Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming

Okay, I’m convinced: The biggest issue for Extension for the foreseeable future will be sustainability.  The recent columns of three New York Times writers helped close the sale for me.

Here’s why:

First, persistent concerns about the carbon threat.  Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that global warming is real.  But then again, I’m no expert.  And the fact remains that a majority of this nation’s policymakers and pundits believe it to be true.  Thomas Friedman perceives it not only as a real but even as an immediate threat, especially considering the possibility that

… the next emitted carbon molecule will tip over some ecosystem and trigger a nonlinear event — like melting the Siberian tundra and releasing all its methane, or drying up the Amazon or melt all the sea ice in the North Pole in summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

And there is the added threat of chronic debt and especially of its long-term implications for America’s future.  As Friedman observes,

…One need only look at today’s record-setting price of gold, in a period of deflation, to know that a lot of people are worried that our next dollar of debt— unbalanced by spending cuts or new tax revenues — will trigger a nonlinear move out of the dollar and torpedo the U.S. economy.

The worst-case scenario: A future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to make the public investments necessary to secure the future of younger generations of Americans.

If these factors have not yet bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what Roger Cohen describes as a “different mental place.”

They’re paying down debt. They’re not hiring. They’ve gotten reacquainted with risk. They’re going to have to survive without Gourmet magazine.

And in the future, this will force Americans, whether they live in red or blue states, to put aside obsolescent cultural warfare and to embark on what David Brooks describes as a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”

Indeed, to an increasing degree, the elites as well as ordinary people fear that humanity is dealing with an ailing economic model that may even be teetering on collapse.

Add to that the concerns about the appalling state of American health, which to an increasing degree are ascribed to the current U.S. farm production system.  But there is an even bigger sustainability issue associated with health: The growing strains within the U.S. medical system that inevitably will force a greater emphasis on preventive health care – sustainability by any other name.

Simply put, for a variety of reasons, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word again: sustainability.

Some elites and ordinary people alike are more disposed to this term than ever before.

Sustainability affords Cooperative Extension the opportunity to burnish our image, demonstrating to our clients and stakeholders how we will play an integral role helping build new production systems that factor in growing economic and environmental concerns.  As one of my Extension colleagues pointed out recently, we played a major role in building the so-called factory farming system.  Now we must demonstrate how we are helping people move toward production systems that are more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability also empowers us in another way: It presents us with a golden opportunity to undertake one of the most important challenges of this century: to close the circle, showing how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we help the planet by doing everything from recycling to adopting greener production systems, but we also help humanity – and, ultimately, our strained medical system — by adopting sustainable lifestyles that emphasize prevention.

Yes, I know, we’ve been promoting health lifestyles for years, but now the stars are aligned in a way they have never been before.

While I’ll confess to some bias, I believe no other organization is better equipped than Cooperative Extenison to educate people about what is undoubtedly the most important challenge of  the 21st century— building systems that will sustain our planet as well as our personal well-being.

 Yes, sustainability is the future of Cooperative Extension.

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