the anthropocene index



„I don’t want to be in some place where I have to be „an accountant of nature””. Interview with Nance Klehm.


Aleksandra Jach: What do you think about the popularity of the term Anthropocene? Do you see continuity in thinking about the environment from 1960s till now?

Nance Klehm: I am forty-nine years old, which means I was born in 1965. A lot of the teachers I had were either very influenced by the environmental movement, or they resisted it. Feminism was also a very strong influence from the time among the teachers I had. Most of my growing up took place in the 1970s, and these things were in the background, although my parents were farmers so they were a bit more conservative in their thinking. While I was at the University, I was surrounded by adults who were really asking questions about a place for women in the world, the way we address our environment, land use, ecology.

Through the 1980s and into the 1990s, because of the political climate in the United States – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – there was a silencing and huge backlash against all these ideas and most people either gave them up and walked away or just kept very quiet. So, I had a hard time finding mentors and ways to learn certain things that were interesting to me. All I had was books. I think this lack of mentorship influences me greatly as a teacher and also as a practitioner. As a practitioner, I have made a lot of mistakes, and I’ve had a lot of experiences because I’ve had to search hard travelling far and wide for those mentors, I’ve travelled a lot in the United States and in other countries to look for those opportunities to learn from people who had the deep skills and an integrated philosophy.

What’s interesting about now, I think, is that the mentors do exist – for people to make some changes in their lives, and to look at certain things differently from how they are sold to them. Everybody who is of my generation faced similar pressure of going at it relatively alone, so everybody who actually stuck with it and were persistent are also very strong teachers and have strong opinions, and very strong practice. What’s interesting now is that there’s enough of a frame work to engage.

The Anthropocene, as a current term being popularized, is particularly important because it helps people understand how they’re part of the larger dynamic, that they are affecting a lot of the system that supports them. So responsibility for lands and humans is extremely important, it pushes us to figure out what to do without too much blame or romantic notions. We have already had many leaders during the 1960s and 1950s – some of them, for example Buckminster Fuller, who people hold in high regard, in my opinion was a failure in many ways. Many of those failures had taught us and now we’re awakening again to this interconnection of our lives, and we need to be a lot more intentional and involved.

So children, elderly people, conservative people, radical people, all need to come together around this. As we say it in the U.S.: “Your skin is in the game.” So it’s time to learn, it’s time to connect, it’s time to work together, and it’s not about blaming. It’s about using everything we know now to re-build and re-form ourselves. I think it's a harsh framing – but it's also the only framing that will hopefully pull us together as humans to understand how our choices affect everything else. We are in need of re-conceptualizing what we are doing for a broader, less idealistic audience. We’re angry and full of grief and we don’t have as much money, but we need to make things happen, so it’s a very interesting time.


Aleksandra Jach: My next question is on the scale of our possible engagement. What can we do from our local perspective, given what we’re hearing about the need to find planetary solutions? How do you think about it in the context of a suggested pragmatic approach?

Nance Klehm: I live half of my week outside the city, where I have property, 25 hectares of prairie, woods and field. In Chicago, I work on my compost cooperative, I'm growing edible and medicinal plants and I work on polic on the state and city levels to create laws which are more friendly to grassroots organizations. Current laws are very restrictive in terms of building soil or using your waste water to water your trees and your property, or in relation to food, that is, to prepare food at home then try to sell it in a market is also restricted. For four years, I’ve been working on this. I got involved because people were saying these things had no precedent or weren’t possible, and I could point at other cities or small towns where they were making it possible and it was happening. Personally, I have been producing large amounts of compost for twenty years correctly (albeit illegally) just to show it was possible. I documented it to prove that the model already exists and it’s not a fantasy.

Aleksandra Jach: So you don’t quite feel that the Chicago authorities support this kind of ecological thinking, like composting, for example.

Nance Klehm: They’re going to pass a law on composting, but I’ve been working on it for four years. Still, there will be ticketing if you don’t do it right. There’ll be special inspectors. You’d be surprised at how much these tickets are: $300, or $600.


Aleksandra Jach: As for the Soil Centers in Chicago, did you invite the city to participate with them, or are they independent initiatives?

Nance Klehm: Those are independent initiatives. The Ground Rules has five Soil Centers now, in different neighborhoods. Each Soil Center has a community garden partner who owns the property that we work on. They are usually doing a big garden, one has goats and chickens on it. We build soil in collaboration with these different groups, all relationships are specific to the collaborator and the Soil Center’s sites. We don’t have to work with the city specifically on what we do, other than we abide the code about size and design of the bin we build and only compost permitted materials in them.

Aleksandra Jach: How about the compost? Do you use it for your own needs or do you distribute it?

Nance Klehm: We don’t need it so it’s distributed to the surrounding community for free. We get paid to pick up people’s garbage (waste), so we make money that way for the project. That’s what makes the community groups excited to work with us – they do not know how to compost well and they’re excited to get so much good soil ammendment.

Aleksandra Jach: How did you get to teaching about compost and soil passing the knowledge on? Was there any turning point in your life? Or was it more an evolution of what you’d been doing before?

Nance Klehm: I thought people would find out what I was doing and come to me for help. I’m good at helping, explaining things to people and getting them involved. I was teaching before I knew I was teaching. I think this is how it happened with me, when I was in my twenties, I was looking for people who knew how to do things I was interested in: I would go find them, volunteer my time with them, so I would learn. This is what I think I should do for others – share the passion, knowledge and practice of working with soil and compost. Now my teaching has become more formal and more far reaching, I get invitations to teach in other states and internationally as well.


Aleksandra Jach: You were working with David Holmgren. environmental designer and educator who, together with Bill Mollison, coined the term „permaculture”. How did you met and what did you learnt from him?

Nance Klehm: I met David Holmgren when I was volunteering in Australia on an organic farm and went to some of his teachings. Then, I worked with him on my friend’s place in Mexico. Holmgren taught me how to look at landscape, how to do extensive and careful observations of land before you design for it. You’re looking at certain aspects of hydrology, land, composition of soils, identifying wild plants, you try to really understand how to read landscape before you enter in with any ideas. So you can design in a more informed way before you act. There’s a lot of subtle learning, ways of different note-taking, measuring the quality of something.


Aleksandra Jach: You are teaching about permaculture and ecological design around the world. What did you learn outside of US?? How have these experiences extended your knowledge and practice?

Nance Klehm: Some of the most inspiring and smartest projects I have seen are in less ‘developed’ countries where outside resources are tight or non-existant and elders are respected. People who live and work in these places are more resourceful and therefore have to be smarter in their approach. Most of the world has no idea what is happening in these places, because they are just leading theory lives and making things work for them. They are just being practical!


Aleksandra Jach: Can you explain how you understand the relation between permaculture and biodynamics? I think that people who are beginners in this field and want to start with land cultivation on their own, can feel very confused, coming across so many theories: permaculture, biodynamic, agroecology, organic farming... How to organise this knowledge? Do you think that it is important to know all these discourses or just believe that „practice makes a master”?

Nance Klehm: Permaculture and Biodymanics are both underpinned by systems thinking and working with as opposed to against natural systems, but after that, they are different. Still, they can be integrated if so chosen. I try to not get caught up with buzzwords or these schools of branded practice (these aforementioned ‘schools of thought’ are highly branded- they have personalities who coined their terms and now others who carry their banners!) and just get back to observing and working with ecological systems as I grow food and medicine and build soil fertility and biodiversity.


Aleksandra Jach: I want to ask you about permaculture which the shortest definition would be „examining and following nature's patterns”. I'm wondering how to apply it to our urban, semi-urban and industrialised ecosystems? How to understand these rules of nature when you try to cultivate a piece of land which is already transformed by people?


Nance Klehm: Almost the whole planet has been ‘cultivated’ or as you say, ‘transformed’ by people to varying degrees and not all of it is bad. Right now, it is about how we ‘manage’ and ‘steward’ our lands (and ourselves) whether they are highly urbanized or not. And that we do this together! and not as isolated, seperate beings. So there is a strong social and cultural component to this work and community organizing and building a community’s skills and capacity for resiliency are the pieces that needs to be integrated into our land-based work!


Aleksandra Jach: In your teaching, is the economic component important? In Europe now, in many environmental projects, organizers and participants stress the so-called ecosystem services. They evaluate different elements of nature. It’s a well-meant commodification of nature; the intentions of its propagators are good; the argument is to explain to people what they will lose if part of the ecosystem gets lost, in terms of money. Does this argument find a place in your teachings?

Nance Klehm: I think this is useful for people who understand the world through the economic model. I’m interested in the idea of economy as a relationship, so an economy to me is formed when two things exchange value for the other. Economics are important but I don’t think the way we monetize functions is a way to get through to everyone. I like to show a more complex relationship, it’s how everything is woven together. If someone says, “This ecological function of a tree is worth something,” people monetize this. As if each tree produces $4,000 of energy savings. That’s not compelling to me, but I also think that this valuing is absurd and simplistic since the network and relationships that a tree forms with soil, air, all the other creatures it supports from microbes to humans to the jaguar, or to the mouse, are much more complex than, say, $4,000. I’d rather show the increasing complexity of what’s happening than use these values. But I think for some people that is the only thing that gets them to pay attention. And I don’t want to be in some place where I have to be „an accountant of nature”.

Aleksandra Jach: The language of ecosystem services is the language of many grants supported by the EU, hence their popularity here. For example, you’ll include cultural values of ecosystems as part of it, too.

Nance Klehm: As for the cultural value, I think it’s hard to quantify but that story is very important because it’s how we perceive things, it’s what’s going to change when, and how we value them. Certain culture groups have a stronger connection to the forest, for example, because they understand the forest is alive and not just a nice place for a picnic. I’m trying to teach more connection and more value between people and the place they live in, their waste, their soil. That’s kind of my “secret project” and “brain-washing scheme.” [Laughter]


Aleksandra Jach: Do you need art in this „brain-washing”? If cultural institutions can offer you something interesting?

Nance Klehm: Well, they usually have money. In the U.S., we don’t get much financial support for the arts compared to Europe, so when I get approached as an artist to do a lecture or workshop or exhibition, it usually means income, which is good financially. But I’m also interested in the formal framing opportunity that comes with the offer. Much of my true work happens alone as I research and experiment in how I live, and the other part happens with friends and community people in a very informal context. So I am happy when I get asked to do something in a formal context because it gives me a different audience, it formalizes ideas that I am working on in an informal way. A lot of people I work with would never go to a gallery or a museum because it’s not culturally relevant for them, or they’re scared or they find it pretentious. I’m interested in working with a broad audience – if I work with curators, that’s good, and if I work with people who don’t know how to read, that’s also good. It’s not necessary for the art world to recognize me for me to reach people.


Aleksandra Jach: How do you find your practice relates to the formal worlds of art?

Nance Klehm: My strategies usually involve performance, or theater, visual and writing strategies to find new ways of talking about things that are very old. A lot of my art is how I talk about what I am doing and frame it conceptually, for the things I really do are very old, very practical – and sometimes boring, in fact.


Aleksandra Jach: They weren’t that boring to me. I remember your workshop as very important part of my ecological education. I lived with my parents in a village for 19 years then moved to the city. They are still there, and still have the compost, the garden, the field where they plant crops. So I am familiar with the topic of caring about plants and organic matter. But the way you taught us about compost was unique thanks to links you were making to theory, practice, different stories and anecdotes you included in this complex matter. The performativity you brought to this knowledge amazed me.

Nance Klehm: I’m trying to show that simple things are connected to very high-minded things; theories are connected to much more than you think they are. I always believe that everyone I teach is very smart, so I try to teach them the best I can.

Aleksandra Jach: I particularly liked the stories about the metabolism of the world. In general, people think that production and being productive is related to human control and human-guided activities. This is how the Industrial Revolution’s story goes. But maybe productivity is about vitalism, about what’s amazing in the environment. You cannot control all this energy that is organizing and reorganizing matter on Earth. I like what Donna Haraway wrote about herself, that she is not posthuman-ist, but compost-ist. In her opinion, this is the word which describes best what is human in relation to other creatures...

To conclude, I would like to ask you about building compost toilets in Haiti after earthquake in 2010. How it happened that you went there?

Nance Klehm: I was hired by an American movie star - Patricia Arquette. I went to work in Haiti at a camp with 3,000 people, about two weeks after the earthquake. There was a lot of chaos and violence; we had people with guns protecting us. I was trying to talk to people. I speak Spanish and a bit of French, but it wasn't enough. I told Patricia that we had to hire some local people who were interested in working with us to help interview people about their needs and about how to make the toilets safe for them to go into. People were getting attacked, sometimes raped in toilets there. Also we needed the toilets to be clean, so people wouldn’t become more sick. With the help of translators, we came up with questions to ask people who were hurt, who had small children, who were older people, people with all sorts of needs, not just people who had legs amputated or suffered from something after the earthquake. We gathered information about their needs and the gesture of doing this got people excited about so we got more participation. We weren’t just white people who showed up, we were people who were talking to them.

Initially, people in Haiti weren’t used to cleaning their own toilets, there was a different class of people who’d do that. So they had to make the cultural shift because of the disaster; we trained a group of people to do the collection of waste and show others how to compost it.. Sick people felt a little more secure, they had toilets close to their camp, didn’t have to walk very far, could use these simple toilets even within their own tents. That was important, to make them secure – public toilets can become a place of violence. It was really important that we did those interviews, and that we paid people who helped us.

Aleksandra Jach: Do you think that your Haitian project was successful in transfering knowledge about composting? Are your toilets still in use there?

Nance Klehm: Patricia wrote me an email that things are going well, people are still composting their waste, that they have a system in place. By concentrating and carefully composting their waste in one area, they avoid the potential spread of pathogens, like they used to. It’s cleaner and healthier for people: there’s no human waste in the river, or on the streets like there used to be. So, I think it’s been very successful, but I haven’t seen it. Haiti is not an easy place to go visit casually.

Aleksandra Jach: In my opinion this is very symptomatic of the critical situation in Haiti as we are returning to very basic solutions how to organise our life. It appears that we can refer to the knowledge which in „normal” conditions is called „survivalism”. For many Westerners unlimited consumption is the most „normal” and „natural” state of things. I'm thinking if only catastrophic events can change the way we are thinking about environmental resources and if the term Anthropocene is a kind of performative device by which people practice alternative solutions which can be useful in „doomsday”. What do you think about it?


Nance Klehm: Again, I am not into buzzwords, but if they are temporarily useful in helping people reexaming their lives, then they are helpful. I do have a strong sense that we are teetering on the edges of a few things and we are in a strong place of having to make more considered choices and changes in how we are as both social actors and living breathing beings on this planet. Simpler, smarter, and more integrated and mutualistic ways of being happen when we become caring stewards, creative producers and not just consumers of our world.




The interview was realized thanks to the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.


Nance Klehm is a steward of the earth. She is an ecological systems designer, landscaper, horticultural consultant, and permacultural grower, as well as an in demand consultant, speaker, and teacher. She is respected internationally for her work on land politics and growing for fertility. More about the artist and her works: