Tag Archives: Cooperative Extension model

We Can’t Go On this Way, but We Never Do

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, author, futurist and philosopher of technology, who believes the current agricultural model ultimately will evolve into a more heterogeneous, decentralized model.

This has been a good week for deep, serendipitous insights.

Shortly after reading George Monbiot’s column attesting to the shortfalls of the green movement, I came across an intriguing passage by Kevin Kelly, one of the world’s renowned futurists and philosophers of technology.

His book, What Technology Wants, is one of a handful of books that should serve as operating manuals for Cooperative Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization and one that I highly recommend to my colleagues.

The passage further underscored to me that people even within our ranks are not fully aware of the benefits Extension secured for Americans and human beings in general by helping transform subsistence farming into the model that prevails today.

As Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food:  It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things, valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

“It feeds our longevity to keep inventing and, ultimately, this food system fuels the increase in population that generates increasing numbers of ideas,” Kelly says.

As I said, it’s a fascinating and important point and one of which few people, even Extension professionals, are fully aware.

Bear in mind, though, that this applies as much to the detractors of agriculture as it does the rest of us.  Even as they criticize modern agriculture’s overreliance on petroleum, they scarcely consider how much this model contributed to a social and economic order that, in addition to feeding them, also provided adequate levels of education to conceive and marshal such sophisticated critiques.

The current farming model has carried humanity a long way — a distance that would have been impossible via subsistence farming.

Even so, as Kelly is the first to concede, modern farming, despite its colossal achievements, is beset with challenges.  As he stresses, the current model is heavily dependent on a monoculture of only a few staple food crops, which have required “pathological degrees of intervention with drugs, pesticides and herbicides, soil disturbance and overreliance on cheap petro fuels for both energy and nutrients.”

In time, though, elements of a new, decentralized model will emerge, he says — one less monocultural and petroleum dependent than the current one and that perhaps even encompasses “hyperlocal, specialized farms,” manned either by a truly global workforce or by “smart, nimble worker robots.”

Again, most Extension agricultural experts likely would not find much with which to take issue in any of these statements.  Like Kelly, most could conceive of an emerging “convivial agriculture” sitting atop industrial agriculture, much as the current model sits atop older forms of subsistence farming.

Likewise, they, like Kelly, could conceive the current farming model, by remaining the most productive supplier of food on a global scale, as one that continues to fill a critical role for the foreseeable future and forming an integral part of the emerging model.

Speaking of passages, Kelly also shares a quote from another intellectual hero of mine, Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

“If we go on as we are, it’ll be very difficult to sustain things,” Ridley says. “But we won’t go on as we are. That’s what we never do.”

“We always change what we do and we always get much more efficient at using things — energy, resources, etc.”

These are valuable messages, ones that we should be sharing with our diverse users and stakeholders.

The current agricultural model is undergoing a significant overhaul to accommodate the demands of the emerging global knowledge economy of the 21st century.

So are we.

But that’s the business we’re in.  As Kelly says, “We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow.”

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.