Tag Archives: Thomas Friedman

Video Version of “A Social Media Call to Action” Now Available

If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you are familiar with one of my overriding professional preoccupations: that the techniques Cooperative Extension educators once used to dominate the knowledge landscape — face-to-face encounters and traditional print and broadcast media — are being replaced by a new information order in which online sources of knowledge accessed literally at the speed of light out compete everything.

The availability of so much information explains why we are being shoved off the turf we once considered exclusively our own.  And here’s the really scary part: We face the real risk of extinction unless we learn how to operate effectively within this increasingly crowded landscape and in ways that distinguish us from tens of millions of others.

There is a place for Extension educators in this new 21st century information order, but only if we transform ourselves into engaged, networked educators — people who not only inspire their clients but also help them learn and adapt within this radically new world and flattened knowledge landscape.  We must become fully engaged, fully networked educators who use social media to disseminate knowledge to much larger audiences and to develop two-way, reciprocal relationships with those audiences.

This video, which serves as a companion piece for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s online publication, “A Social Media Call to Action,” is an appeal to Extension educators everywhere to undertake the requisite steps to transform themselves into the 21st century educators they must become, not only for the sake of their clients but also for their organizational survival.

We Are Human Infrastructure!

I’ve experienced an epiphany within the last couple of weeks.

We need to be proclaiming Cooperative Extension for what it is, what it’s always been: infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like Interstates and sprawling high-speed rail or airport terminals but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

I owe New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for that insight. He used a couple of recent columns to illustrate how technological infrastructural development under way in China and India is destined to change the world as we know it.

Actually, that troubles him a bit. It’s led him to wonder whether the frantic effort under way in these countries within the past couple of decades to put this technological and educational structure in place is only the beginning of something even bigger and more far-reaching.

One thing is certain: These technologies are popping up on the Asian landscape like mushrooms after a heavy summer rain — so many, in fact, that they appear to be attracting many Chinese and Indians who otherwise would have stayed behind after graduate school to seek their fortunes in the United States.

Of course, there is every reason in the world for the Chinese and Indians to follow this path, to put more and more of this infrastructure in place: Each innovation offers more opportunity for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Our own history has driven home this essential truth: Think of the enormous intellectual and economic advantages telegraphs provided American society in the 19th century.

That’s precisely what concerns Friedman: the threat these immense leaps in Asia pose to America’s leadership as the world’s preeminent creator and innovator.

He may be right.  The technological implications of this infrastructure to our future are immense. But so are the implications of the human infrastructure. 

Until now, we Americans have been way ahead of the curve on the human dimension.  The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions, followed by the Hatch Act and the Smith-Lever Act, represented a few of history’s most visionary attempts to develop human infrastructure.

Granted, some would contend that this type of human infrastructure is antiquated and that the sole emphasis in the future should be on building the same kind of infrastructure as Asia.

I disagree. We Americans run the risk of selling ourselves short if we emphasize technological infrastructure at the expense of human infrastructure.  There is still enormous value in the dense network face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

I’ve already seen this through my own experiences working with Extension educators who already have successfully merged their traditional Extension roles with the emerging roles of networked educators. Yes, they’re learning how to use social media tools to expand their reach to newer, larger numbers of clientele, thereby increasing the speed and volume of intellectual exchange.

But through their traditional face-to-face relationships, they’re also enriching this dialogue.  And by enriching this dialogue, they are equipping themselves with a comparative advantage that many other educational entities lack. 

One effort that speaks volumes about the continued relevance of this older infrastructure is the work of Alabama Extension precision farming educators.  Using social media, they are drawing on the experiences they’ve gained through longstanding face-to-face relationships with row-crop producers in their regions to provide producers in other states and even other regions of the world with a clearer picture of some of the challenges they will face in adopting this new technology.

Of course, this is only one of many imaginative ways a successful marriage of older and newer infrastructure is occurring.

In this era of ultra-lean budgeting, it behooves all of us in Extension to take stock of our comparative advantages. 

We represent some of the best human infrastructure ever developed in any place of the world and at any time in history.  With some technological enhancements, we can become even better.

One other important point to bear in mind: We should be proclaiming this essential truth to the people who hold our future in their hands — our stakeholders.

We Need a Scientific Counterrevolution in the United States — and 4-H and FFA Should Lead the Way

I’ve stated more than once what I consider as one of the greatest long-term threats facing American prosperity:  The unwillingness of America’s most talented and educated young people to pursue the sorts of practical fields that propelled this country to the pinnacle of technological leadership in the 20th century.

In his most recent column, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman outlined how this practical knowledge deficit is seriously undermining our competitive standing among other advanced nations:

“Here is a little dose of reality about where we actually rank today,” says [former MIT President Charles M.] Vest: sixth in global innovation-based competitiveness, but 40th in rate of change over the last decade; 11th among industrialized nations in the fraction of 25- to 34-year-olds who have graduated from high school; 16th in college completion rate; 22nd in broadband Internet access; 24th in life expectancy at birth; 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving degrees in science or engineering; 48th in quality of K-12 math and science education; and 29th in the number of mobile phones per 100 people.

I’ve outlined more than once in this forum the role that 4-H and FFA could play in helping spark a counterrevolution of practical scientific knowledge among many of this nation’s best and brightest.  No two change agents are better equipped to provide young people with an appreciation for practical science and critical thinking and to help restore these values to a preeminent place in American life.

Are they listening?

Back to the Future: A Training Strategy for Cooperative Extension

We have a saying here in Alabama that proclaims our happiness at not occupying the rock-bottom place on every state list:  “Thank God for Mississippi.”

Granted, as far as most state lists go, Alabama, historically speaking, hasn’t fared that well.  Even so, we Alabamians have always been a bit of an anomaly.  We figure high on some lists — music, athletics and colorful political figures, to name only a few.    Alabama also has the high distinction of pioneering much of what is known today as Cooperative Extension work, thanks to the diligent efforts of Alabama educators, such as Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Luther Duncan and P.O. Davis, to name only a few of Alabama’s many Extension luminaries.

Of course, Alabama’s Extension history comprises only a part of an unusually ample treasure trove — something that should be mined every Extension program in the nation.  Indeed, gaining a better understanding our early 20th century past will better equip us to become effective educators and professionals in the future as we reengineer our mission and outreach methods to the challenges of the 21st century.

How? By helping Extension become an axial organization.  By axial organization, I mean one in which knowledge of our past — namely, knowledge of how our past uniquely equips us for the future and, equally important, how it distinguishes us from our competitors — informs everything that we do.

There are several reasons why I think this knowledge is so important.

Our Murky Image

First starters and partly through no fault of our own, Cooperative Extension has struggled with a murky organizational image.  That’s not surprising: The Extension mission has evolved in many different ways over the past century.  Simply put, we’re multifaceted.  In fact, the multifaceted nature of our mission arguably should be regarded as one of our operating costs.

There is a need and a place for marketing to dispel some of this murkiness among our diverse audiences, but our employees often lack a clear understanding of Cooperative Extension too. 

Organizational Building

Extension methods are a highly nuanced and developed, albeit evolving, set of skills.  They have had to be. We are, after all, the ultimate educational improvisers.

Older employees have often pointed out that mastery of these highly nuanced skills and principles have been one o f the most rewarding aspects of Extension work.

Even so, for a variety of reasons, many younger Extension educators lack an adequate grasp of these methods, and, most important, how they must be refined to ensure that Extension outreach work remains relevant among 21st century audiences.

This dovetails closely with more recent insights associated with that perennial question that has occupied management experts and social psychologists for decades: What motivates us and, equally important, what are the factors that produce professional contentment and achievement?

Bestselling author Dan Pink, writing in “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us,” explores the how the need to grow, to develop and realize our fullest potential has emerged as a major motivator in the 21st century.

In the course of demonstrating to our employees the continued relevance of our history and mission, we can go a long way toward instilling them with a renewed passion for Extension work.

Surviving in a Global Knowledge Economy

Readers of my weblog are fully aware of how much worry, not to mention, prose, I’ve expended on implications of the emerging knowledge economy to Extension’s future.

At one time, we were one of the dominant knowledge providers within a comparatively sparse knowledge landscape. But as the 21st century progresses, our once commanding presence has steadily eroded.  The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, namely print and broadcast media, as traditional sources of knowledge is being steady supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge — search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies — all of which can be accessed at virtually the speed of light.

We must underscore to our educators and professional the critical need to distinguish ourselves from other knowledge providers within what Thomas Friedman has aptly described as “the flat world.” Much of this will depend on how successfully we adopt social media strategies as a way to distinguish ourselves from other knowledge providers.

Training’s Focus

So, we’ve outlined the challenges.  What do we do next?  We develop training — training to acquaint our participants with the three essential insights they will need to be fully equipped for 21st century Extension work.

These include our close association working knowledge and wiki (or collaborative) knowledge and our historically strong emphasis on dialogue and empowerment.

Extension’s “Working Knowledge” Legacy

Extension educators and professionals must develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has historically played in advancing practical knowledge to a preeminent place in American life. 

We must remember, though, that Extension educators accomplished something even more significant: they added value to practical knowledge, transforming it into working knowledge by showing ordinary Americans how to use it to make meaningful changes in their lives and livelihoods.  It is a unique form of knowledge reflected in the work of early Extension forerunners, Seaman Knapp and Alabama’s own Booker T. Washington. 

Providing employees with a deeper understanding of this working knowledge legacy will secure a greater organizational clarity, not only internally but, ultimately, also externally.

Equally important, it will help them understand that while our educators can’t compete with search engines, they are still equipped to provide their clients with deep context, showing how practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

Wiki Knowledge

 To an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

But isn’t working knowledge — the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the past century — a forerunner of this wiki approach?  Wasn’t this kind of knowledge first foreshadowed in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s Farm Demonstration Wagon?

This long institutional commitment to collaborative knowledge is yet another example of how Extension is uniquely equipped to rise to the challenges of the 21st century knowledge economy. 

Underscoring our longstanding organizational commitment to collaborative knowledge will instill our employees with a keener understanding of and appreciation for the role social media techniques will play in leveraging their outreach efforts.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Over the last few years, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.  

For example, British sociologist Anthony Giddens has observed that the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the central, provincial or local level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages clients to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Largely because of its history, Cooperative Extension is uniquely equipped to operate within this changed public policy landscape.  Indeed, this change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase our distinctive outreach legacy, which is reflected in historic emphasis on working and collaborative knowledge.

Summary

Some Extension professionals may deride this approach as a protracted form of navel-gazing.  To be honest, it is.  Even so, we believe a productive form of navel-gazing is long overdue in our ranks.  A heightened understanding our history will help us meet two critical challenges in the coming years: It will help us achieve a stronger grasp of the skills and insights required for our survival in a 21st century knowledge economy and, equally important, it will help us distinguish ourselves from millions of other knowledge providers on an increasingly crowded landscape.

Towards a Fully Engaged Cooperative Extension Model

Rockwell's County agent

Normal Rockwell's Famed Portrait of an Extension agent at work.

Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease and that saving your life will involve adopting a series of far-reaching lifestyle changes.

Would you adopt these changes?  Considering that your survival is at stake, yes, you probably would.

Cooperative Extension faces a disturbingly similar set of circumstances.  Yes, we’ve faced many challenges over the past 100 years, though nothing like we face today.

A Radically Altered Knowledge Landscape

A few decades ago, we were the dominant feature on the knowledge landscape.  But as the 21st century progresses, our once advantageous command of this landscape has steadily eroded.  The old information order in which people looked to face-to-face encounters and to traditional media, such as printed publications and mass media  as the primary sources of knowledge has been almost entirely supplanted by virtual sources of knowledge— search engines, online communities and other emerging technologies —  that can be accessed literally at the speed of light.

According to New York Times columnist and bestselling author Thomas Friedman, we now operate in a flat world, a informational level playing field in which knowledge providers, no matter their location, are able to compete equally with other knowledge providers across the planet. 

For Extension educators, one of the immediate effects of this new flat world is the steady loss of the competitive advantage we took for granted throughout the 20th century.   Consequently, we face the real risk of organizational decline and possibly even extinction unless we learn how to compete within this crowded — and flattened —knowledge landscape.

The Engaged Extension Educator

The challenges call for nothing less than an organizational transformation — a transformation of Extension professionals into fully engaged educators who not only disseminate knowledge but also build collaborative relationships among people who share common interests.

The new approach will be characterized by both a high degree of collaboration and reciprocity — one in which the client becomes an active collaborator in the production of our knowledge products.  By including our clients as active collaborators, we develop valuable social capital, which, in turn, will enable us to further enhance the value of our products while also allowing us to reach out to even newer audiences.

Yes, traditional Extension methods — field days, conferences, workshops, newsletters and broadcast programs — will remain vital to our mission.  But despite our long and successful use of these methods, they alone will not be enough to help us survive within this radically altered landscape.  

To put it another way, these methods are no long sufficient enough to accommodate our audience’s growing demand for knowledge.

The Value of Social Media

Social media — Facebook and Twitter, to name the two most obvious forms of this technology —will enable us to expand our outreach efforts and audiences in dramatic ways. 

These new social media approaches will enable us to expand our outreach efforts far beyond our traditional role of teacher.  In a manner of speaking, we will use these new technologies to expand our organizational portfolio, thereby enhancing our competitive advantage over other knowledge providers.

We will use these new tools to leverage our abilities, functioning as part teacher, part explainer, part problem solver and, to an increasing degree, as a catalyst whose daily observations not only spark discussion but prompt a growing number of our clients to solve problems on their own.

We would be remiss if we failed to take note of how so many Extension educators are already availing themselves of these new approaches in a myriad of ways.  Horticulture educators who work closely with Master Gardeners employ blogs to update their clients on horticulture-related news and other issues between monthly Master Gardener meetings, workshops and field days.  Likewise, they use social networking tools such as Twitter to supply their clients with daily observations about home gardening, to respond to client questions, to share links to timely online articles, and to connect with others who share these interests.

Among some educators, applications such as Flickr and youtube, often in conjunction with blogs, Facebook and Twitter, are used to alert clients to emerging plant varieties or to potentially threatening diseases.

Blending the Old and the New

In the midst of these changes, we must not lose sight of our traditional roles methods, which, used in conjunction with emerging social media techniques, will distinguish us from other knowledge providers.

We should understand that traditional methods will simply be enhanced and strengthened, not supplanted, by these new technologies.  In fact, our success as 21st century Extension educators will be measured by how effectively we balance traditional organizational values and methods with the new demands of flat world.

For example, we must continue to build collaborative educational partnerships with other public and private entities to enhance the effect of programs and to reach new audiences.

Research-based knowledge must also remain an integral part of our outreach efforts.  This is an asset that historically has enabled us to distinguish our knowledge products from others.  We must never lose sight of how this kind of refined knowledge enables people to make lasting, meaningful changes in their lives. 

The applied research that formed the bedrock of the Extension outreach in the 20th century will be just as indispensible in the 21st.

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.”

Overview

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.”

Health

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.

Reports of the Demise of Cooperative Extension Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

An op-ed posted this weekend in the New York Times’s online edition is making its rounds among Alabama Cooperative Extension System professionals.

And well it should.  It speaks volumes about the cultural and economic eddies occurring around us and how Cooperative Extension should navigate within this turbid sea.

Op-ed writer Dan Barber rightly observes that Americans are demonstrating a growing fascination with raising their own food, particularly produce. 

Even so, this year’s mad dash to the garden has produced a few unintended and unfortunate consequences.   For example, in their zeal to begin raising homegrown produce, many gardening novices have turned to retail outlets for their starter plants — places such as Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

Even as they struggle to opt out of the globalized economic system for which they increasingly express mistrust, they continue to look toward many of the icons of this system to buy their starter tomato plants. But as they are finding, a substantial number of these plants, which were bred by large-scale operations, were infected with late blight. 

 Sobering Irony

All of this makes for sobering irony, writes Barber:

…the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

Barber believes government has a role to play in helping these aspiring gardeners find their way through this confusion:

For all the new growers out there, what’s missing is not the inspiration, it’s the expertise, the agricultural wisdom and technical knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Congress recognized the need for this kind of support almost 100 years ago when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. Agricultural extension agents were sent to farms to share the latest technological advances, introducing new varieties of vegetables and, yes, checking the fields for disease.

Barber is hitting on something highly significant.  Indeed, his views comport closely with an argument I’ve been making among fellow Extension professionals:  The growing fascination with gardening and the cultural, social and economic factors that have prompted it present Cooperative Extension with an opportunity for organizational resurgence.

 Are the Wheels Coming Off?

And this involves more than just a fascination with gardening.  Among other factors, the gardening revival also reflects an increasingly pervasive view among many in society —not only among so-called kooky people — that things are not quite right in our world.   

Some have even begun to wonder if the wheels are coming off the highly sophisticated, increasingly globalized technological civilization that has emerged within the past few decades.

Yes, I’ll concede that even making such a statement may render me suspect in some quarters.  But I’m not the only one.  None other the best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently that 2008 may be remembered as the year humanity hit an impenetrable wall, when it reached the painful but unavoidable realization that the planet’s resources are unable to sustain the economic growth model that has been constructed over the last half century.

Some have already begun describing this event as “the great disruption.” Whatever the case, Friedman believes humanity may have reached a crossroad, one that will be remembered for decades, if not centuries, to come:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese.

We can’t do this anymore.

Closely associated with this stark realization is a mounting disdain for another facet of the current economic model: so-called discount culture, of which retail outlets such as Wal-Mart are cited as iconic examples.  A Publisher’s Weekly review of Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell underscores this growing disdain:

That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been pumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

But it’s expressed in other ways too: Peak oil theory — the fear that oil reserves will effectively become depleted within the next few years — and mounting concerns about deforestation, chronic water shortages and overfishing.

I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of these views. In another forum, I would call most or even all of them into question. 

Nevertheless, all of these factors hold major implications, mostly positive, for the Cooperative Extension mission.

Yes, we and our audiences sometimes talk about Cooperative Extension being a little old-fashioned and behind the times — a little stodgy.  Now more than ever, many people, fed up with what they perceive to be the shallow glitz, if not shaky foundations, of the current global economic model, will be become more favorably disposed toward Cooperative Extension and other entities perceived as offering lifestyle alternatives such as home gardening and canning. 

I believe that — passionately.

Other Factors

Other factors playing out on a global scale also hold fascinating implications for Extension.

An Aug. 10 article in the New York Times reported how Web 2.0 already is altering the ways schools deliver educational products to their students:

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions – or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

Hundreds of universities around the world already use share and open-source courses.  Connexions, a non-profit open-source organization associated with Rice University, is providing open-source learning to schools.

What is stopping Extension, a movement that has both specialized and excelled in this type of informal, open-source learning, from doing likewise?

We talk a lot about Extension following the fast track to extinction.  But borrowing from Twain, reports of our impending demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I contend that a number of factors are currently in play that could figure prominently in a revivified  21st century Extension mission.  These include: a mounting concern among people regarding the implications of the current economic system; a growing desire among people to take control over basic necessities such as food; and an increasing inclination to experiment with nontraditional, albeit highly accessible, forms of Web 2.0-related learning. 

 By now, I hope you see the bigger picture: We’re potentially onto something — something big.  Our challenge will be determining how to allocate resources to meet these challenges.