Tag Archives: sustainability

Economic Malaise, Cooperative Extension Opportunity

While house and car sales will eventually rise to their old numbers, the old consumer economy is gone and isn't coming back, writes New York Times economist journalist David Leonhardt

“We’re spent,” writes David Leonhardt in The New York Times’s July 18 Sunday Review section, and this hard reality has major implications for the prospects of America’s long-term recovery.

Deficits, inadequate stimulus packages, the looming threat of China may all play a part in our economic woes, but the pink elephant is consumer spending — or, more accurately, the acute lack of it.

The economic statistics are telling: The auto industry is predicted to sell 28 percent fewer vehicles in 2011. Sales of stoves and ovens are projected to be at their lowest level since 1992.

This bad news brings me back to a point I’ve raised time and again in this forum: the growing American preoccupation with leaner, more sustainable lifestyles — the challenge of doing more with less — and the role Cooperative Extension educators can play at all levels and in all disciplines in pointing the way toward these new ways of living and working.

Mind you, I’m not just talking about environmental sustainability.  In these lean times, sustainability is now a term used liberally, not only to stress the need for federal and state fiscal prudence but also to foster healthier personal and family finances.

As the New York Times’s Roger Cohen argued in a column several years ago, the shock that followed the 2008 market crash put Americans into a “different mental place.”

It is small wonder why, considering in retrospect how unsustainable the old consumer mindset was.  As Leonhardt observes:

In past years, many of these consumers could have relied on debt, often a home-equity line of credit or a credit card, to tide them over. Debt soared in the late 1980s, 1990s and the last decade, which allowed spending to grow faster than incomes and helped cushion every recession in that period.

Sooner or later, Leonhardt stresses, a newer, more sustainable economic model inevitably will take its place — a model that lays considerably greater emphasis on investment and production.

One thing is certain, Leonhardt stresses: “The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back.”

While house and car sales eventually will surpass their old highs following economic recovery and population increases, levels of consumer spending will not return to their old levels, he contends.

Why? Because it was driven by money that people didn’t have.

“The choice, then, is between starting to make the transition to a different economy and enduring years of stop-and-start economic malaise,” Leonhardt writes.

This hard reality presents Extension educators with a tremendous opportunity.  A breach has formed within the American psyche, one that we are primed to fill.

Americans are taking their first tepid steps toward this new, considerably more sustainable model — steps that will require a rethinking of the way they conduct their lives both at work and at home.

No other public or private entity is better equipped than we are to fill the deep psychological breach that has formed during the Great Recession. Likewise, no one is better equipped to help Americans undertake the initial steps toward a new economic model.

As I see it, this presents an even bigger opportunity than demonstrating our continued relevance.  It is also an opportunity to undertake a much-needed organizational transformation in the way we conceive and deliver our programs.

Are we up to the challenge?

Extension Lessons from Joe Friday

Joe Friday of Dragnet fame: I couldn’t get enough of the guy — or his unfailing partner, Bill Gannon — growing up.

I still chuckle a bit recalling those brass-tacks morality lessons Friday (portrayed by Jack Webb) and Gannon (played by Harry Morgan) freely imparted to whatever social malcontents they were dealing with at the time.

One of their most memorable appeals was served up in The Big Departure, an episode that first aired in March 7, 1968, about four aspiring teenagers who engage in petty larceny of local businesses to finance and provision their own anti-materialistic, utopian country on one of the islands off the California Coast.

In response to one teenager’s contention that they didn’t understand, Friday and Gannon serve a few choice words about how much better he and his collaborators fared in comparison to earlier generations.

“More people are living better right here than anywhere else ever before in history,” Friday says.

“You’re taller, stronger, healthier and better educated — and you’ll live longer than the last generation, and we don’t think that’s altogether bad,” Gannon adds, also pointing out to the kids that none of them had likely seen a quarantine sign in their neighbors’ door warning about diphtheria, scarlet fever or whooping cough.

“Probably none of your classmates are crippled with polio,” he adds.  “You don’t see many mastoid scars anymore.”

To be sure, this sort of optimism would strike many 21st century Americans as hidebound, if not threadbare.  In the midst of recent history’s longest running economic crisis, coupled with a seemingly intractable energy impasse, frustration and resignation seem to have trumped optimism.

Still, I think the two TV cops strike at an essential truth not only for the 60s but also for today: Scientific achievement has carried us a long way, and it will likely carry us an even longer way in the future.

While few advocate their own starter countries, plenty of technological naysayers remain in this century heaping scorn on practices that have secured all of us immense comfort and efficiency.

At the top of the list of these practices: scientific farming methods — yes, those very methods that have been promoted by Extension agents and specialists and other land-grant personnel for more than a century.

To be sure, these farming methods have created one of the most diverse, interdependent economic sectors in the world — a fact that causes some farm critics extreme consternation.

Yet, as Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, stresses, the interdependence and trade that has followed the adoption of these practices have ensured that all of us are immensely better fed and healthier than our 18th century forebears.

As an example, he compares the trebling of wheat prices that occurred between 2006 and 2008 to a similar price hike that occurred from 1315 to 1318.

During the early 14th century, when Europe was sparsely populated, farming was entirely organic and food miles were short, mass starvation and even outbreaks of cannibalism ensued.  Indeed, until the advent of railways, it was cheaper for people to become refugees than to pay the steep prices to transport food into a deprived district.

Today, consumers benefit from a global wheat market in which somebody somewhere has something to sell.  The end result: typically modest price fluctuations but no mass starvation.

The take-home message: The interdependence that has partly grown out of these scientific farming methods has helped spread risk.

To be sure, farming faces its share of challenges.  For the past generation, Extension educators throughout the country have been busily engaged helping the nation’s row-crop and livestock producers build a new farming model that merges scientific farming methods with sustainable practices.

We face challenges, daunting challenges.  Even so, it behooves all of us Extension educators not only to reflect on our achievements but also to defend them with the same zeal as Joe Friday.