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.

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.

More Evidence that Sustainability Represents the Future of Cooperative Extension Work

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers State-of-the-State Address

I’ve argued more than once on this forum that sustainability is the future of Extension. 

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

A news.google search of  gubernatorial state of the state addresses conducted this morning underscores why there is no getting around that fact.  Governors throughout the country are expanding their use of sustainability to underscore the importance of  stewardship within a wider context that not only encompasses the environment but also economic and lifestyle practices.

“Taxpayer contributions for state employee pensions increased by 594 percent over the last 11 years, and for health care by 257 percent,” observed Delaware Gov. Jack Markell.  “While this escalation is not sustainable, we value our state employees and they value the benefits they receive.”

Meanwhile, as part of his effort to “reinvent” Michigan, newly installed Gov. Rick Snyder  rolled out his “sustainable business model” and chided public workers for their pension and benefit packages, describing them as “unsustainable financial model.”

Incoming New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled the Cleaner, Greener Communities to provide competitive grants to encourage communities to develop regional sustainable growth strategies in housing, transportation, emissions control and energy efficiency.

In neighboring New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie stressed the urgency of putting unemployment insurance on a “long-term sustainable path.”

The growing public policy preoccupation with sustainability holds major implications for Cooperative Extension System.  To put it bluntly, we’re in the driver’s seat in a way we have not been for decades.

We’re presented with a remarkable opportunity: a chance to demonstrate to our clients and stakeholders how all of us can play an integral role in developing and fostering new production systems and other approaches to address mounting environmental, economic and social concerns.

As I’ve stated time and again, no other organization is as well equipped to demonstrate sustainable practices within multiple contexts — to show how sustainability relates to all of us.

Granted, 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.

Bellwether Race in a Bellwether Ag State

The Iowa secretary of agriculture race bears close watching by Cooperative Extension agricultural professionals who want to gain a clearer picture of how agricultural  policy will play out over the next few years.

Incumbent Bill Northey, a full-time commercial corn grower whom The Atlantic depicts as an “establishment candidate,” is running against Francis Thicke, an organic beef producer.

“For the food movement, [this race] is the most important this election,” says sustainability advocate and author Michael Pollan, who was quoted by The Atlantic.

In fact, Pollan and other sustainability proponents point to it as a bellwether for the rest of the nation.

Northey, who has received corporate support from Monsanto, Sygenta, DuPont and Wal-Mart, is a major proponent of exporting Iowa ag products.

Thicke, who holds a Ph.D in agronomy and is a vocal sustainability advocate,  has written a free, downloadable book on agriculture:  A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture.   Unlike Northey, Thicke wants to create a food processing infrastructure to ensure that more homegrown food stays in Iowa.

Following is the first segment of a debate between the two candidates held earlier this year.

Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming

Okay, I’m convinced: The biggest issue for Extension for the foreseeable future will be sustainability.  The recent columns of three New York Times writers helped close the sale for me.

Here’s why:

First, persistent concerns about the carbon threat.  Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that global warming is real.  But then again, I’m no expert.  And the fact remains that a majority of this nation’s policymakers and pundits believe it to be true.  Thomas Friedman perceives it not only as a real but even as an immediate threat, especially considering 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 melt all the sea ice in the North Pole in summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

And there is the added threat of chronic debt and especially of its long-term implications for America’s future.  As Friedman observes,

…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.

The worst-case scenario: A future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to make the public investments necessary to secure the future of younger generations of Americans.

If these factors have not yet bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what Roger Cohen describes as a “different mental place.”

They’re paying down debt. They’re not hiring. They’ve gotten reacquainted with risk. They’re going to have to survive without Gourmet magazine.

And in the future, this will force Americans, whether they live in red or blue states, to put aside obsolescent cultural warfare and to embark on what David Brooks describes as a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”

Indeed, to an increasing degree, the elites as well as ordinary people fear that humanity is dealing with an ailing economic model that may even be teetering on collapse.

Add to that the concerns about the appalling state of American health, which to an increasing degree are ascribed to the current U.S. farm production system.  But there is an even bigger sustainability issue associated with health: The growing strains within the U.S. medical system that inevitably will force a greater emphasis on preventive health care – sustainability by any other name.

Simply put, for a variety of reasons, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word again: sustainability.

Some elites and ordinary people alike are more disposed to this term than ever before.

Sustainability affords Cooperative Extension the opportunity to burnish our image, demonstrating to our clients and stakeholders how we will play an integral role helping build new production systems that factor in growing economic and environmental concerns.  As one of my Extension colleagues pointed out recently, we played a major role in building the so-called factory farming system.  Now we must demonstrate how we are helping people move toward production systems that are more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability also empowers us in another way: It presents us with a golden opportunity to undertake one of the most important challenges of this century: to close the circle, showing how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we help the planet by doing everything from recycling to adopting greener production systems, but we also help humanity – and, ultimately, our strained medical system — by adopting sustainable lifestyles that emphasize prevention.

Yes, I know, we’ve been promoting health lifestyles for years, but now the stars are aligned in a way they have never been before.

While I’ll confess to some bias, I believe no other organization is better equipped than Cooperative Extenison to educate people about what is undoubtedly the most important challenge of  the 21st century— building systems that will sustain our planet as well as our personal well-being.

 Yes, sustainability is the future of Cooperative Extension.