Tag Archives: sustainable farming

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.

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Cooperative Extension’s Finest Hour?

Even as Cooperative Extension faces the worst budgetary cutbacks in its almost century-long history, it is being called on to do the unthinkable:  To help farming reinvent itself by reducing its environmental footprint without eroding the high level of efficiency that characterizes the current model.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, Professor John Beddington, chief science adviser to the U.K. government, put this challenge into grim perspective, stressing that  global agriculture will have to produce 50 percent more food by 2030 to feed the growing population, projected to be 9.5 billion by mid-century.

Farmers are being called on to feed billions more, despite a future of drastically reduced supplies of fossil fuels and water resources — two resources critical to the success of modern agriculture within the last century.

That is the irony — and the opportunity — we face as Cooperative Extension educators.

For their part, British policy makers have already begun exploring ways to build a farm model that incorporates both sustainability and efficiency.

Stressing the need for Britain to grow more of its food while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, Hilary Benn, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the environment, outlined the first new British agricultural policy in decades, one that possibly may offer insight into the kind of global farming model that eventually may emerge.

“We need to produce more food.  We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health,” he said in announcing the policy.

Benn said British consumers have a role to play by demanding greener food from retailers and by wasting less, and, equally significant, by growing more of their own food and developing local markets for these homegrown products.

He and other British policymakers believe this strategy would enhance community spirit as well as physical and community health.

But will it also secure what Beddington and other scientists wish to achieve within the next few decades: creating a farming market that is both sustainable and efficient enough to feed 3 billion more people?

To be fair, in addition to calling for expanding homegrown food production and local farm markets, many leading British researchers and policy makers also concede that that cutting-edge science will have an even more prominent role to play.

For his part, Beddington says that feeding the emerging world population will require production of more crops on less land and greater use of emerging technologies, especially the genetic modification of food and nanotechnology.

How these competing objectives ultimately will be balanced out is uncertain.  What is virtually certain is that some farming model that incorporates cost-efficiency and sustainability will emerge.  

Daunting as it is, this challenge presents us Extension educators with an immense opportunity, one that far surpasses the challenge we faced roughly a hundred years ago introducing mechanized farming practices to tens of thousands of family farms.

The important reality to bear in mind — one that we should proclaim to our clients and stakeholders frequently and unashamedly — is that no other public or private entity is as equipped to help our farmers build this new model.  Yes, public and private researchers have a critical role to play, but only we are equipped to provide the nation’s farmers with the big picture — and by big picture, I mean the complete set of skills and altered thinking required to make this transition.

Yes, as cloudy as the Cooperative Extension future often seems, we nonetheless have a vital role to play in the future — one that very well could be prove to be our finest hour.