Tag Archives: sustainability-plus

Presenting Our New Video Annual Report

We just finished posting Alabama Extension’s first-ever video annual report to our youtube site.  This year’s theme: “Sustainability-Plus: Living and Working Better – and Greener.”

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I passionately believe that sustainability efforts represent the future of Cooperative Extension for a variety of reasons. Yes, we have a critical role to serve in building a new scientific agricultural model that will incorporate elements of the old farming model as well as sustainability principles of the 21st century.

However, the sustainability concept encompasses so much more — the reason why we have coined the term sustainability-plus.

Driving Home the Sustainability-Plus Theme to Funding Sources

Alabama youngsters greeting an alligator at the 4-H Environmental Center in Columbiana.

Following is a considerably revised version of a piece I wrote on sustainability-plus earlier this week in response to the federal funding crisis. This version was written specifically for our Extension county coordinators to use in their local media.

I’ve felt strongly for some time that Extension’s growing emphasis on sustainability-plus is one of our greatest assets — certainly during this critical time as we work to remind funding sources of our continued relevance. Increasingly, our efforts are no longer devoted solely to sustaining natural resources but also to sustaining social, cultural and financial assets.

Interestingly, many of the state’s governors are grasping the sustainability-plus concept, using sustainability to encompass a much wider public policy range.

For a number of reasons, Extension is uniquely positioned to benefit from this changed perspective.  This issue is more widely explored in an earlier piece: Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming.

Feel free to use this material in any way you please.

Help Us Sustain a Critical Resource

If these lean times have done one thing, it is to put Americans into what one New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, describes as a “different mental place.”

If you doubt that, undertake a Google search of recent state-of-the-state addresses around the country.  It would reveal the extent to which this new mindset has taken hold of Americans from one end of this country to the other.

In many of these addresses, governors used “sustainability” to underscore in these austere times how effective stewardship must encompass all aspects of our lives, not just the environment.

Newly installed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder used his address to roll out a new sustainable business model, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stressed the urgency of putting unemployment policy on a “long-term sustainable path.”

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a Cleaner, Greener Communities initiative to provide competitive grants to encourage grassroots sustainable growth strategies.

Yet, these are only a few examples among many of how these lean times are calling for new ways of thinking.

Farmers are struggling to adopt new technologies to feed an estimated 9 billion people by midcentury with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being pressed to develop safer, greener food production systems that emphasize organically and locally grown foods.

Meanwhile, growing strains on the U.S. healthcare system are forcing a greater emphasis on preventative health measures.  Americans increasingly are being called on to adopt effective dietary and exercise practices to safeguard against obesity-related diseases, such as hypertension and type-2 diabetes.

Fiscally-strapped communities are scrambling to develop sustainable growth strategies for housing, transportation, emissions control, and energy and efficiency.

In a sharp departure from previous decades, all levels of government are challenging Americans to address change directly rather than waiting for things to happen.

Cooperative Extension is uniquely equipped with the skill set to meet these new policy requirements and to provide Americans with critical tools for self-empowerment.

In our state, Extension already is actively engaged in grassroots efforts to help these groups and many other people follow through with the environmental, economic and lifestyle changes that these lean times require.

Yet, in the midst of this crisis, Extension is dealing with one of its own.

Looming federal budget cuts, especially to the Smith-Lever program, which supports nationwide Extension efforts, would seriously undercut efforts to transform the American agricultural sector in this critical time in history and to ensure that Americans eat healthier, nutritious foods.

Moreover, proposed cuts in the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would drastically scale back the competitive grants that support critical efforts aimed at securing healthier, more sustainable food production systems.

We in Cooperative Extension are passionate about our role in helping Americans through these lean times.

Yet, even as government searches for cost-effective solutions, these reductions threaten to undermine ongoing efforts to help Americans meet some of the most critical challenges in our history.

Extension has a charge to keep in this age of austerity, not only in demonstrating the value of recycling and adopting greener production systems but also in showing how sustainable principles relate to every aspect of our lives.

Help us sustain this critical resource.  Contact your local congressional member and ask him or her to restore this funding.

The Case for “Sustainability-Plus”: A New Outreach Strategy for Cooperative Extension

Note: The following is a rationale for a sustainability-plus model that I prepared for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System administration in late 2009.  For more specific details on the Sustainability-Plus concept, see our FAQ: “Sustainability-Plus: Questions and Answers.”


Quoting from Shakespeare, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood leads on to fortune.”

A number of serious challenges now occurring in our state, nation and world present us with a marvelous opportunity to demonstrate our continued relevance to our clients and stakeholders.

The Challenges:

These challenges stem from a host of causes— environmental, economic and social — but virtually all of them to one degree or another relate to sustainability: living and working in ways that address present-day needs without eroding the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

The Environment

Environmental challenges stem from many different sources: climate change, unrelenting demands on limited supplies of fossil fuel and water, and perennial concerns about the effects of overpopulation, to name only a few.

Writing recently in the New York Times, columnist and author Thomas Friedman expressed fears of the immediate effects of atmospheric carbon buildup, especially 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 melting all the sea ice in the North Pole in the summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

Partly for this reason, agriculture — historically speaking, one of Extension’s core competency areas —is facing some of the most acute challenges.   The agricultural model constructed in the 20th century was critically dependent on petroleum and water — two resources that are predicted to be in perilously short supply in the 21st century.  Even so, agriculture over the next few decades will be called upon to achieve what to some seems almost unachievable:  to feed a burgeoning population in spite of these shortages and in the midst what is widely considered to be global climate change.

Yet, these challenges are only a few among many other pressing 21st century concerns, which also include biodiversity and land use, the prevalence of toxic chemicals and heavy metals in our waterways, air pollution, waste-management problems, and a steady depletion in the supply of oceanic fish, to name only a few.

The Economy

Many economists, policymakers and pundits cite growing levels of public and private debt as long-term threats to the nation’s future.   Debt levels accrued by federal, state and local governments now comprise about 24 percent of U.S. GDP.   Darrell J. Stanley, professor of finance at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, writes that government expenditures at these levels “could have a very negative impact on the nation’s ability to consume goods and build plants and equipment for future economic growth.”

The size of federal government debt alone has increased from $2.13 trillion in 1986 to $9 trillion today — a level of growth that prompted this observation by Thomas Friedman:

…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.

Private debt presents yet another challenge.

One worst-case scenario could involve a future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to undertake the public investments necessary to secure the future of upcoming generations of Americans.

Yet, that is only one harbinger among many others of a troubling U.S. economic future.  The median family savings rate has also declined substantially.  In 2006, for example, the U.S. savings rate was negative, even though it stood as high as 8 to 10 percent from 1960 to 1990.

For Americans to be assured of long-term economic viability, levels of personal savings must increase not only to support retirement but also to provide capital for long-term investment, Stanley contends.

Both Stanley and Friedman believe these economic trends are unsustainable in the long run.  For his part, Stanley doubts the historically high U.S. standard of living can be maintained, “unless there is a change in social and economic behavior.”


Equally unsettling is the prevailing state of health in the United States and the threat this poses to the sustainability of the healthcare system.

Fully two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight, and about half of these are classified as obese.  Among African-Americans and Latinos, the rates are even higher.  Childhood obesity also has emerged as a serious long-term threat to the U.S. health system: Among children between 6 and 19 years of age, about 15 percent, or 1 in 6, are overweight.  An additional 15 percent are at risk of becoming overweight.

Obesity-related health costs already are estimated to run more than a hundred billion a year.   The threat to the U.S. healthcare system stemming from obesity-related diseases — diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer — will increase as obesity levels rise.

 The Common Thread

All of these challenges share one thing in common: the way their effects are perceived and interpreted by policy makers, pundits and the American public in general.  Many people fear that we are dealing with more than just an ailing economic order.  Some even fear that this multitude of challenges threatens our very survival.  While still holding out hope, Stanley maintains that fundamental economic reforms are needed to shore up the American economic order and to stave off what conceivably could be disaster in the making.

Will it [the United States] continue under the new world realities? It will not, in the opinion of the author, unless there is a change in social and economic behavior.

To be sure, a change of mindset appears to be taking hold.   Mounting concerns about the perilous state of the economy have sparked a nationwide “crusade for economic restraint,” according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. And while these issues may not yet have bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently described as “a different mental place.” 

Moreover, many policy makers, political commentators and other tend to perceive these challenges as linked rather as isolated problems.  A good example is farming: Whether justified or not, production agriculture is perceived as a major contributor to many of these challenges, not only degrading the environment but also contributing significantly to spiking obesity rates.

Whatever the case, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word: sustainability.

The Advantages to Extension of a Comprehensive “Sustainability Plus” Effort

 All of these challenges present Extension with a remarkable opportunity: A chance to demonstrate to our clients and stakeholders how we can play an integral role in developing and fostering new production systems and other approaches to address these mounting environmental, economic and social concerns.

Once again, farming serves as a prime example.  As one administrator observed recently, Extension played a major role building the so-called factory farming system.  Now, for the sake of our long-term organizational survival, Extension must demonstrate how it will play a major role in fostering what Jonathan Foley, of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, has described as a “third way” approach.  This approach would combine the elements of two principal farming paradigms: the high-efficiency version, distinguished by its “benefits of economic scalability, high output and low labor demands,” and its organic counterpart with its emphasis on local and scalable farming methods.

Extension is also uniquely equipped to undertake another important mission: to show how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we can serve an important role demonstrating the values recycling and adopting greener production systems.   But we have an even greater role to serve: introducing our clients and stakeholders to the bigger picture by demonstrating how all the major challenges of the day are best addressed by adopting sustainable practices.

Simply put, we have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the value of “sustainability plus” — sustainability as it relates to every facet of our lives.