stand, can be developed in ways that further insulate us from biological or ecological requirements. I sense this when I read: 'In sum, human knowledge and skills, and opportunities to use them effectively have created modern, postagrarian societies. These same assets have provided sufficient stability and corrections (so far) for postagrarian life to sustain itself' (163). I wonder. Though Ms. Jacobs is aware of massive environmental destruction going on around the world, she does not seem to have connected the destruction with the sort of biological or ecological amnesia that concerns me. The real danger in speaking about postagrarian societies is the temptation to think we are now freed of the constraints of biological processes. (In The Nature of Economies Jacobs suggested that consciousness is responsible for the conceit that we are somehow above nature. I would add the more practical point that the mass urbanization that has characterized the last 100 years or so has played a more determinative role in feeding biological ignorance.) Jacobs notes that a postagrarian shift is as momentous for culture as was the shift from hunter-gatherer to agriculture. In one respect, however, the shift is different. The movement from hunting and gathering to farming was a movement within a still biologically driven world, whereas the shift from agricultural to exclusively urban life is, practically speaking, a movement beyond biology itself. 2 What will remind us that we are natural/biological beings, and that our naturalness entails the adoption of ecological attitudes and responsibilities?

Consider too how suburbanization, when combined with consumerism as a lifestyle and as an ideology, 3 can give rise to the belief that our families are thriving, our schools are in excellent shape, we are richly blessed by the latest technologies, we're not being taxed too much, and the professions are being held more accountable by regulatory bodies. It is relatively easy to lie about all of this as long as we don't look too closely into the hidden (often ecological) costs associated with this much trumpeted success. Our basic problem is unprecedented ignorance about the requirements of life. Though we live in an Information Age and have more data at our disposal than ever before, most of us don't have a clue about what keeps life going and healthy. We do not yet have an adequate accounting system that would tell us the complete costs of our cultural life (indeed, as I am reduced to being little more than a consumer, my mind is increasingly simplified because there is less and less in my activity over which I have much insight or control - as a shopper I depend on others, far away, to make decisions and choices I will never know anything about). How can we presume to build a vibrant and convivial culture when the practical effects of our actions are ecological exhaustion or biological death? What structures or institutions, what concrete and personal examples, must we put in place to insure that the connections between ecological and cultural vitality are not lost or forgotten? Ms. Jacob's point about local control is right on target, but I wonder if the scope of this control needs to be expanded and made more concrete by a consideration of the limits and possibilities of bioregions.

John Ruskin once said 'There is no wealth but life.' If this is true, then human wisdom and culture would attain their proper end when the conditions for life, human and non-human, are appreciated, understood, protected, and enhanced. And so I come to my final major question: can we promote this wisdom without some conception of the sacred? In a time of what we might call the gross commodification of the world, there is the very real possibility that nothing will remain sacred. Evidence of this sentiment is widely observable, but one of its clearest expressions came to the fore recently when children and adults were asked what they thought of President Bush's (ludicrous) plan to promote human settlement in outer space. 4 Several respondents, reflecting the madness of mass biological amnesia, indicated support for the plan because in their view it was only a matter of time before this planet became uninhabitable by us! This is a striking and deeply troubling response because it shows not only a resignation to the idea that nothing in this world deserves saving or protecting, but also the naïve and utterly false idea that we could flourish in cold, lifeless outer space when we cannot take care of our current life-giving planet home.

In past cultures religion often served as a source of light. To be sure, religious people could just as well be agents of darkness when they promoted hatred, intolerance, and greed. Even so, the primary task of a religion is to hold before us a conception of the holy, of what is sacred, beautiful, and intrinsically valuable. The functional importance of this task cannot be underestimated because what is at issue is whether or not we can learn the ways of restraint and respect, ways that are indispensable to the continuation and refinement of cultures already well developed.

My concluding question, therefore, is whether or not there is a more clearly defined place for the sacred among the pillars of culture. Can we have wisdom and delight without a sense for the sanctity of the world and each other? If wisdom entails the honest, sustained embrace of the world as it is, can this be achieved without a vision of reality as intrinsically valuable and worthy of our love? A central problem in our time is that many of us, often out of deep ignorance, and sometimes with very good intentions, are destroying the very bases upon which all life depends. How will we learn to see our own destructiveness, given that we have gotten to be so very good at insulating ourselves from this same destruction, and regain a sense for the sanctity of all life?

In short, I am in sympathy with your critique of culture and your vision for what a healthy community requires. I am wondering about what we need to help people to get there, particularly people who think things are fine just as they are. Do we need something like a renewal of a sacred dimension in life simply so that people's autonomous, frantic striving can, even if only temporarily, be brought to a halt for purposes of self-examination? If not, what in its place will induce restraint or promote an overarching moral and spiritual vision for life? If yes, how do you propose that the renewal might go?


1. Wendell Berry. The Unsettling of America, (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 3rd Edition, 1996) p. 22.

2. Consider that many people consider even their own bodies as machines that are to be manipulated or modified to meet the standards of media-manufactured prototypes. Food is simply fuel to propel the body mechanism through various highly stylized scenarios.

3. Gary Cross. An All-Consuming Century: Why Commercialization Won in Modern America, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). Cross makes the convincing case that consumerism was the winner of the ideological wars of the 20th century. It has taken up the psychic space formerly occupied by religion and communal/civic concerns, and has become the primary expression of personal and group identity.

4. In my view this example amply displays the definition of madness as the loss of connection with reality (133)!