Tag Archives: Kevin Kelly

The World Extension Agricultural Educators Made

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Tuskegee Institute’s famed Extension agricultural educator Thomas Campbell standing by the Movable School, one of the earliest and most successful examples of agricultural Extension work.

By all accounts, farming has traveled an astonishingly long distance in a comparative short time—a remarkable journey and technological feat owed in no small part to Extension educators.

In colonial America, farmers toiled some 78 hours a week and were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of back-breaking drudgery.  Growing in stature and strength required more food, but the physical limitations of farmers prevented them from growing it.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Extension educators helped show farmers how to produce a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.

The advanced scientific farming methods that grew out of land-grant university research and that were disseminated to farmers by the growing legions of Extension educators broke the unbreakable cycle associated with older patterns of farming and changed the course of agriculture forever.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the deaths of millions from mass starvation as other nitrogen sources approached exhaustion.

Bodies grew larger and healthier.  For example, the average American man in 1850 stood 5 feet and 7 inches, weighed only 146 pounds, and was expected to live to be only 45.  By contrast, in 1980, the typical American man was 5 feet and ten inches, weighed 174 pounds, and was expected to live beyond 75. These statistics are among the many compiled by a study published in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel titled “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”

The strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — was another critical factor behind this dramatic farming transformation.  Mechanization enabled farmers to transform millions of acres into productive cropland that had previously been tied up to feed draft animals.

The abundant and comparatively cheap food supply that many of us take for granted is one of the earliest and most tangible effects of Cooperative Extension work.

Environmental Gains

Yet, as Ridley also stresses in his book, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied the adoption of other modern farming practices also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

For example, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

More strides have been made in recent years with the adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, which have produced drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and use.

As renowned futurist Kevin 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 besides raising food — valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

The Road Ahead

What role did Extension play in these dramatic advances?  This technological revolution would not have been possible without the working relationships Extension agents cultivated with the nation’s farmers.

In spite of all these colossal achievements, modern farming is beset with challenges.  Even as farming transforms itself to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century, growing numbers of people around the world are calling for a new farming model that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, less soil disturbance and less reliance on nonrenewable energy resources,

Just as we did in the last century, Extension educators will be working hand in hand with farmers to build a new farming model that emphasizes both economic efficiency and environmental sustainability—a model, Ridley says, that not only will be fully equipped to feed an estimated 9 billion people comfortably but that also will achieve this using considerably less cropland, water, fuel, and chemicals.

From Crusader to Conciliator: Extension’s Coming Transformation

"Agriculture Move Onward"

"Agriculture Moves Onward." The final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture and a testament to the boundless faith Americans once invested in the march of scientific/technological progress.

Some 100 years ago, Extension educators were crusaders in the truest contemporary meaning of that word.

We were crusaders for a cause, the cause of scientific/technological progress in farming and homemaking. Extension educators were dispatched to every rural hamlet in America to impart the message of scientific and technological progress.

In manner of speaking, we were techno-crusaders.

Perhaps no other artistic rendering better expresses our techno-crusader role than the final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture.  Commissioned along with the other murals for display at the 1939 Alabama State Fair, it underscored how adopting scientific and technological practices on the farm would secure a veritable cornucopia of material goods and creature comforts.

This faith in scientific and technological achievement was not confined to Extension educators. Americans in general once possessed an almost boundless faith in science’s potential for securing material comforts and, with it, a generous measure of human happiness.

As a one of my Extension colleagues once noted, Americans as recently as the 1950s routinely passed highway billboards unabashedly proclaiming “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” without so much as blinking an eye.

Such a message today would invariably be interpreted as a twisted joke.

How times have changed: Extension educators are now struggling to navigate their way across an increasingly steep, jagged divide between techno-skeptics, who harbor a deep mistrust of technology and its long-term implications, and techies, who, despite some misgivings, generally believe that each technological advance ultimately works to secure a better life and world for all of us.

But why should we be surprised by this? Science, after all, is as much a process of refinement as it is of discovery.  With this refinement has come a clearer understanding of the environmental costs associated with scientific and technological progress.  Scientific farming practices have proven to be no exception.

To be sure, we Extension educators should take immense pride in what we have built within the last century.

As one of the world’s premier philosophers of technology, Kevin Kelly, stresses in his recent book, What Technology Wants, the highly mechanized, petrol-dependent farming model we helped construct in the last century has been indispensable in many respects.  It provided the “foundation of leisure” that promoted a drastic increase in population, which, in turn, generated the intellectual insights that define much of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, Kelly is one of a number of techno-pundits who foresee the inevitable rise of a new, more sustainable, possibly even more decentralized, farming model, though one that incorporates many of the scientific and technological attributes of the current model.

In building a new model that incorporates elements of scientific/technological farming and sustainability, the need for Extension educators will be more critical than ever.

Who but Extension is equipped for this task?  Our intimate understanding of the current scientific farming model provides us with one critical insight that many green proponents are now only reluctantly beginning to accept: replacing the prevailing farming model with a wholly sustainable model is not only impractical but impossible given the present state of science.

We have a indispensable role to play in the future not only in bridging a divide between hostile camps but also in helping articulate the elements of this new farming model, piece by piece.

Consequently, we will be called upon to abandon our traditional role of technological crusader and to accept a new role as technological conciliator.

Our new role as conciliator not only will be confined to the farm sector.  There will be an increasing need for public intellectuals within Extension — people equipped to explain to the general public how this new farming model will be expressed and how it ultimately will affect them.

Herein lies an enormous opportunity for Extension — an opportunity for profound organizational transformation.

Future generations of Extension educators may reflect on this chapter of our history as our finest hour.

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.”