An Admission of Failure, an Opportunity for Extension

George Monbiot

George Monbiot, a green movement activist and public intellectual whose recent Guardian column about the failure of the green movement sent ripples through the ranks.

It may be remembered in the future as the column that changed everything.

On one hand, it amounts to an admission of failure — on the other, perhaps the basis for a reaffirmation of Cooperative Extension’s mission and its enduring value to this nation and the world.

Writing in his Guardian column recently, George Monbiot, one of the green movement’s most prominent activists and public intellectuals, essentially admitted to his movement’s failure.

Why? Because no green proposals for de-nuclearizing and de-carbonizing the planet are achievable, he says.

Replacing nuclear power is highly problematic because of the increased threats to humans and the added environmental destruction that inevitably would follow.  Likewise, de-carbonization would require an increase in infrastructure, which Monbiot decries as “ugly, destructive and controlled by remote governments and corporations.”

The problems that would follow de-carbonization only underscore self-contradictory nature of the green message, he says.

“These questions are so divisive because the same world-view tells us that we must reduce emissions, defend our landscapes and resist both the state and big business,” Monbiot says.

He even doubts if it’s possible to impose a green movement agenda on an economic system tailored for growth. Even if we somehow could attain a zero-carbon goal by 2030, economic growth would present humanity with the same problems in 2050 and 2070 and into the future.

All de-carbonization proposals run up against similar brick walls, Monbiot concedes.   For example, adopting charcoal as an alternative source would “throw industry into direct competition with agriculture , spreading starvation and ensuring that manufactured products become the preserve of the very rich.”

Add to that the even bigger challenge of summoning the public will. Advocating “a massive downsizing and return to a land-based economy” is one thing; persuading the public to embark on such a life-altering undertaking is quite another.

The malaise within green ranks is  further underscored by the realization that, despite the likely peak of crude oil production reached in 2006, economic collapse has not followed. Industry has compensated with substitutes such as natural gas liquids and tar sands.

As it turns out, the problem humanity faces is not having enough fossil fuels but too much, Monbiot concedes.

“Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything down with us,” he grimly observes.

He ends his gloomy confession with an appeal to realism.

“I hope that by laying out the problem I can encourage us to address it more logically, to abandon magical thinking and to recognize the contradictions we confront,” he says.

I think it behooves Monbiot and other green movement intellectuals to read a page or two out of Extension’s playbook.

We Extension educators can be faulted for a few things, but succumbing to magical thinking isn’t one of them. Our century of experience has taught us a thing or two about human complexity  — the immense contradictions often encountered in the course of fostering meaningful economic and social change.

Monbiot and others in the green movement apparently have just now begun to grasp what we learned in the last century working shoulder to shoulder with farmers:  Radically new ways of living and working cannot be imposed overnight or through government edict. They can only be adopted incrementally and incorporated into the prevailing working model.

This incremental, collaborative relationship between farmer and Extension educator, which formed the foundation of the 20th century farming model, will prove no less valuable in the 21st as we build a new hybridized farming model that incorporates both conventional and sustainable farming practices.

This is the reason why I confess drawing a measure of comfort and even optimism from Monbiot’s column.   As more green activists are won over to his hard-bitten realism, I believe they will come to appreciate the value of the incremental, collaborative change methods we helped develop more than 100 years ago.

In time, I hope, this will also carry over into an awareness of, if not a keen appreciation for, the Extension mission and for the role it will serve in the future securing a more sustainable nation and world.

One response to “An Admission of Failure, an Opportunity for Extension

  1. Radically new ways of living and working cannot be imposed overnight or through government edict. They can only be adopted incrementally and incorporated into the prevailing working model.

    Hmmm. While I agree with that first statement, I don’t see evidence for hope in incrementalism, nor can I work up much belief in the capacity of the prevailing working model (neoliberal capitalism) to prevent the collapse Monbiot predicts, Jim.

    “Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything down with us,” he says.

    I think he’s predicting massive ecysystem environmental unless folks of deep-green persuasion can evolve a narrative that transcends their failed magical stories. [I find one in the work of Ivan Illich, about whom, more later.]

    Here’s Monbiot’s context for the collapse:

    As oil declines, economies will switch to tar sands, shale gas and coal; as accessible coal declines they’ll switch to ultra-deep reserves (using underground gasification to exploit them) and methane clathrates. The same probably applies to almost all minerals: we will find them, but exploiting them will mean trashing an ever greater proportion of the world’s surface. We have enough non-renewable resources of all kinds to complete our wreckage of renewable resources: forests, soil, fish, fresh water, benign weather. Collapse will come one day, but not before we have pulled everything else down with us.

    And even if there were an immediate economic cataclysm, it’s not clear that the result would be a decline in our capacity for destruction. In east Africa, for example, I’ve seen how, when supplies of paraffin or kerosene are disrupted, people don’t give up cooking; they cut down more trees. History shows us that wherever large-scale collapse has occurred, psychopaths take over. This is hardly conducive to the rational use of natural assets.

    And psychpaths lead the way to the edge, too. We need a sanity narrative and new bottles for the new wine.

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