Category Archives: Sustainability Education

Communiversity: the future of the university?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of the public university in society lately and my last two blogs reviewed the history of the university up to the colonial colleges in America and then to the emergence of the U.S. land grant university.  This blog speculates on the future…..

The Public University as Communiversity*

The mission of the university is described as the production, preservation and transmission of knowledge.  I believe this is an incomplete understanding of the public mission.  Our failure to take the application of knowledge seriously results in a partially-deserved “ivory tower” critique.   Productivity (application) of knowledge is just as important as production (accumulation) of knowledge.  Research must be fully integrated with teaching, as well as off-campus community outreach to capture the synergy of each and serve the educational needs of the nation.

Knowledge should be available in both the written (published) and community-based (online) formats. Transmission should no longer be a one way “downloading” of information from the teacher-expert to the student-learner, but a mutual sharing of knowledge. The communiversity of the 21st century will make “learning through inquiry” the integrative paradigm that resolves the tension between research and teaching within the academy.

I spent much of my early career working in agricultural extension, where university experts were expected to make recommendations for farmers to implement.   Agricultural extension educators carried the authority of science, the arrogance of academia, and a nearly 100-year old federal law that mandated Extension educators not only aid in the diffusion of knowledge but “encourage the application of the same.”

These 20th century assumptions must (and are) changing.  Some academics (including those in agricultural extension) are actively  inventing new ways of working. Outreach educators engaged in participatory research and education for example, acknowledge the contribution of all learners in the inquiry process – those from the university and those from the community.  All participants are expected to help identify and define problems from their own perspective, suggest alternative solutions, test those solutions and interpret results, thus capturing the synergy of the scientific and the lay learning experience. The outcome of participatory learning is not only community-based knowledge and scholarly publications, but empowered community members likely to act on their new knowledge.

Other university educators are actively creating new online courses and engaging in community conversations using learning networks and blogs.  A rapidly emerging forum for community learning is the online discussion groups that focus on specific activities and issues.

Communiversity Programs

An example of a learning network is the Pioneer Valley Backyard Chicken Association.  While easily overlooked by academics, these networks of active learners share questions, practical experience, and science-based knowledge on a daily basis through a listserve.  To support this group and similar like-minded citizen-investigators, I participate in online conversations and stay linked via Facebook and Twitter groups created to share knowledge and experience on food self-sufficiency.  I believe more academics should join in these conversations to keep up with current public interests related to their area of study.

Another public program that should be adapted by the communiversity is the “Dutch science shop” concept.  In these university-managed and community-based offices (similar to a county agricultural extension office) citizens share knowledge and initiate research to solve problems of importance in their own neighborhood. These centers might also offer a training ground for students through service learning and internships.  Community learning centers would provide a public space for citizens to build group identity and gain public skills, while encouraging local learning, research and action.

A Need for Radical Change

I believe that a radical transformation of the public land grant university is needed to better serve the citizens, businesses and communities of the nation. Citizens should be actively engaged in the research and education programs of their land grant communiversity. Of course, these changes will not occur without much dialogue and debate. Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, past president of Yale University wrote, the university should be…

“…a community open to new ideas, to disagreement, to debate, to criticism, to the clash of opinions and convictions.”

Personally, I look forward to the debate and would like to hear your own opinion on these suggestions!


* I first heard the term “communiversity” from Richard Sclove, the author of Democracy and Technology and founder of the Loka Institute.

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U.S. Universities: the origin of the Land Grants

My last blog reviewed the history and culture of higher education from the tablet writers of ancient Mesopotamia through the establishment of  colleges by the American Colonies.   This essay continues the story with the emergence of the public land grant university.   Few students (or faculty) at public universities know this history.

The beginnings of the Land Grant University

Americans have long valued public education. Early settlers built schools as cornerstones of their new communities.  Leading farmers of the 18th and 19th centuries were known for their interest in public speeches and pamphlets (the blogs of that era) introducing and debating new ideas.  Although the value of education among the elite had been recognized for some time in Europe, affordable public education for all was truly an American idea.

Jonathan Baldwin Turner, professor at Illinois College, graduate of Yale College and native of Templeton, Massachusetts championed the idea of a public university to serve “the working classes” in speeches and pamphlets in the 1830’s.  Support for Turner’s ideas grew among farmer groups, newspaper editors, industrial societies, and state and federal legislators. Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced the legislation which would provide grants of public land (land grants) to be sold to finance a university in each state to “teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanical arts in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”

We often associate the idea of “land grant” universities with farming and rural America.  I’ve heard some university leaders reject the land grant ideal as no longer relevant, given that most people today live in urban and suburban areas.  But the name “land grant” had less to do with farming than it did with the funding mechanism the federal government used to pay for the new public colleges.  What made these institutions truly unique was that they allowed access to higher education to those previously excluded, which in the later half of the 19th century were largely rural peoples.  If the land grant university was invented today, it would most likely focus on the urban poor.

The second Morrill Act (1890) further broadened the availability of higher education by providing federal appropriations to support “separate but equal” colleges for African Americans living in the Southern states. In 1994, Congress gave land grant status to twenty-nine Native American tribal colleges, thus continuing the tradition of extending the land grant ideal to marginalized peoples of the nation.  These landmark bills represented a major shift in thinking about the purpose of higher education, which previously had been available only to the wealthy classes.

Research and outreach to communities are added

Although the need for a national system of agricultural research was identified by President George Washington, it took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass legislation creating the agricultural experiment station system with the Hatch Act of 1887.  This legislation represented the second evolutionary step in the growth of the land grants.  It provided federal funding “to promote scientific investigations and experiments respecting the principles and applications of agricultural science.”   The research function was thus added to the evolving land grant ideal.

The third stage in the evolutionary growth of the land grants was accomplished with the passage of the Smith Lever Act in 1914, establishing the national Cooperative Extension Service “to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics and to encourage the application of the same.”  Although the outreach programs of the public universities have been seriously undermined in many states by budget cuts, the concept of knowledge in service to the larger community remains an ideal of the public university.  

President of the University of Massachusetts Kenyon L. Butterfield was an early champion of the land grant ideal.  In a 1904 speech, President Butterfield made a case for the three land grant functions when he called for each college to support ” its threefold function as an organ of research, as an educator of students, and as a distributor of information to those who cannot come to the college.”   Butterfield recognized the necessary integration of the three functions when he stated “these are really coordinate functions and should be so recognized. The college should unify them into one comprehensive scheme. The principle of such unity is perfectly clear; for we have in research the quest for truth, in the education of students the incarnation of truth, and in extension work the democratization of truth.”   While Butterfield expressed this vision in 1904, it was many decades before his ideas were realized.

A brief look forward

The land grant ideal evolved over time to serve the practical needs of a growing nation by integrating research and outreach into the university teaching and learning experience – and making that experience available to previously excluded women and men. I believe the next expression of the land grant ideal will fully extend the university to those citizens not in residence on its many campuses.  It will do so in ways which further integrate research and teaching through online social networks and community-focused university outreach.

University of Wisconsin President C.R. Van Hise’s 1904 statement that “a state university can only permanently succeed where its doors are open to all” must be reinterpreted to not only allow previously excluded groups in, but also to send university scholars out to meet the people of the nation where they live and work. New communications technologies and online networks will not only support this effort, but will make it a necessity if the public university system is to thrive in the 21st century.

I believe those public universities that are able to build upon the land grant ideal, re-engage with the larger community, and take advantage of communications and societal networking technologies will thrive in the 21st century.  While I’m surely biased, I think one way to do this is through research and education focused on agricultural sustainability.  But frankly, we need to “put the public back into the public university” in all our many departments and disciplines.

What do you think?


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A history of universities before the land grants

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog claiming that we need to put the “public” back into the public university.  My own vision for the future of the public university is one of radical change, but any responsible transformation of the university, radical or otherwise, should be built upon an understanding of our history.  This blog presents my own (biased) review of the history of  the university before the public land grant institutions were created in the U.S.

The Beginning
While the university as an institution is less than 1000 years old, the ancestors of university faculty go back to 2500 BC. The tablet writers of ancient Mesopotamia were the earliest recorded class of intelligentsia. These court scribes had great political influence as they handled the correspondence, records of taxes, and other affairs of state for the rulers of the day.  While the record is incomplete on these early scholars, there is little doubt they were an elite class of men devoted to study, learning and influence.

More is known about higher education in classical Greece beginning around 500 BC. The Greek sophists were the first full-time, paid, teachers. These men gave “sample” lectures in public places to attract students, and then charged large fees to continue with a standard curriculum of prepackaged lessons. Over time, the sophists became known for their superficial and costly teachings. Unlike the sophists, the philosopher Socrates believed that wisdom would not be gained from prepackaged lessons, but had to be earned through critical reflection and dialogue. This controversy between the value of standardized lessons versus critical reflection was a harbinger of later debates such as that between professional training and personal learning during the early 20th century.

The Early Academy
Neither Socrates nor the sophists carried on their teaching and learning in any particular physical place. Plato, a student of Socrates, was the first to have a school at a preset location, a grove dedicated to the Greek folk hero Academus (the first “academy”). For Plato, the purpose of learning was the development of a class of educated rulers or “philosopher-kings.” Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, believed knowledge should not be pursued to develop society’s leaders, but for its own sake. Thus, the debate between knowledge for social purposes and knowledge for its own sake began 2500 years ago.

Throughout this period schools grew up around individual scholars, but only took root when they became associated with storehouses for scholarly manuscripts, or libraries. The first known library was the museum at Alexandria, the Temple of Muses, on the Egyptian coast. Here, beginning around 250 BC grew a museum library that had more than 500,000 manuscripts. This resource for study attracted the great scholars of the period, like Archimedes and Euclid, who came to do full-time research and learn from each other.

Foundation of the Early University
During the Roman period, schools of lesser quality sprung up as minor businesses. Most of these schools disappeared during the Middle Ages when the only institutes of higher learning were devoted to religious studies. During the 11th century, Europe began to emerge from the dark ages, with education becoming more open and available again. The major cathedral church colleges in Bologna and Salerno in Italy, and Paris and Montpelier in France, added new courses to traditional clerical studies and began to attract larger numbers of students. This marked the beginning of the modern university.

Medieval university instruction was in Latin and students entered at age fifteen or sixteen. The baccalaureate or “beginners” degree followed about four years of study and acceptance as a “master” took one to three more years. Many of those students working toward masters degrees were also teachers in the lower level courses, much like graduate students today. Students of the day took time for leisure, often as drunken evenings sometimes growing into riots. One of the most famous was a 2-day brawl in Oxford that began as a tavern fight between students and “townies.” Several scholars were killed, books were destroyed and classrooms were burned.  Sound familiar?

By the end of the 13th century most of the foundations of the modern university had been established including ornate college structures, competitive recruitment practices, standardized teaching methodologies, entrenched administration, examinations, degrees, and academic regalia.  Little has changed at universities since the 13th century and that which has changed has done so very slowly.

Universities are Slow to Change

The major social upheavals associated with the Italian Renaissance in the 16th century and the scientific and technical revolution in the 17th century did not affect the traditional universities, at least at first. Florence became the center of Italian humanistic studies under the patronage of the Medici family, and other centers of learning emerged as alternatives to the unexciting studies at the university. The leading families of the day were business and political leaders who preferred to send their children to popular academies or private tutors rather than the major universities.

Exploration of new continents and new areas of scientific and technical study marked the business  and cultural environment of the 17th century, but had little impact on the universities. Francis Bacon, in the early part of the century challenged colleges and universities to look beyond their ancient teachings. Nevertheless, universities largely ignored the growing scientific movement of the era, much as they had ignored the humanistic movement of the previous century. By the 18th century, older European universities were in a serious state of decline. Struggling institutions progressively lowered their standards to attract students, becoming the diploma mills of the era.  Edward Gibbon described the impressive buildings that had been built for universities as “masking the dry-rot within.”

Universities in America
By this time colleges had been built in America, mostly under the influence of various church denominations to train clergy and political leaders. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers and Dartmouth were supported partially by colonial governments and mostly by student tuition. Enrollment was from a few dozen to a few hundred students, at most. These were elite institutions that offered traditional training in medieval studies such as Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, ethics and theology.

Westward expansion and denominational rivalries contributed to the rapid proliferation of colleges in the later part of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Generally small, these new colleges offered training in geography, languages, law, mathematics, geology, history, ethics, natural philosophy, literature and biology. There was a growing tension between classical training and an emerging scientific and professional training.

President Jeremiah Day of Yale College believed that universities should build character among the young men of leading families and not concern themselves with the needs of the masses.  Even then, the major academic institutions of the time were out of touch with the needs of the nation. By the mid-19th century there was a public call for a more utilitarian education available to more people.  The result was a national investment in the public land grant universities.

Last Thoughts
The publicly funded land grant universities represented a radical departure from earlier American and European colleges. Even so, today many characteristics of universities “before the land grants” endure, for example: the elitism of the faculty much like the tablet writers of Mesopotamia; the continuing debate about education for social purposes (Plato) or for knowledge itself (Aristotle); the “research” library like the one at Alexandria; the drinking parties such as those at Oxford; and finally the failure of the accepted curriculum to address the needs of society during periods of major social change as in Italy during the Renaissance, most of Europe during the first stage of the scientific revolution, at Yale in the early 1800’s, and perhaps even among public universities today.

This history was influenced by “American Higher Education: A History” by Christopher J. Lucas. St. Martins’s Griffin, NY. 1994.  My next blog will focus on the future of the public university.


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Agroecology – science for a sustainable agriculture

I’m teaching Sustainable Agriculture again this fall at the University of Massachusetts and one of the questions that often arises is “what sort of research should the university be doing to move us toward a more sustainable agriculture.”  I’ve been thinking about this for a long time – the answer is agricultural systems ecology (or agroecology for short).

Agroecology is the framework which will allow us to scientifically address multiple interrelated objectives of economic viability, social equity, and environmental integrity. An agroecosystem may be a field, a farm, or a larger region such as a river valley.  Implicit in agroecological research and education is the idea that knowledge of ecosystem relationships will allow farmers to manage inputs and processes in agricultural production systems and thereby optimize for productivity, sustainability, stability and social equity.

A systematic research method for agroecosystem analysis was described by Gordon Conway, of the Centre for Environmental Technology at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London (Conway, G. 1985. Agroecosystem Analysis. Agr. Admin. Vol. 20:31-55).  Agroecosystem analysis is based on ecological principles that govern relationships among biotic (living) communities and the abiotic environment.  Biotic relationships may be described by principles of predator/prey interactions, competition for food sources and habitats, cooperation and commensalism etc.  Abiotic relationships are described by nutrient cycling, carbon cycles, energy cycles, etc. over space and time.

Conway suggests that four system properties may be used to understand the dynamics of an agro-ecosystem.  They are;

  • productivity,
  • stability,
  • sustainability, and
  • equitability.

Productivity is the quantity of product or output from an agroecosystem per unit of some specified input. For an agroecologist, output may include a marketable product such as bushels of corn, as well as negative products of a system like water runoff, pesticides leaking from the system, or soil lost. Of course, tons per hectare is a standard measure of productivity. But productivity can also be expressed in other units of output per unit of input. Inputs may be measured in tons of fertilizer, monetary value of pesticide, or kilocalories needed to deliver irrigation water.

Stability is consistency of production in spite of short term upsetting influences such as uneven rainfall, pest explosions, price variability, etc. Annual variations in productivity indicate a lack of stability.

Sustainability is the ability to maintain a desired level of production over time, in spite of long term destabilizing influences. Examples of these are; increasing soil salinity, off-site effects of soil erosion, declining market prices, or accumulation of biotoxins in the environment. Systems which rely on heavy inputs of non-renewable and rapidly diminishing resources are not considered to be sustainable. Sustainability is a measure of persistence or long-term resilience of a production system.

Equitability can be used as an indicator of agroecosystem performance which incorporates the social dimension. Social equity is a measure of the degree in which resources and products of a production system are equally distributed throughout the human population. This implies that equality of product availability (output) and equality of resource availability (inputs) are the preferred norm.

A research and/or educational institution that employs agroecosystem analysis will probably conduct more studies on complex relationships among the various components of a agroecosystem that go beyond simple cause and effect.  There will be more research on inputs and outputs that are measured in currencies other than monetary units, such as carbon, nitrogen, and calories.  This will provide the basis for better nutrient management recommendations. There will be more studies on relationships among pest populations, predator populations, host populations (both agricultural crop and non-crop species), and environmental influences on these. This will provide the basis for better pest management recommendations. There will be more studies on interspecific relationships among crop plants and the effect of these on pest populations. This will provide the basis for innovative multiple cropping systems.

Ecological principles will provide an appropriate framework in which to better understand and manage the impact of agricultural systems on the food supply, the environment and people. I believe that ecological approaches to agriculture can be the common ground upon which we address the needs of society, while employing the tools of scholarly research and teaching, for which public institutions are best equipped.


This paper was presented by John Gerber,  as part of a U.S.A.I.D. sponsored workshop on sustainable agriculture in Lusaka, Zambia, September 18-21, 1990.


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Sustainable agriculture jobs after college?

I’m one of the academic advisers for students in our Sustainable Food and Farming program at the University of Massachusetts and I often get asked (mostly by parents) so will my kid get a job when they graduate?  Good question!

And my learned response is “…well, maybe – and maybe not”.  Then the pause – and I continue “but if they graduate from UMass they will be prepared to create good work that is needed on the planet.”  This may not be the most satisfying answer for a parent – but in a rapidly changing world where nothing seems predictable….  its honest.

But lets dig a little deeper into this question….

Getting a Job

There’s a difference between “getting a job” after graduation and creating good work (which is what I promise).  We know that there are not enough jobs for everyone in the U.S. who wants to work today – but there is plenty of good work that MUST be done.  A graduating senior searching for a job may or may not find employment right away in their field.  Those who graduate with a degree in Sustainable Food and Farming have had some luck searching these lists:

There are jobs in sustainable food and farming.  Interestingly, one of the options for college grads that was suggested in the blog post “Can’t find a job? Six alternatives” published a few years ago is working on a farm.  Some of our students in fact, do want to farm, but many are also interested in marketing food, education, public policy, advocacy and community development related to food and farming.

But a “job” may not be the best choice for everyone!  In fact, many of the jobs we will be doing in ten years may not even exist today.  The world is changing fast.What job will I get after college?” is a self-limiting question.  A more important question (that I addressed in an article about “Jobs of the Future“) is “….how are we going to live?” And especially, how are we going to live in a world in which the industrial food system is collapsing? Students in our program learn to see crisis as an opportunity for creating their own good work.

Creating Good Work

The great British economist, E.F. Schumacher, author of the classic text Small is Beautiful, wrote a lovely little book called Good Work about this topic.  According to Schumacher, good work needs to provide for three things.  It should:

1…provide a decent living (food, clothing, housing etc.).
2…enable the worker to use and perfect their native gifts.
3…allow the worker the opportunity to serve, collaborate and work with other people to free us from our inborn egocentricity.

Finding a job may serve the first need without addressing the other two.  When I ask my students if their parents are happy in their work, there is often a hesitation.  I often hear that “Dad seems okay and makes a good living – but you know he always wanted to …. (fill in the blank).

I’m sure many adults in the workforce are fulfilled by their work and challenged in a way that “frees them from their inborn egocentricity.”   But frankly, many are not.   We need good work to provide us with a reason for being and a sense of belonging if we want to be happy.

Robert Frost wrote in “Two Tramps at Mudtime”

My object in living is to unite

My avocation and my vocation…

Our dream should be to unite our avocation (that which we love) and our vocation (that which we do).  We should “love what we do and do what we love.”

While some students are trained for entry level jobs, students who want to learn to thrive in this new world learn how to learn.  They meet entrepreneurs who have followed their own dream and are busy creating new businesses, non-profit organizations, or are self-employed.  They are introduced to systems thinking, grant writing, and holistic decision-making.  They are awarded academic credit for apprenticeships or for gaining experience by “wwoofing” in  the U.S. and around the world.

This is not to deny the value of a job that “provides a decent living.”  But money is not enough.  Even during the Great Depression when the unemployment rate exceeded 25%, Franklyn Delano Roosevelt, stated in his 1933 presidential inaugural address:

Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.  The joy, the moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of …. profits.  These dark days, my friends, will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves, to our fellow men.”

To Minister to Ourselves and Others

I encourage students not to sell themselves short but to articulate and pursue their dream.  I encourage them to think about how they might be useful – to themselves and their families – but also to others and the planet.  I often share a hard hitting essay by Derrick Jensen titled Who Are You?, in which he quotes Carolyn Raffensperger, who advises us to ask what is the biggest and most important challenge we can address with our gifts and skills.  Like E.F. Schumacher, Carolyn recognizes that to be fulfilled and happy we must not only provide for our own living – we  must “minister to ourselves and others.

Good work will provide us with a living, allow us to perfect our gifts, and perhaps most importantly…

…good work will allow us to be useful to others and the planet.

There is much work to be done on a planet facing the “perfect storm” of climate change, peak oil and global pandemic.  Business as usual is not enough.  We know that crisis creates opportunity for those willing to try something new.

At a time when the federal government seems intent on stimulating the economy by encouraging new industrial jobs – we need to learn how to create good work by focusing on what is really needed.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.     To get a college degree see: UMass Sustainable Food and Farming or earn a 15 credit Certificate from UMass.

Sustainable agriculture and the public university

My last blog presented a vision of sustainable agriculture and called for a renewed commitment of the “body, heart and soul” of those of us working at public universities like the University of Massachusetts to agricultural research, teaching and outreach.  However if the public universities don’t re-energize their agricultural programs at a time when a billion people are hungry, another billion malnourished, and still another billion “overfed”, others surely will!

Agricultural education is traditionally associated with state universities, but many private colleges are adding courses on sustainable food and farming today.  I was asked recently by a reporter if there was much difference between these new programs and that of the public land grant university.  While I applaud the growth of the colleges into this field, I don’t believe they can provide quite the same “breadth and depth” of study as a major research university.  I must add however this will only remain true IF we invest in this important area of study and “put the public back into the public university.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately as UMass is working to strengthen our agricultural programs by merging our Bachelor of Science programs in Sustainable Food and Farming and Managing Green Landscapes with the nearly 100 year old Stockbridge School of Agriculture.  This blog presents some of my own thinking on the role of the public university and the opportunity we have at UMass to create our own destiny.

Here is what I believe to be true…

  • My truth is that the industrial agricultural system currently practiced in most of the developed world is not sustainable, as it continues to leak toxins from their point of application, uses natural resources such as fossil fuel and water at rates greater than replacement, puts farmers and ranchers off the land, and results in a poorly nourished citizenry.  I believe that in New England, we can at least partially address these problems by investing in the continued development of more local farms and distribution networks.
  • My truth is that the commitment of the U.S. public university system to agricultural research and education has waned over the past 30 years, as discipline-bound science has come to dominate the research agenda.  Interdisciplinary research and application oriented studies that benefit small family farms, ranches and green businesses are not adequately supported through public or private funding.  Agricultural programs at the land grant (public) universities have suffered and are in danger of disappearing at a time when they are badly needed to address the triple threat of peak oil, global climate change and global pandemic from factory farms.
  • My truth tells me that the human quest for sustainability of the earth, including human and non-human communities, may be the best hope we have to revive those agricultural research, education and outreach programs of the public land grant university.  Maybe, just maybe, working in partnership with progressive farmers, consumers, and environmental and social activists to find a new way to farm, new ways to distribute food to those in need, and new ways to live, our public university agricultural research and education programs may experience a rebirth at a time they are most needed.

Its all about sustainability

The term sustainability is overused and abused by politicians, academics, agricultural commodity group leaders, and corporate public relations executives.  It has been co-opted by evangelists for the current industrial agricultural system, who continually try to narrow the definition to economic sustainability at the expense of environmental integrity and social equity.  There are times when I feel that we need a new word to describe the kind of agriculture that lasts.

But mostly I feel the debate, argument and even some of the hyperbole has been a good thing, for it focuses our attention on the lack of sustainability of the current industrial food and farming system.  So for me sustainability remains a big beautiful idea which acknowledges the importance of financial or economic vitality, but balances that goal with ecological integrity and social equity.

The quest for a more sustainable agriculture is a vision worthy of the full commitment of the “body, heart and soul” of those of us at the public university who teach, do research and work with people in communities.   It is a way for us to serve the public good while at the same time creating a sense of purpose in our lives.

Serving the public good

I believe that a clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution.  Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public.  But we have difficulty talking about “who is the public ‑‑ and what is the public good?

Many of the current research, education and outreach programs are designed not to serve “the public” but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups.  I propose that there are interests, common to all people which we might call “basic human needs” such as:

  • affordable and nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate clothing and shelter;
  • a healthy, livable environment free of violence;
  • opportunities to provide for one’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

Our teaching, research and outreach should serve these larger public goods by working with the farmers, consumers and communities dedicated to building a more local food production and distribution system.  This is truly “public work.”

Working for the public university

Many of us came to work in agriculture at public universities because we cared about people, hunger, or the environment.  Over time however, we found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who held money and power.  Our current system of rewards and advancement pushes us in this direction.  If we are to save ourselves and the agricultural programs of the university, we must reestablish a commitment to public service.

There have been times in my own university career when I’ve traded off my civic ideals for personal advancement.  I too am a “sinner”.  Today I try to speak and live my truth, even when that truth is not very popular.

I know many faculty who have maintained a commitment to their ideals and have directed their work toward public priorities.  Many of these women and men affiliate with the sustainable agriculture research and education agenda.  If you are an agricultural researcher, teacher or extension worker, you are invited to join them.  This may be our last best chance.

In any case, I encourage you to speak out and tell your own truth  – whether you agree with mine or not.  As the Red Queen told Alice  “always speak the truth — think before you speak and write it down afterwards.

And perhaps you will “write it down” in the comments box below!


For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Education for sustainability; a holistic philosophy

My last blog announcing a new certificate in Sustainable Food and Farming at the University of Massachusetts resulted in lots of inquiries.  While most were about specific courses and requirements, some asked about the pedagogy and underlying philosophy of our new program.  This blog attempts to describe the thinking that went into development of the certificate program as well as our undergraduate Sustainable Food and Farming major.  I hope it is also relevant to the many new degree programs, courses and curricula emerging around the world focused on education for sustainability.

Should sustainability be part of a public education?

The next generation of students graduating from public universities will be faced with an unprecedented challenge to redesign nearly every major natural resource based system on the planet.  These women and men will inherit systems of industrial and technological growth that are simultaneously destroying or depleting much of nature and endangering human and non-human species, while offering the highest standard of living and rate of consumption ever known.  These modern systems of industrial and technological development must be re-imagined and re-created in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources, use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, or cause harm to people or the natural world.

Education for sustainability should prepare students to address these daunting challenges.   While university leaders often talk about education as “an engine of economic growth” and a means of creating jobs, a more complete understanding of how public universities serve the public good would include attention to common human interests such as: affordable, nutritionally adequate food; adequate and affordable clothing and shelter; a healthy, livable environment; a means to provide for one’s livelihood, personal growth and community health; accessible health care; and accessible educational opportunities.   Education for sustainability should address these basic human needs.

What are the attributes of an education for sustainability?

A widely accepted conceptual model presents sustainability as a quest toward three interrelated objectives: 1) environmental integrity; 2) economic vitality; and 3) social equity.

This model however sets up  three competing objectives in which economic priorities almost always win out over environmental and social objectives.  Recently university leaders have begun to talk about “environmental sustainability” (which might be considered progress).  But I believe we must learn to view this model in a more holistic way, using systems thinking tools that allow us to integrate all three objectives rather than trading one off against another.

Some academics particularly struggle to incorporate social equity into their thinking.  According to an April 2001 Science article about sustainability science, the university research community has generally ignored the social impact of their studies.   The authors of this article call for a new science that is different in “structure, methods and content” from the science of the past.  Specifically the new sustainability science will need to approach problems from a holistic perspective that:

  1. transcends spatial scales from economic globalization to local farming practices;
  2. accounts for temporal inertia of global affects such as atmospheric ozone depletion and the movement of toxins;
  3. deals with the functional complexity of interacting systems and subsystems; and
  4. recognizes and honors a wide range of divergent opinion within the scientific community and between science and the larger society.

We must be clear that the call for a more integrative approach including social objectives does not represent the abandonment of rational, objective thought, but the evolution of human thought toward holism or systems thinking.  According to Ervin Lazlo, this “macroshift” represents the necessary evolution from logos to holos thinking with a significant change in focus as described in this table:



Reductionist thinking




‘Head’ oriented

Separate from nature



Holistic thinking




Whole being (head, heart, body, spirit)

Connected with nature/ecological


Systems oriented

Education for sustainability goes beyond “mere knowledge”

Current undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Education for sustainability on the other hand, requires a broad set of learning that integrates multiple disciplines with new practical skills and the evolution of personal and community wisdom.  Lacking wisdom, knowledge can be dangerous.  Human knowledge, for example, has built weapons capable of destroying everything we love.  Human knowledge has degraded ecosystems and created cycles of poverty and despair.  Knowledge “alone” cannot solve the problems that we have created.  To solve the problems of humanity, we must go beyond knowledge.  Today we need skills, knowledge AND wisdom (where wisdom is defined as the awareness of what has value in life).

Most university programs are grounded in a commitment to building instrumental knowledge, that is, knowledge about how the world works.  Instrumental knowledge is used to manipulate the environment, and while important, it must be balanced by communicative knowledge of values, ideas, feelings and cultural concepts such as justice, freedom, equality and love.  Communicative learning may rely on metaphors and analogies in addition to facts and data to unravel complex human and human-natural system relationships.  Learning tools such as decision cases, dialogue, service learning and story telling are core to communicative learning.  Lastly, while instrumental learning may thrive in hierarchical systems where the power of teachers is greater than students, communicative learning must occur in environments that support co-learning of both teachers and students.


Education for sustainability will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  It will mean less time in classrooms and more time learning through experience.  It will require pedagogy founded on a model of transformative learning that engages the student’s mind, body and spirit, builds students’ capacity to make meaning of their experiences, and reconstruct their notion of self beyond the individual-self to include the family-self, community-self, and global-self.  Awareness of the connection between the individual, the community, and the cosmos are necessary attributes of education to prepare young people as leaders in sustainable world.

In my mind, few university programs fulfill this vision of education for sustainability (including our own certificate and major).   If you want an example however of a quality university program that truly prepares students to be leaders in a sustainable world, look to Living Routes Inc.  This program should be a model for us all!


This blog was adapted from a proposal I wrote in 2002 for a new “sustainability studies” curriculum (interestingly, the proposal was rejected by university administration).   And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Changing bureaucratic institutions from the inside

Last week, I wrote about fighting city hall to make my home town more “chicken friendly.”  After reading the blog, one of my students asked me “how do you work to change a bureaucratic institution without getting angry?”  This blog focuses on my experience working with bureaucracy; from local government to large universities.   I know that getting angry (even when its justified) rarely helps.

I’ve spent much of my academic career trying to change university programs (as both a faculty member and an administrator) to be more supportive of sustainability principles.  I’ve also worked within local government (serving on several town boards and commissions) to support local sustainable agriculture.  While institutions of power, may be influenced by outside pressure (including protests which certainly have value and are needed at times), my own experience is largely trying to change bureaurcacy “from the inside.”

When asked by students how to change bureaucratic institutions, I tell them the story of The Shambhala Worker Prophecy.

This story, adapted with permission from Joanna Macy, is said to have emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about twelve hundred years ago.  It predicts a time when great destructive powers have emerged – perhaps a time not unlike our own.

The Shambhala Worker Prophecy claims that “…there will come a time when all life on Earth is in danger.  In this era, great barbarian forces will have arisen which have unfathomable destructive power.  New and unforeseen technologies will appear during this time, with the potential to lay waste to the world.

Do you believe “all life on Earth is in danger” today?

What “barbarian forces” might have created this situation?

“In this era, when the future of sentient life seems to hang by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala will appear.

“The kingdom of Shambhala is not a geopolitical place, but a place that exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala Worker.  These workers wear no special uniform, nor do they have titles or ranks. They have no particular workplace, as their work is everywhere.  In fact, they look just like the barbarians on the outside, but they hold the kingdom of Shambhala on the inside.”

Do you know any “barbarians”?

Do you know of any “institutions of great destructive power”?

“Now the time comes when great courage – intellectual, moral and spiritual – is required of the Shambhala Workers.  The time comes when they must go into the very heart of the barbarian power, into the tall buildings, corporate offices, factories, and the citadels of learning where the weapons of destruction are made – to dismantle them.

“The Shambhala Workers have the courage to do this because they know that these destructive systems are ‘mind-made’.  That is, they are created by the human mind, and they can be unmade by the human mind.  The lie that these systems are the inevitable result of progress must be exposed by the Shambhala Workers.  Shambhala Workers know the dangers that threaten life on Earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial powers, satanic deities, or preordained fate.  They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships.  They arise from within us all.”

Do you know any Shambhala Workers?

Might you be one?

“The Shambhala Workers go into the corridors of power armed with the only tools that the barbarians don’t understand, and for which there is no defense.  The tools of the Shambhala Workers are compassion for all, and knowledge of the connectedness of all things.  Both are necessary.  They have to have compassion to do this work, because this is the source of their power – the passion to act along with others.

“But that tool by itself is not enough.  Compassion alone can burn you out, so you need the other tool – you need insight into the radical interdependence of all things.  With that wisdom you know that the work is not a battle between good guys and bad guys, because the line between good and bad runs through the landscape of every human heart.  With insight into our interrelatedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have effects throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern.  By itself, that knowledge may be too conceptual to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the energy that comes of compassion as well.

“Within each Shambhala Worker these two tools, compassion and insight, can sustain you as agents of wholesome change.  They are gifts for you to claim and share now in healing our world and our destructive institutions of power.”


There are several interpretations of this prophecy.  Some portray the coming of the kingdom of Shambhala as an internal event, a metaphor for one’s inner spiritual journey.  Others present it as a transformation of the human social system that will occur at the just right time.  Now would be a good time!

So, when students invariably ask me if the time is now, I tell them that I think we have a choice.  I believe we can create the kingdom of Shambhala whenever we are ready to begin.

Do you know of anyone who might be a Shambhala Worker?  Are you?

Please post your own Shambhala Worker story in the comments box below.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my posts.

Lets put the "public" back in the public university

Education for Sustainability should be a primary goal of public universities.  Here’s why…..

As someone who continues to believe in the original purpose of the U.S. land grant university system, I am particularly concerned by the present state of affairs. I”m told by some of my colleagues and a few administrators that I can’t talk about the “land grant ideal” because nobody believes in it anymore.  Well….. I do.

Sorry, but in times of severe financial stress I believe that a re-energized focus on creating and sharing knowledge in service to the public good remains our best strategy.

Some of our university leaders have taken a more pragmatic approach.  When public funds are not adequate to “keep the ship afloat”, they solicit help from private enterprise –  after all, they have they money!   My own university had a chancellor whose favorite phrase was “money matters.”

Clever…..  but I prefer “mission matters.” I hope we choose not to quit on the public mission of the university – not just yet.

I believe that our understanding of how the university serves American citizens, those today, and those yet to be born, is key to our future as a public institution. This blog explores what it might mean to be a university that serves the public good.

Most of us working at a public university probably have a notion that we have an obligation to serve the public – somehow.  But who is the public, and what is the public good?   Dr. Jeffrey Burkhardt, Professor of Agriculture and Natural Resource Ethics and Policy at the University of Florida, suggested that there are interests, common to all, which he described as “basic human needs.”  They are;

  • adequate, affordable, nutritionally adequate food;
  • adequate affordable, clothing and shelter;
  • a livable environment;
  • secure means to provide for one’s livelihood; and
  • accessible educational opportunities.

We should serve the public good by addressing these basic human needs, and thus optimizing for the environmental, economic and social well-being of the entire community.  Some of us call this educating for sustainability. It seems to me that research and educational programs which support the quest for sustainability should be a feature of every public university.  This is a legitimate use of public funds and an appropriate investment by local, state and national government.

Of course, public institutions should not be engaged in work that private enterprise can do better.   Public funded institutions must however take responsibility for providing goods and services that have a significant social benefit when they would not otherwise be provided by the private sector.  Public/private partnerships are also appropriate when they clearly serve the public. There are three categories of goods and services that are appropriate for public investment:

1.     Public good and services are those which can be used in a non-rival manner by all of society. Once created, these goods are available to all without additional cost. Private enterprise is unlikely to invest in goods used in a non-rival manner because it is difficult to capture a return on their investment. Knowledge created from basic research is an example of a public good which is more valuable to society than any one individual or company.

2.     Private good and services subject to market failure may have a value to individuals, but for which the private sector is likely to underinvest. Government may choose to provide such goods to individuals if they have significant social benefits. It is appropriate for public universities to provide a direct educational service to individuals when it also serves the larger community.  Environmental education is a prime example.

3.     Social welfare goods and services are provided by government for reasons of equity.  Educational programs for populations at risk, access to food, and the availability of education to all are considered social welfare goods.

These same guidelines should be used when we are considering public/private partnerships. We cannot afford to be engaged in work more appropriate for the private sector.

Public agricultural programs can serve the public good through research and educational programs on agricultural sustainability, food quality and safety, human nutrition, food sovereignty, and environmental integrity. This is just as true today as it was in 1862 when the land grant system was created by an act of Congress.  The Morrill Act established 69 colleges across the nation, paid for with grants of federal land that was sold to create the first public university system in the world.  This was a truly revolutionary act.

When President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, he said: “The land-grant university system is being built on behalf of the people who have invested in these public institutions their hopes, their support and their confidence.”

If we have courage and vision, I believe we can lead the way back to the future and re-establish the financial support and the confidence of the American people – but only if we don’t quit on the public mission!

Lets put the “public” back in the public university by addressing the most basic of human needs.  Education for sustainability may be our best investment if we want to recommit our work in service to public good!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.

Reflecting on the "early days" of sustainable agriculture research and education

Today, many public universities including my own promote their research and educational efforts in support of a more sustainable agriculture.  It wasn’t always this way.  The end of the year seems like a good time for reflection – to see what we can learn from our past.  So lets look back to the “early days” of sustainable agriculture, the late 1980’s, when a loosely organized contingency of farmers invented an idea they called “sustainable agriculture.”

The  early advocates of sustainable agriculture were mostly  farmers. They generally managed mid-sized farms, but there was no consistent pattern, no typical type of farm that led the way into sustainable agriculture.  Some were organic, others not.  The unifying characteristic among these early advocates was that all had weathered the severe financial stress of the mid-1980’s – and they were still farming.

In the late 1980’s, the concept of sustainable agriculture was poorly defined and much debated.  It received immediate and vocal support from the environmental community – resulting in immediate and vocal distrust from mainstream agricultural institutions.  The cries of the environmentalists generally reflected a poor understanding of agriculture. The response from agricultural commodity groups, agribusiness, and public universities ranged from confused to openly hostile.

But these farmer-driven and farmer managed sustainable agriculture organizations persisted.  Perhaps uneasy with much of the debate, they simply got down to work and began doing research and education on their own.  Some of the farmer-led sustainable agriculture organizations became well established, and began calling for assistance from their public research and educational institutions.

The response from the public university system to their call for help was at best mixed and at worst loaded with animosity, derision and ridicule.  Some faculty reacted to the call for help with respect and curiosity, and these individuals were initially marginalized by most mainstream faculty and college leadership.  This was a lonely time for the early advocates of sustainable agriculture within the university system.  But this had to change, as the signs that “modern farming” was in trouble were becoming increasingly obvious to anyone willing to look.  Remember….

  • In the late 80’s we were emerging from a farm crisis that had accelerated the rate in which farmers were leaving the farm.
  • The public had been frightened by two major media events causing us to worry about pesticides on our food, one concerning the safety of apples, the other concerning grapes from Chile.
  • Pesticide residues were being found in rural wells, surface waters, snowfall, windblown soil and fog.
  • Soil erosion made the front page of the Chicago Tribune and the CEO of Archer Daniels, Midland Co. claimed that soil loss was more dangerous a threat than nuclear war.

Overtime, more faculty and administrators came to look on sustainable agriculture as an opportunity rather than a threat.  When public funding became available through the U.S.D.A. Low-input Sustainable Agriculture program, university scientists began to pay more attention.  At first cautious but eventually more enthusiastic partnerships between the universities and the non-profit organizations (which were required for public funding) emerged.   Today, public research and education in sustainable agriculture is almost “mainstream”.  But this transition took time.

Most Americans probably assume that public institutions have an obligation to serve the public good.  And how better for a public land grant university to serve the public than to address the continued degradation of the land that provides our sustenance?   Solving important public problems is what public university science should be all about.  But in the 1980’s many agricultural scientists could not admit there was a problem.

Reports that only 5% of rural wells had traces of pesticide and only 12% of rural wells had high nitrate levels were not viewed as a problem by apologists for industrial agriculture inside and outside the university.  During the winter of 1989-90, an analysis of every major snowfall event across the corn belt found only traces of the commonly used corn herbicide, Atrazine.  This was declared simply the cost of doing business – the “price of bounty.”

Even once we acknowledged evidence that all was not right, the debate continued as to whether the problem was indeed worth our attention. The scientists inside the public university system who had invested so much in the development of industrial agriculture remained reluctant to accept that something might be wrong.  It took public groups to bring pressure on the university system to begin to address these problems.   In a democracy, the public must be involved.  While science can help define the problem, community values and public debate must help determine where public resources are focused.

As a young scientist deeply engaged in the sustainable agriculture controversy, I found the response of some of my colleagues disappointing.  Somehow I expected scientists to respond with more curiosity to the claims being made by farmers and environmentalists that something was not right with American agriculture. 

Today, most university agricultural programs are willing to address the environmental degradation and resource depletion associated with modern agriculture.  But new ideas are often still met with skepticism, and some of the most interesting work being done  in sustainable food and farming is not initiated inside the university, but by creative practitioners.  New ideas that came from outside the university, and deserving of our attention are:

  • permaculture and forest gardening,
  • rotational grazing and seasonal dairying,
  • food sovereignty,
  • carbon farming,
  • urban agriculture, and
  • edible landscapes….

We still need to face some unpleasant truths about the public university system.

We will likely continue to be skeptics, as that is the nature of science.  But I hope we can learn to be more open to innovation and creativity when it comes from outside the institution.   Many farmers have criticized the public land grant universities as being reluctant to consider new ideas generated in the field (the “not invented here” syndrome).

There is some truth to this critique.

If we are to learn from the “early days” of sustainable agriculture, we must recognize that criticism from outside the institution should be welcomed. It says that someone cares about what we do and how we are doing it. And if we are willing to listen, the criticism helps us focus on what we should be doing. It keeps us sharp – and it pushes us to do better.

Please don’t stop caring and criticizing YOUR public university.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.