My Truths….

A while back I sent a simple survey to a group of people who do research and education in support of long-term agricultural sustainability testing the degree of agreement or disagreement with five ‘truth statements’.  The truth statements were taken from a short essay I had written about sustainable agriculture and the need for change among public universities (1).  The response to the survey was reassuring, not only because these people I respect agreed with ‘my truths’ – but also because of the rapid response.  Within 48 hours, I had 50 survey responses by email and within a few days, 73 scientists, educators and activists dedicated to working for a research and education system that supports a more sustainable agriculture had participated in the survey.  This essay offers further reflections on those five truths, based partially on feedback from survey participants, partially on my own thinking and experience, and partially on some lines of poetry that I greatly admire.

Some of my friends have reminded me that these five truths have all been said before.  A friendly critic told me that my truth essay had lots of ‘fire’, but no real ‘heat.’  I was told it has ‘all been said before.’ Well, maybe so.  No less than T. S. Eliot seems to assure me that some things are worth repeating.  In one of his poems from the Four Quartets, he writes;

You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.  I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again? (2)

Well yes, I’m saying it again. 

‘Why bother?’  Why say it again?  Why survey agricultural researchers, educators and advocates about what they think?  I mean, who really cares what the sustainable agriculture research and education community thinks?  We all know that economic power and political control remains in the hands of organizations and people who would largely disagree with the ‘five truths.’  An answer came from Donella Meadows, who wrote that the first step in changing deeply rooted paradigms was:

In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you keep speaking louder. . . . (3)

Finding justification for my impulsive inclination to continue to speak my truth (louder) by ‘pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm’, I decided to share these ‘further reflections’ with colleagues.   So thanks friends, and here is more of the story.

————————————————————————————————————————————

My Truth One:. . .  the form of agriculture currently practiced in the U.S. is not sustainable, as it continues to leak toxins and other pollutants from their point of application, use natural resources at rates greater than replacement, and put farmers and ranchers off the land.

‘Yes, we know all that.’  This was the most common response among survey participants.  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 indicating ‘don’t agree’ and 5 signifying ‘full agreement’, 90% choose either 4 or 5 (with 72% indicating full agreement).  One of the respondents summed it up by writing:

‘Most political organizations, institutions and commodity agricultural organizations are aware of the social/natural resource problems, however, they lack the knowledge and understanding that would enable them to take constructive steps towards sustainable systems.  Instead they are locked into old patterns and keep trying the same old things.’ (4)

This is so true.  We are all locked into old patterns and keep trying the same things, or making small changes ‘around the edges’.  Indications that something is amiss in the world go unnoticed (or noticed only by a minority of activists).   Taco shells being withdrawn from shelves because of ‘non-approved genetic material’ doesn’t get much attention in the national press.  A ‘dead zone’ where oxygen breathers don’t survive in the Gulf of Mexico and reports of concern from respectable sources about projected global water shortages are mostly ignored.  Potato production increases to satisfy our desire for French fries, while more potato farmers go out of business.   We know what is happening; yet we stay on the same path.  Another participant wrote:

‘If you keep on doing what you have been doing, you will keep getting what you have been getting.  If you don’t like what you are currently getting, then you need to try something different.  The industrial model of agriculture is not sustainable.’

While there are some people who honestly support the industrial model of agriculture (that is the source of ‘the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm‘) many researchers and educators know something is wrong but can’t see an alternative.  Their response to this first truth is usually something like ‘. . .  but aren’t we doing better?’  And the answer is surely, yes.  Or they might say ‘so what choice do we have?  We have to feed the ever increasing human population, don’t’ we?’  And of course the answer is yes again.  In the absence of a clear alternative path, we fall back on that which we know best ‘ industrial agriculture with its quick fixes and addiction to growth at all costs.  We have a vague idea there is a better way (which many of us call an ecological model of agriculture – or agroecology) but the ecological path seems treacherous, full of unknowns.  Eliot assures us this is the right path when he writes;

‘. . . In order to arrive at what you do not know. 

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.’

Right, and isn’t research ‘the way of ignorance.’  When we admit what we do not know, we are then able to begin the search for a better way.  Eliot continues;

‘. . . And what you do not know is the only thing you know.’

Today, we must admit that we do not clearly know the path to an ecological agriculture.  Experiments in tillage practices, integrated pest management, multiple cropping, cycling of nutrients and the like surely point us in the right direction.  But when challenged by proponents of the industrial way, we must admit ignorance.  That is the beginning of the search for a better way that we intuitively know is based on principles of ecology.

And who will lead us in this path of discovery?  Surely those farmers and non-profit research and educational organizations devoted to agricultural sustainability are key.  And what of the universities?   It seems that the public university is a place where this work SHOULD be happening to a significant extent.  A survey participant wrote:

‘This undertaking is beyond the resources or capability of any single institution (public or private) and therefore can only be achieved through the re-establishment of some form of commons.”

It was both funny and sad that this survey participant didn’t recognize the publicly funded land grant university as a ‘commons.’   It was once upon a time.

My Truth Two:  . . . the land grant university has lost its way; claiming to serve a public good while being driven by the political agenda of those currently in power, those corporations and large commodity organizations with enough money to get our attention, and the disciplinary based science societies that limit what is considered acceptable research.

The extent of agreement with this truth statement among all participants was strong, with 90% choosing 4 or 5 (with half of the respondents indicating full agreement with the statement).  One of the participants bluntly stated ‘. . . scientists are among the most selfish of all creatures on the earth.’  Well, this may be true.  At the same time, I know many agricultural scientists who continue to demonstrate acts of service and selflessness.  In fact, many, many agricultural researchers and educators began their university careers full of idealism and hope that they might contribute to feeding the world’s hungry and preserving the natural environment.  Something happened along the way to redirect their work, but I believe ‘just below the surface’ of many academics is a hopeful visionary, still dreaming of making a difference in the world.  There is yet potential for changing the current university system, but the constraints on faculty are significant. One participant wrote;

‘The social and cultural environment in graduate school and in ladder rank positions pushes people to work alone using reductionist methods which limits the ability to research real world problems that exist today.’

Academic faculty and extension staff working in agriculture respond to their environment much like others in any organizational environment.  Rewards and evaluation criteria controlled by disciplinary bound societies encourage scientists to work within the ‘silos’ of their own special discipline.  Another participant wrote:

‘If researchers from different disciplines don’t figure out how to work together, we will not be able to solve the problems that confront us.’ 

But it will likely take more than individuals from different disciplines working together.   This is necessary but not sufficient.  Public policy drives research funding and evaluation criteria to measure success in terms of short-term economic efficiency, in support of the industrial model.  Interdisciplinary teams of agricultural scientists working together to support the industrial model may do more harm in the long run than good.  As long as university research questions and methodologies are based on an industrial view of the world, there will be little progress on the path toward an ecological agricultural system and long-term sustainability.   It seems unreasonable to hope for much change when the primary goal of research seems to be short-term economic benefit for those social groups holding financial and political power.  A participant wrote:

‘Economics, i.e., dollars and cents, has become the dominant, if not only, criteria by which we measure the value of everything — including impacts of publicly funded research and education.’

While I agree that economic efficiency is one important goal for research and education, it is insufficient alone and may actually be harmful when other goals such as environmental quality and social justice are neglected.  This narrow understanding of the public mission of the land grant university allows much of the energy of agricultural science to be directed toward development of new technologies that improve short-term economic returns at all costs.  One participant suggested an alternative role for the university;

‘Another truth is that the US does not have a clear policy on the role of agriculture and the future of rural America. This is in contrast to other regions, such as Europe, where a food policy and societal goals about the rural landscape are played out in everyday life.  A major failure of land grants in my opinion is their lack of leadership in helping the nation develop such goals. The only goals articulated are the next technical fix.’

Lacking a grand vision, technical solutions dominate the thinking of agricultural scientists.   But technical solutions to the complex problems created by industrial agriculture (such as environmental degradation and social upheaval) will only create more problems.  While this approach may keep the disciplinary bound research machinery of the university going, it does little to solve complex social problems.   In addition, administrative leaders (who seem to think their chief responsibility is keeping the university research machinery well funded) encourage scientists to pursue only those goals held in favor by the organizations currently holding economic and political power.   Under these conditions the industrial model becomes inviolate.

Funding and therefore economic and political power greatly influence research agendas.  Public universities are caught in a reinforcing feedback loop, in which they find their budgets being squeezed by a public that doesn’t entirely trust the university (or any large institution for that matter).  University leaders look to their friends in industry and among the big agricultural commodity groups for political and financial help – and what happens?  Public distrust is confirmed and the budgets get squeezed more.  University leaders then turn back to their private partners and ask for more help ‘ at a price, of course.  It is a vicious cycle, spinning public universities in a direction away from their primary mission of serving the public good.

The many university scientists who intuitively know something is wrong with both industrial agriculture and the university system that helps support it continue to act in ways that belie this knowledge.  To know something is wrong and not to take action is place of despair.  And when our daily behaviors violate our own deepest values, we become discontent.  Some would say, we become insane.  Despair and discontent is increasing within the public university.  As an administrator and faculty member, I observed the pervasiveness of this underlying discontent among many of my own colleagues.  Unfortunately it seems to be not discussed in ‘official circles’  of leadership.  One participant notes:

‘The top administrators in the land grant systems are out-of-touch with the rank and file.’

Where are the courageous leaders we read about in novels and see in the cinema who speak the truth regardless of personal consequences?  Where are the elders, wise with experience and old enough to know the truth?  Eliot asks;

                                          Had they deceived us

Or deceived themselves, the quiet-voiced elders,

Bequeathing us merely a receipt for deceit?

Can’t we expect more than a ‘receipt for deceit’ from our leaders?  Have we not learned from the past that ‘power corrupts’ and leadership becomes disconnected from ‘membership’ over time.   This seems to be a basic flaw in all large organizations today.  Universities are not unique in this regard.   One participant claimed:

leadership from commodity groups who have much political power, do not represent the vast majority of farmers’ 

It seems the disconnect between leaders and members or followers is just as great among farm organizations as it is at the university.

My Truth Three:. . . the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, often at the expense of small and mid-sized farmers, farm workers and rural communities.  

There was slightly less agreement with this statement among survey respondents.  Only 76% choose 4 or 5, with 53% indicating full agreement.  One participant noted the complexity of the situation:

‘I can’t lump all farm leadership into the “bad” column because I know and work with some extraordinary farm leaders who are regularly overlooked by the sustainable ag community . . . For instance, Farmers Union has not veered from working on behalf of small farmers, farm workers, and outside the conventional system, but rarely gets recognition for it.’

Another participant disagreed for a different reason.

‘I don’t consider the folks in charge to be “leaders” of any kind of “community”— but that is contingent on my definitions of leadership and community. Community requires love and generosity of spirit, and these qualities are notably absent from farming policy.’

Still another sees this as part of a larger pattern.

‘. . .the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, but it is only fronting for the interests of powerfully concentrated private capital.  The fronting is only a ploy to convince farmers that farm policy must be OK since the farm leadership is involved.’

These are pretty strong statements and seem to carry a fair amount of anger.  If we can get past the anger, we might begin to notice how all large organizations seem to allow their leaders to become disconnected from the vast majority of their membership.  Most organizations have promotion and reward policies that support individuals who conform to the dominant paradigm.  Talented conformists are the people chosen for positions of power and higher rank.  Talented ‘trouble makers’ rarely find themselves in positions of authority, and when they do they generally lose some of their ‘fire’ as they learn to compromise to get along.  Why is that?  What happens to people when they get into positions of power?  It seems they get disconnected from the ‘rank and file’ and more important perhaps, they seem to lose track of the mission of the organization.  Of course this is not always true.

I know many farm organization leaders and university administrators alike who have dedicated their talents and passion to serving their organization with integrity.  At the same time, I’ve seen many more begin a leadership career with strong ideals of service only to get beaten down by power and politics.  Unfortunately, there seems to be more in the latter category.   I don’t think we should blame the individuals.   In today’s organizational environment of power-over relationships and competition for resources, many are led to sacrifice values they care for deeply, just to survive.  This seems as true for individuals as organizations.  Even the sustainable agriculture organizations are susceptible to this ‘disease.’  One survey participant wrote;

‘Sustainable agriculture organizations have succumbed to the same treadmill, competing for grants, members, and other resources, the goal becoming the survival of the organization rather than the vision that created the organization.’

Leaders get ‘set up’ under these conditions for burn out, whether they are from sustainable agriculture organizations, traditional farm groups, or universities.  Replacing old leadership with new voices rarely changes systems based on hierarchical power-and-control relationships.   All of our mental models of how organizations work (especially with respect to the relationship between leaders and followers) carry this fatal flaw.

Leaders and followers (members or employees) act in collusion, expecting leaders somehow to know what is wrong with complex systems and how to ‘fix it.’  This is a form of dependency that is not healthy in a living organization or community.  We need to understand how organizations create an environment in which leaders and members alike have internalized power-over ways of thinking and accepted one role or another.  Power-over thinking leads to behavior in which domination and control is normal and acceptable (except in the extreme).  Eliot warned;

. . . we shall

Die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

As long as our mental models of organizational behavior assume that leaders are to provide ‘paternal care’ the power relationship between leaders and followers will be sustained.  Even the most well meaning people and the most service-oriented organizations seem to evolve cultures of competition, disconnectedness and oppression based on power-over thinking, all seemingly for a good cause (well mostly).   But the result is always the same.

My Truth Four:. . .  many of us are running ever faster to stay even on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term hope, researchers pursue the next grant, the next research paper or the next academic award, and extension educators run ever faster to be at the next meeting, answer the next phone call, or file the next report for an anxiety ridden administrator who runs from crisis to crisis without end.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we treat the earth.

Everyone seems to be running faster to stay even.  At least 96% of the survey respondents thought so, choosing 4 or 5 (with 74% indicating full agreement).  Farmers adopting the latest technology are particularly vulnerable.  Each new technology that enhances yield or improves efficiency makes the technology treadmill run faster.   An increase in raw product yield does little today to affect retail price, since raw product is an ever smaller portion of the cost of getting food to market.  The economic benefit to individual farmers from increased productivity is quickly lost as competitors adopt the new technology and total production increases keep commodity prices flat.  The technology treadmill turns.  If you don’t get on, you get lost.  If you do get on, you have to run faster to stay even.  The greatest beneficiaries are generally the manufacturers of the new technologies.  As a society, we feel little is gained but much is lost.  Food is cheap, but there are other problems.  One participant wrote:

‘The loss of community, the ungluing of stable human relationships, and the substitution of material things for substance have played a major role in the injustice and despair that have plagued agriculture and society’ and have caused untold unconscious damage to our planet and ourselves.’

 

I was particularly moved by the recognition that we are substituting material things for ‘substance’.   Some of the substantive things lost are; honest relationships, personal serenity, ecological integrity, and intergenerational responsibility.  What we have gained seems to be cheap fast food and fast lifestyles to support the fast food habit.  There is no end in sight, yet it doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the accelerating speed of the treadmill.  Many research scientists, extension educators and administrators caught in their own personal treadmills know they need to get off, but don’t.  We each must take responsibility for our own contribution to making the treadmill run.  One of the respondents offered this quote attributed to Gandhi:

‘We each must be the change that we want to see in the world.’

Many of us don’t even realize the treadmill exists, until we fall off.  Actually stepping off before the inevitable fall is even more difficult, but is itself an act of honesty and courage.  It also requires a faith that there is another way to live.  Spiritual leaders often tell us that we need to slow down and discover a way of being that is offers more ‘stillness’ in our lives.  Eliot helps us envision a ‘still point of the turning world’ around which there is constant movement, turning, ever turning. . . ;

Where past and future are gathered.  Neither movement from nor towards,

Neither ascent nor decline.  Except for the point, the still point

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

The dance of life (including work) would not exist without the still point, any more than a wheel could turn without a hub.  This is the center, where all is in balance.  I imagine the farther we get from this still point, the faster we turn ‘ like a wheel.  In our normal workday lives all too many of us wear. . .

      . . .  strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

We search for meaning in ‘distractions’ and find our days filled with emptiness.  Some of us deaden this feeling with addictions, pursing something indefinable but not achievable.  And the treadmill keeps moving, turning, ever turning.  Eliot writes. . .

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable;

Love itself is unmoving,

Only the cause and end of movement,

Timeless, and undesiring

Eliot tells us something about the still point.  It is love, unmoving itself but the ’cause and end of movement’.  Love is creation, timeless and undesiring itself – the beginning and the end – that place where we are always ‘in the now’.  Or as Eliot says. . .

        . . .  say that the end precedes the beginning,

And the end and the beginning were always there

Before the beginning and after the end.

And all is always now.

This still point, the now, is a difficult place reach.  Eliot suggests that

. . . the enchainment of past and future

Woven in the weakness of the changing body,

Protects mankind. . .

Our own belief in the reality of time, past and future, act as ‘chains’ protecting our weak and ever-changing bodies (that live in time past and time future) from the still point.  We remain only partially conscious since. . .

Time past and time future

Allow but a little consciousness.

To be conscious is not to be in time. . .      

I seem to get closest to this still point in meditation.  Perhaps at the end of each breath and before the beginning of the next, we approach the still point where there is no movement, no running after insatiable desires, no treadmill and no runner where ‘all is always now.’

The path to the still point may be as long as the journey of a life time and as short as the distance from head to heart.  The journey begins with telling your own truth and acting according to a clear set of personal values.  When I am clear on my personal values and my actions are consistent with those values, I know that I am not only more effective in my work but I find more satisfaction in my life.  Many of us who came to work in agriculture because we deeply cared about people, hunger, or the environment found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who hold money and power.  Our current industrial agricultural system and the public research university it supports drive us in this direction.  If we are to save ourselves, we must be true to our core values.  We must step off the treadmill before we fall off, and in doing so perhaps save the earth.

My Truth Five:. . .  the quest for sustainability of the earth, including human and non-human communities may be our best hope for land grant universities, the farming communities we love, and perhaps for ourselves

This truth had much support in the survey as well.  About 87% of the respondents choose either 4 or 5 (with 76% in full agreement).  We badly need a bold idea to focus our energy and rebuild hope.  The public universities that should be part of the solution seem to be more of a problem.  The American public has questioned the credibility of land grant universities because of the seemingly close relationship they maintain with corporations.  The response of many universities to this criticism has been that they are contributing to economic growth.  And this appears true, at least in the short term.  But universities should be obligated to look beyond the short-term economy and the generation of monetary wealth for those corporations willing and able to donate to university research.  One respondent wrote:

‘A country’s strength and standing in the world community should be measured by the health of its ecosystems. . .

A public research university devoted to ecosystem health (rather than corporate wealth) would certainly be a shift from the situation today where universities have created special offices designed to attract corporate funding of research.  Have a look at any university web page and you can find a section that basically states, ‘we are for rent ‘ just call us.’  This is a far cry from the university of the people created over a century ago.

Imagine what the response might be if a courageous university president were to publicly state that the state university was no longer willing to accept grants and contracts from privately owned corporations.  In some states, this would make little real impact in the total funding picture, since most grant funding comes from the state and federal governments (large corporate gifts are another story of course).  I sometimes wonder if the payoff in public credibility and support might not outweigh the money actually provided by corporate grants.

I also wonder what would happen if universities declared their primary role was to support research and educational programs that worked for planetary sustainability?  Now, that would be a big idea.  It might also be one that helped serve the farming communities we love, and maybe save our souls in the doing.   I believe ‘getting off the treadmill’ may begin by reconnecting to a passion for service to something bigger than ourselves, like sustainability of the earth.

I wonder if we will have the wisdom to make the needed changes before it is too late.   Knowledge alone, will surely not be enough since it is knowledge (or perhaps cleverness) that brought us to where we are today.  Eliot writes;

There is, it seems to us,

At best, only a limited value

In the knowledge derived from experience.

In the end, we may need more than knowledge.  We will need wisdom – but a particular type of wisdom that derives from humility.  T.S. Eliot wrote;

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Maybe Eliot meant that only the ‘wisdom of humility’ is truly sustainable.

Footnotes:

1 The essay titled ‘My Truths Today ‘ It’s Still All About Sustainability’ was submitted (upon request) to a sustainable agriculture newsletter of a major land grant university.  It was developed from a speech given by the author in Manhattan, Kansas in February 2001.   Upon receipt, the essay was deemed too controversial to print by the university administration.  It has not been submitted for publication elsewhere but was shared with friends and colleagues.  Comments are welcomed.’ Contact John Gerber at: jgerber@psis.umass.edu.

2The T.S. Eliot quotes from ‘Four Quartets’ were brought to my attention at a workshop given by Margaret Wheatley and published later in an article by her titled Consumed by Fire or Fire: Journeying with T.S. Eliot.  IONS Noetic Science Review, April-July 1999.

3 From Donella Meadows in Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Sustainability Institute. December 1999.  See (www.sustainer.org).

.4 The quotes from ‘survey participants’ were collected from the email survey.   Since they were anonymous, these are included without individual attribution.

 

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