The Cultivated Landscape

The Cultivated Landscape: An Exploration of Art and Agriculture

A review of The Cultivated Landscape: An Exploration Of Art And Agriculture by Craig Pearson and Judith Nasby

Published on October 1, 2008

The Cultivated Landscape: An Exploration Of Art And Agriculture
Craig Pearson and Judith Nasby

McGill-Queen's University Press

The authors of this book have set themselves the task of examining, among other things, humanity’s “ecological footprint” through a historical analysis of agriculture. They resolutely diagnose a situation that most people suffer passively as sheer apocalypse: the destruction of the ecosystem. This passivity is in part due to the nightmare scenarios presented in the news and documentaries, and the ambivalent response of governments. The failure of the Kyoto protocols to win international agreement is a case in point. As the authors bluntly assess one aspect of the situation,

An accounting summary might read something like this: agricultural innovation and the rape of resources have reached a point where we have created a complex food system valued at $1.5 trillion that feeds almost 6.1 billion people, most likely exceeds the available natural resources of the globe, and definitely creates a momentum wherein the high-income countries are getting richer and the poor countries poorer.

Like astrophysicists trying to grapple with the implications of an infinitely collapsing star, the authors confront a maze of complex problems, from government agricultural subsidies to nitrate pollution, and from food production malfunctions like BSE (mad cow disease) to a projected world population of 10 billion in 40 or 50 years. They examine the emergence of a paradigm shift, in which the idea of sustainability – represented, for example, by the movement to buy organic and local produce – is gradually gaining ground over productivity among some consumers. The paradigm of productivity takes a purely instrumental approach to the land and ignores aesthetics and destructive side-effects like pollution. According to the authors, sustainability involves assessing a system in terms of its biophysical (or environmental), social, and financial effects and requirements…[but] …the absence of data, and the general difficulty posed by political debate involving conflicting views and beliefs creates a situation in which…there is no agreed method by which to define sustainability in a given situation. Despite the daunting complexity involved, the authors try to envision a globally workable solution, which they call connectivity. Such issues as climate change, landscape design, and economies based on bio-resources are interconnected, and will be mishandled if there is a “single-minded advocacy of one term to embrace everything.” In fact, it is an appeal to a certain human maturity that the authors hope will prevail in the face of the usual power-grab and selfish interests. This would inevitably involve changes in the capitalist system, which would affect standards of living and ways of viewing the world. According to the ecological footprint measure devised by Wackernagel and Rees in 1996, the average US citizen uses 9.7 hectares of resources to maintain his or her lifestyle, but only has 5.3 hectares of resources per person within the US borders. Therefore the US imports (or “expropriates”) 4.4 hectares per person of someone else’s resources. In terms of sustainable consumption at current population levels, the world only has 1.9 hectares per person. Yet, according to the authors:

…the administration of George Bush made it clear at the beginning of the twenty-first century that the maintenance of domestic lifestyle in the United States was a higher priority than equity with underdeveloped countries or the impact of consumerist lifestyles on, for example, global climate change.

The Cultivated Landscape is an engaging but not leisurely read. It is illustrated with many absorbing works of art which provide visual relief from the density of factual presentation. The approach to the subject is disciplined and diplomatic, suggesting a profound relation to problems in the real world. Craig Pearson is a professor of agricultural and environmental policy at the University of Guelph and has served (among many other positions) as chief scientist for Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forestry; Judith Nasby has been a public art gallery director for more than 30 years. Their collaboration has produced a book that is informative and courageous. mRb

Mark Heffernan is a Montreal writer.



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