On creativity and the sources of "new ideas"

A few years ago, I ran a cross a little book called The Use of Lateral Thinking by Edward DeBono.  I’d like to share some of Professor DeBono’s thinking on creativity and the sources of “new ideas.”

DeBono was a Maltese educator and thinker.  He has a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and has had faculty appointments at Oxford, Harvard, and Cambridge. He has consulted for academic institutions, governments, and corporations worldwide on educational theory and learning.  He has written 25 books on cognition, which have been translated 20 languages.

DeBono is given credit for the concept of lateral thinking, a tool used to create fresh ideas.  He claims that most ideas come from vertical or logical thinking, which may produce “an answer” but is likely to be inadequate in the face of new and complex “real world” problems.  Really fresh “new ideas” won’t emerge from logical thinking.

DeBono uses the image of digging holes to describe the quest for new ideas.  He says you can’t find the answers to new problems by using old ideas. Sometimes you have to dig in a new place.

DeBono writes:

“It is not possible to dig a hole in a different place by digging the same hole deeper.”

If we need new and creative solutions to emerging real world problems, it is unlikely that we will find them in our text books, classrooms, libraries, or even the scientific journal articles….. the ideas that we have “dug out of the old holes.”  An example of a new idea is the “communiversity” that I wrote about some years ago, and turned out to be just another new hole that was ignored by the university.  So why are new ideas so difficult to take seriously?

DeBono writes,

“…it is easier to go on digging in the same hole than to start all over again in a new place.”

University research and education programs are really good at digging in places that have proved successful in the past.  Institutions are designed to be conservative and giving up the old holes is difficult.  DeBono continues…

“The disinclination to abandon a half-dug hole is partly a reluctance to abandon the investment of effort that has already gone into the hole. It is far easier to go on doing the same thing rather than wonder what else to do.”

DeBono says that it is easier to follow along the path of current understanding, present knowledge, old ideas when he writes….

“…no sooner are two thoughts strung together than there is a direction, and it becomes easier to string further thoughts along in the same direction, than to change your thinking.”

DeBono paints the unglamourous picture of scientists digging away at old holes, exploring old ideas, when he writes…

“by far the greatest amount of scientific effort is directed towards the logical enlargement of some accepted hole. Many are the minds scratching feebly away or gouging out great chunks according to their capacity. Yet great new ideas and great scientific advances have often come about through people ignoring the hole that is in progress and starting a new one.”

DeBono explains that the process of education is designed to make people appreciate the holes that have been dug for them by their teachers, supervisors, or elders.  And enlarging the hole that has already been started, offers an opportunity for progress and the promise of rapid advancement within the academy.

Our education and evaluation systems encourage us to jump down into the hole with our teachers (the experts) and dig along side of them. This is how we achieve recognition and advancement, we join the experts.

DeBono offers the following observation about experts:

“An expert is an expert because he understands the present hole better than anyone else.”

and

“Experts are usually to be found happily at the bottom of the deepest holes.”

In our university system diggers are rewarded, even if they are at the bottom of out-dated holes, ones that were appropriate last year, or the last decade.

If college and university educators are to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, we’ve got to climb out of the old holes and have a look around.   DeBono encourages us to dig new holes in more original places. He says we never will see a better hole from the bottom of the one we are currently in.

New ideas abound, but we  will need to look outside of our own professional organizations, our own academic departments, our university culture to see them.

We need to broaden our horizons, first by listening more carefully to what our students are talking about and then perhaps by reading an internet newspaper, or create a customized RSS feed for those topics that interest you.  If you are new to this, perhaps just follow World.edu on Twitter, or “like” us on Facebook.  We all need to open ourselves to creative thought from many places if we want to be relevant in the future.

The social networking world seems intimidating (and foolish) at times, but it can really open our eyes if we are willing to wade in!   I believe this web portal is a wonderful way for global educators to stay linked to some of the freshest new ideas in sustainability and higher education.  I called for such linkage when I first wrote about the communiversity in 1997.  The updated version of my essay adds some specifics about the technologies predicted in the late 90’s.  But its not too late!  Why not “get linked?”

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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.

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Growing your own food may not save the planet – but do it anyway!

One of my great pleasures and privileges as a teacher and adviser at the University of Massachusetts is that I am surrounded by bright and passionate students who ask difficult questions.  While many of the questions relate to “how do I graduate” and “how do I find a job”….  often the questions are “deeper.”   This is a true story….

climateSo a student shows up in my office asking the big question… “why bother?”  You know, like “… why bother try to make a difference in this world when everything looks so bleak?

This student wanted to know how I maintain a sense of hope when we are facing so many global challenges!

Good question!

Rather than launching into my usual rap (which I stole from Michael Pollan’s near-classic essay, “Why Bother”), I chose to tell him about a novel I had read recently “about secrets, treachery and the arrival of peak oil” (according to the book jacket).  Prelude by Kurt Cobb is a fast-paced adventure and espionage story set in the context of “the end of cheap energy” and while a bit simplistic, the book keeps your attention.

cobbOne of my favorite scenes comes when Cassie Young, a rising star at a Washington, D.C. energy consulting firm asks her friend Victor Chernov (a former oil executive who helped her gain access to a secret report that proves global oil reserves are diminishing much more rapidly than anyone thought and climate change is more serious than anyone could have imagined)… “so what do we do now that we know the truth?”  It is a moment of despair, that many of us who are aware of the ever-worsening oil/climate crisis have felt from time to time.

And Victor’s response………  grow a garden! It seems this former oil exec is learning to grow tomatoes at his Washington townhouse…..  hmmmmmmmm.

While not destined to become a classic, the appearance of mass market books like Prelude suggests that common culture is beginning to accept the fact that there seems to be an energy/climate/economic crisis…… and yes, at least one of the solutions might be to grow food for myself, family and neighborhood.

hpe Kurt Cobb (who is a well-respected environmental writer) seems to propose a simple and doable response to the crisis we seem afraid to face.  Cobb reminds us that “hope trumps fear” and finding a source of hope is a necessary first step toward developing real solutions to a problem.

I believe that if we can’t imagine reasonable solutions to a crisis, then we are not going to look at the problem.  In fact, denial of the problem is actually a quite reasonable response when you can’t imagine a solution.   So yes, yes, yes, lets grow food… for ourselves, our family, our neighbors!

natioThis is not to suggest that a few tomatoes will solve the global climate, energy and economic crises….but it is a place to begin to find hope.  And with hope….. anything is possible.

Following the story this very patient student asked me if I really believed that individual actions made a difference.   He wondered (like many) if the government and scientists wouldn’t come up with a solution eventually.  So, I took a deep breath and launched into the “do it anyway” soliloquy.

You know….. that’s the one that claims the quest for family  and community self-sufficiency is a better way to live, even if there was no crisis.   And if the crisis we were discussing  slams us sooner than anyone of us would hope….. well, then at least we have begun to take some steps to be better prepared.  So, yes…. lets learn to grow our own food.  According to Sharon Astyk, we need to become a “nation of farmers,” (with farmers described as anyone who grows food for themselves and others).  That might be anything from a single patio tomato to a family garden to a small farm.  And the rest of us need to learn to cook real food!

At this point, my student brightened up and almost shouted “that’s it!  That’s what Sharon Astyk calls the anyway theory.”

He remembered a reading I had assigned earlier in the semester called the “theory of anyway” and it brightened up his day.  If you are curious, You might explore the “Anyway Project”  (aka… “whole life redesign”).   But the point for me was that something came alive in my formerly despairing student.

Of course not everyone wants to grow tomatoes, but we all can do something.  I bake bread, make yogurt, grow food, and raise worms (for my backyard chickens of course).  You pick your own sustainable thing to do!  Ride a bike to work, volunteer at the local soup kitchen, join a CSA, hang your clothes in the sun to dry, anything …… but do something – and do something fun!

I told the student that Barbara Kingsolver wrote in her book,  Small Wonder, …..people will join the sustainability movement because “…our revolution will have dancing and excellent food.”   At which point we both smiled – and hope restored, we laughed.

After he left, I did a quick search for more information on the book I just recommended and found a lovely statement from Kurt Cobb who advised that if we are going to invite others to join the sustainability revolution, we need to be creative.  He suggested that “….an alternative way of pressing your case is to do it in verse or in song or in the form of a play, a novel, a painting, or a stand-up comedy routine.”

And don’t forget to keep dancing…..

dance

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends. If you are interested in a college program in Sustainable Food and Farming, check us out at UMass.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please “like” my Facebook Group; Sustainable Food and Farming.

Education for sustainable agriculture: A story

In my last post, I shared a vision of education for a more sustainable agriculture that helps to inform the continued development and growth of the new University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program.  In this post, I will present an example of one class that is representative of that vision.  But first, I’d like to thank those of you who commented on last blog and share a few of their thoughts:

  • Trying to bring sustainable ag education to undergrads and grads within a holistic integral methodology is challenging…
  • The ONE SHARED qualification for every sustainable ag related job I’ve pursued since college has been “experience”….

In addition to the testimony of teachers and thoughtful learners, there is solid pedagogical evidence which supports the idea that college students benefit from well-managed experiential classes.   But rather than citing the extensive academic literature on experiential learning, I want to share a story of an experiential education program at the University of Massachusetts.  Here is a video introduction to the Student Farming Enterprise class….

……

In the fall of 2007, three members of the Plant, Soils and Insect Sciences Department at the University of Massachusetts started a pilot student farming project at the UMass Crops Research and Education Center in South Deerfield, MA.  Two students planted, managed, harvested and sold organic kale and broccoli to the student-run natural foods restaurant on campus, Earthfoods Cafe.  They earned $850, which covered their costs that fall.

While the project was small, it was so well-received that interest grew immediately and the following spring 6 students enrolled in the 3-credit practicum class.  According to project director, Ruth Hazzard, the educational goals for the class and project are:

  1. To develop skills in the techniques, tools and equipment used to grow, manage, and sell vegetable and other crops.
  2. To develop understanding of soil fertility, water, pest management using IPM and organic methods.
  3. To learn how to develop, use and evaluate crop plans and budgets for production and marketing.
Some of the 2010 class

I”ve had the privilege to observe this project as faculty adviser for many of these students.   I know the students gained valuable practical and technical  knowledge and MUCH MUCH more.  They grew as confident young entrepreneurs both individually and as a team.  To watch this group make decisions together, solve problems, and share the work with enthusiasm and commitment is inspiring.

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Students typically speak glowingly about the opportunity this project has offered them to complement their classroom learning with real-world experience.  Here is a short video featuring some of the students from the 2009 class talking about their experience…..

…….. ….

The project quickly developed into a year-round class, including a paid summer internship which requires that the students plan the farming enterprise during the spring semester, grow the crops in the summer, and harvest, sell and evaluate their business in the fall.  The UMass Dining Services has become a major supporter and a regular buyer of the organic produce grown by the students.  In 2010, a 25-member CSA was added to the project which will be expanded next year.  Sales in 2010 exceeded $12,000, which is used to cover costs and pay student stipends during the summer months.

Harvesting Brussels sprouts together

Plans for 2011 include expanding both production and markets to allow 12 students to gain practical experience and learn the value of working together in community toward a common goal.

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Digging carrots early in the morning

This is more than a class!

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This is an enterprise guided by faculty but powered and managed by students.  I’d like to end with some words from the students…..

Emily Errico, one of the students in the 2010 class reported “…the Student Farming Enterprise has been the culminating experience of my time at UMASS.  No other class has exposed me to every aspect of farming, from planning in the winter, to planting in the summer, to harvest and sales in the fall.  This class is so special because you actually run the farm and are responsible for it’s success, while working in an environment  that is still safe for learning.”

Malaika and Kaeleigh picking kale

Malaika Spencer, a Hampshire College student who took  advantage of the Consortium which allows students to take classes at any of the Five Colleges in the area claimed that “…the UMass Student Farm Enterprise course has been the only course that has allowed me to explore farming as a business while still in the academic environment. We have been given the chance to create a farm operation that is rooted in academic process but manifested in real experience.”

According to Emily French, one of the students in the first class…the SFE prepared me for my current work with the Massachusetts Farm to School Project, where I facilitate sustainable purchasing relationships between farms and schools statewide.  The agricultural and marketing experience I gained during my time with the Student Farming Enterprise class provided me with skills I use in my work every day.”

For more information, see UMass Student Enterprise Farm.

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Education for a sustainable agriculture: A vision

As the coordinator of the University of Massachusetts Sustainable Food and Farming undergraduate program, I spend a lot of time thinking about education for a more sustainable agriculture.  This blog post presents a few ideas related to sustainability education. I hope you find it useful.

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A report on sustainability education I helped write a few years ago stated…..

…. 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 growth that are simultaneously degrading ecosystems and endangering non-human species, while offering the highest material standard of living ever known to some humans.

As we begin this task, we must clarify core community values so that science and technology may be guided to serve the needs of present and future generations.  This work will require skills, knowledge and wisdom not currently central to the academic enterprise.  Education for a sustainable agriculture must help us re-imagine and re-create our industrial farming systems in ways that no longer rely on non-renewable resources,no longer use natural resources at non-sustainable rates, and no longer cause harm to people or the natural world.

We must ask – are our graduates ready?

Today’s graduates from university agricultural programs are generally well-prepared to address problems and opportunities from both a practical management and a theory-based perspective at the organism, organ, cellular and molecular levels.

Graduates in the future will also need to understand complex food and farming systems at the population, community, and ecosystem levels.  Studies of social systems must complement studies of biophysical systems at these higher levels of complexity.

The current situation

Most science-based undergraduate education focuses primarily on building knowledge within a specific academic discipline.  Sustainability education 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.  Human 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).  More than a technical education is required.  In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Frank Rhodes former president of Cornell University wrote…..

“…beyond the complexities of sustainability as such, there lies the larger question of sustainability for what purpose. For sustainability will be best understood within the larger framework of values, meaning, and purpose — just as ‘solutions’ are best considered within the context of the global society. That is why the wisdom that the traditional liberal arts provide is such a vital part of any such new curriculum.”

Developing wisdom will require the integration of thinking and feeling, mind and body, science and spirit, knowledge and values, head and heart.  Unfortunately, this integration is not a core value of the academic enterprise.  While some faculty try to offer a more holistic educational experience at the university, their work is generally unappreciated by the majority of their colleagues.  Students on the other hand are very supportive of these creative teachers who may be marginalized within the mainstream citadels of learning.

In spite of the dominant paradigm, teachers of sustainable agriculture recognize the value of a pedagogy founded upon a model of transformative learning that 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, ecological-self, and cosmic self.

A successful sustainability education program must focus on both the content of learning as well as the context of learning (such as the ability to integrate theory and practice through managed experience).  This ability can’t be acquired by sitting passively in a classroom, listening to a lecture, or reading a textbook.  Most adult learning (after graduation) is unstructured, random, and takes place as a result of living and making meaning out of everyday experience.  However in much of our university education, knowledge is handed over to students in safe, officially approved packages to be handed back to teachers for evaluation and reward.  Power remains in the hands of the teacher.  While efficient in one sense, “normal” classroom teaching does little to nurture the curiosity, inventiveness, or leadership capacity of active adult learners.

Experiential education puts primary responsibility for learning in the hands, hearts, and minds of the learners.  While experiential education must be guided by teachers, it is not controlled by the teacher.  Teachers are responsible for creating an environment where students can explore complex questions and learn by doing –  but power is shared!

Teachers must trust students to make decisions for themselves, and encourage them to either learn from their successes or learn from their mistakes.

Learning “about” sustainable agriculture is not enough.  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 uses different teaching methods than instrumental learning and 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.

The history of the university is one of continual (if very slow) change.   I am confident that once the urgency expressed in the opening statement in this blog becomes more widely accepted, education for a sustainable agriculture will become more of a priority within the academy.  At least, that is my hope.

As always, your comments are welcome.

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Sustainable Food and Farming: Reflections

Over the past few months, I have posted a series of reflections on sustainable food and farming here at World.edu.  This is my 12th post of the series and it seems like a good time to pause for a moment and have a look back.  If you find this summary useful, perhaps you would share it with your friends and colleagues.  I hope these blogs will find their way into classrooms as a way to start meaningful conversations about sustainable food and farming.  This can only happen with your help.

We began the series with an introduction to sustainable food and farming by asking “is sustainable agriculture sustainable?”   While there are many ways of thinking about sustainability, I suggest that only an agricultural system founded on ecological principles could possibly be sustainable.

My second post explored the relationship among the three generally accepted “pillars of sustainability”; environmental integrity, economic vitality,and social equity.  I presented symbolic representations and contrasted a competitive model (the venn diagram) with a living systems model (concentric circles).

Then we turned practical and had a look at some real-world examples of the principles we were exploring with “Sustainable Food and Farming part III: Lets get Practical.”

We then took a hard look at three ecological principles that contribute to a more sustainable agriculture:

  1. Use current solar income
  2. Everything cycles (waste equals food)
  3. Enhance biological diversity

Next, I introduced a way of thinking about our place in the larger world and asked “why should we care?”   In this post I presented a model of interconnectedness that claims the quest for a more sustainable agriculture may be motivated by self-interest, provided we accept an expanded and holistic understanding of “self.”

Just as I finished this last post, the Walmart Corporation announced they were making a major investment into local food systems.  Hmmmmmm….. this needed some exploration and I used the foundation created in the first seven blogs to examine the big news.

As I was wondering if Walmart was truly committed to the social equity “pillar” of sustainable agriculture, I was challenged by a faculty colleague who told me quite bluntly that social equity and justice has nothing to do with sustainability.   Another hmmmmmmmm….. so I shared my own thinking on sustainability and social justice.

One of my students got my attention with the bold statement that “we can’t expect human behavior to change until we change societal structures, like policies and regulations.” Hmmmmmmmm…..  lots of things to think about these days.  I don’t think that is quite true…… and I shared my thoughts about “which comes first” – policy change or personal change.

For me the answer is simple…. neither.  First we change our minds!  My next post suggested that we must learn to speak from the heart if we are to encourage people to think differently and maybe try to behave in a more sustainable manner.

But of course, not everyone wants to listen to our pleas to behave more sustainably.  My last post presented a way of  thinking about people who “just don’t want to think about all of this stuff.”

So here we are at the end of a series of  blog posts that present a framework for how I think about sustainable food and farming.  I’ve got lots of ideas of where to go next, but I’d love to hear from you.   What questions or thoughts do you have about this series of 12 blog posts?

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What can you say to people who don’t want to talk about sustainability?

Most of my blog posts on World.edu have focused on sustainable agriculture, but lately I’ve been thinking about the idea of sustainability in general.  Last week I wrote about how to talk about sustainability with friends and family.  I stated that it is difficult to convince someone who just isn’t interested in thinking about sustainability to change their behavior.

Personally this doesn’t bother me, as I find myself busy enough working with people who are ready to try to change their lives to be more sustainable.  I choose not to worry about people who “just don’t get it.” Nevertheless, some of my students continue to ask me…..

“…what can we do about them?

For an answer, I return to the iceberg model from an earlier post.  Remember, mental models influence social structures, and societal and personal behavior.


When we take the iceberg model and rearrange the components into a causal loop diagram, we can see why it is so difficult to change behavior. In this model, non-sustainable events, patterns, structures and mental models are all part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop.

When we look for the cause of the loop, it is like asking which comes first – the chicken or the egg.  None and all of the components in the loop are cause and effect. They cause each other.  This is how reinforcing feedback loops work – like an addiction.

When we realize that our behavior is not in our best interest  – and we still don’t change that behavior – we are caught in an addiction cycle. A systems thinker might describe it like this;

  • as non-sustainable actions increase, non-sustainable patterns increase, and….
  • as non-sustainable patterns increase, non-sustainable structures increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable structures increase, non-sustainable mental models increase, and…
  • as non-sustainable mental models increase…..
  • the cycle goes on and on……

An addiction cycle is difficult to stop….. but it can be turned around!

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Lets look at what happens in addiction cycles….

When a person or society is caught in an addiction cycle, something bad always happens.  We’ll call it “something to learn. For someone addicted to substances, something to learn is often a very painful physical and emotional “bottom.”  For someone with a spending habit, something to learn might be maxing out a credit card.  For a society that is living or spending beyond its capacity, something to learn might be a financial crisis (sound familiar?).

In any case, “something to learn” is usually painful and confusing.  The good news is that pain can be a catalyst for changing our mental models…. in fact, a new vision only begins to make sense when it becomes clear that the old way of thinking is no longer working.

For someone who “just doesn’t get it” the pain-induced new vision (mental model) can begin to turn things around!

A new way of thinking might result in a person (or a society) trying something different….. like more responsible or sustainable behaviors…… and then the reinforcing feedback loop can take over – and watch out! Things that seemed impossible before can change fast as sustainable actions result in sustainable patterns, and new systemic structures.

For those of us already awake to our non-sustainable situation, I believe we have a responsibility to take action NOW.  For those who are not yet ready, pain will eventually help them wake up.  But I can’t spend a lot of energy talking to people who are not yet ready to change…. I’ve got too much work to do.  I believe that we are already well into the Great Turning (that is the inevitable  transition from an industrial growth society to a life sustaining society) and this is really exciting work.

Lets see….

THE GREAT TURNING HAS ALREADY BEGUN!

You are invited to join the Great Turning. We can begin now…  or we can wait.  Either way, we are guaranteed that “something to learn” will eventually convince us all to think and act in a more sustainable manner.  The longer we wait – the more pain we will experience.

So “what can we do about them?” If we are talking with people in which we already have a trusting relationship, we can speak from the heart as I described in an earlier post.  For the others……  well, I’ve got too much work to do to worry about that….

What about you?  Do you want to join the Great Turning?

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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.

"Talking Sustainability" – to change how we think!

Last week I posted a blog claiming that “mental models” (our worldview, the stories we tell about ourselves, and core values) must change before we are likely to see a significant shift towards more sustainable human behavior.  That is, before we are able to change social policies or large scale behavior…. we must change how we think!

Well, if that is true….. the next question might be….. “how do we change human minds?” I will use the same iceberg model to describe a process for creating a convincing argument for change.   Remember this?

iceberg
One of the core competencies of a successful human in our world is the ability to create a convincing argument for your perspective.  Another critical competency is the ability to listen and learn from others.  To convince someone they should change their behavior to be more sustainable, the first necessary condition is trust (which is built by learning to listen respectfully).   Without trust….  don’t even bother to present your case!  This is where “cor ad cor loquitur” becomes really important.

Of course, it can be pretty frustrating having to listen to folks who are not interested in learning, growing or changing.  I will deal with how to think about people who are “just not interested” in a future blog.  For now, lets focus on how to talk with the many people who already know “something is wrong” but aren’t quite willing to change their behavior (yet).

Know any of these folks?

Maybe you are a student, headed home to visit Mom and Dad.  Or perhaps you are just hanging out with good friends.  In either case, here is how to go about presenting an argument which might convince people who already trust you to change their behavior.

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First, turn the iceberg model upside down!

We begin by talking about mental models.  If you share what you truly care about with someone you trust, you set the “frame” for the discussion.

But remember, honesty is really important.   This is not “spin.”  Speak from the heart…..

If I am trying to encourage a friend to consider a new and more sustainable behavior, I might begin by getting their attention with some facts that seem inconsistent with their own mental models.  Like this…

“Did you know that the Walmart Corporation is the largest grocery retailer in the U.S.?  Yup, they seem to be ready to take over the world!”

Walmart?   A grocery store?  Hmmmmmm…..  Now, most people are overwhelmed with information today and are no longer surprised (or even interested) in facts.  If we spend too much time talking about facts, our listener is likely to get bored.  So we change the subject quickly (now that we have their attention) to an expression of our core values.  We talk mental models and speak from the heart…..

“You know, as corporations get more and more powerful, I keep wondering about what happens to ‘the little guy.’  I mean, do individuals even have a chance today to create a good live without being owned by these corporations? “

At this point, we hope our listener is engaged.  If so, we continue…..

“I’ve been thinking about the things I really care about…. like people having enough food to eat.  I care about clean air, water and a living soil.  I care about children having chance for a decent life.  I care about Mother Nature.  I care about the place that I live, my family, and my work.  These are the things I hold most dear.  I don’t think the corporation cares about these things.

What do you care about most deeply?”

Getting someone to talk about their own deeply held values begins to set the frame for the rest of the conversation.   So far, we are talking at the level of mental models.  As we work down the “upside down” iceberg, the next stage is systemic structures.  These are;

  1. physical things,
  2. organizations,
  3. policies, and
  4. rituals.

Changing structures has the power to change behavior.  But I would try to avoid talking about structures in the abstract. Rather, lets share a story about a particular structure that is consistent with our professed core values.  For me, it might be the North Amherst Community Farm.  This is what I’d say….

“Did you know there is a group of crazy people in my neighborhood who got together and bought a farm?  Yup, it seems that about 30 acres right in the middle of my suburban neighborhood was about to be sold for housing development.  My neighbors got together and raised enough money with help from the state and town governments to save the farm.

“We’ve still got a mortgage of course.  But this little neighborhood group saved this land from development and it is now being farmed by two terrific families who live right there on the property.  They have a 300 member CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) the world’s best vegetables, grass-fed beef, sheep, pigs, and chickens.  It is very cool….. and it is right in my backyard!”

NACF represents a real life structure that is consistent with my core values.  It represents a “reasonable” change option (because it is true), even though none of us ever thought we’d “own a farm.”

Now that I have my listeners attention, I talk about a pattern of behavior that emerges out of the structure I’ve just described.  And once again, I do it by telling a story…..

“One of the biggest surprises that grew out of  saving this farm was all of the people in town who got interested in raising egg laying chickens in their backyard!   The farm has about 200 laying hens as part of the CSA.  Once folks were introduced to fresh eggs, it was difficult to go back to industrial eggs.  And several of them are now raising their own!

This “hopeful story” represents a pattern of behavior that grew out of the structure and mental models we’ve been talking about.  We continue….

“We organized this workshop around Mother’s Day last year, called ‘Homes for Hens’ and 50 people showed up.  Parents and grandparents and lots of kids came to learn how to have a few hens in their backyard.  We let them hold the hens and talked about how to take care of them.  It was really fun!  There were lots of good questions and stories being told by the teachers as well as the participants!”

“And now, we’ve got a half dozen or so families in the area raising hens and teaching others.  We are not changing the world of course, but it sure does show kids something valuable about where their food comes from!”

I’d keep the story short and let my listener ask questions.  At this point, we continue to move down the “upside down iceberg” and suggest an action, consistent with the pattern of behavior (raising chickens), the structure (the new farm), and the mental models we have been talking about.

The key to shifting mental models – is taking action. Unless we “make it real” – nothing changes.  So maybe  next I’d say…

“Hey, you want to run by the farm and help collect some eggs?  I’ll bet the farmers would appreciate some help, and maybe give you a few so you can try them out for breakfast tomorrow.  If you want a little exercise, we can pull some weeds while we are there too.  Anyway,  I’d like you to meet the farmers.  They are great folks!”

That’s it.  Simple but it can be effective.  To change how people think:

  1. we begin with an expression of common values (mental models),
  2. share a success story of a real life structural change,
  3. tell a story about how behavioral patterns have shifted, and
  4. conclude with a suggested action (consistent with those values).

Mental models don’t change when we tell someone they are doing something wrong.  Arguing with people who just don’t want to hear it will fail!

For example, we know that the world is full of cynicism, selfishness and irresponsible behavior.  Telling someone not to behave in this way will not result in systemic change.

When we see someone throwing a plastic water bottle in the trash for example, simply shouting “hey, don’t do that” will not shift mental models, but rather cause people to retrench and protect their own worldview.

To change an old mental model, it needs to be replaced with a new mental model that is more empowering.

“Out with the old and in with the new” is a tactic that can change mental models.  The new worldview must be compelling and honest.  It must be based in possibility and consistent with commonly held values.

This can work!

Or at least, it is worth a try.  Take the iceberg and “turn it upside down.”   To convince a friend or family member to shift toward more sustainable behaviors, why not try John Henry Newman’s motto:

“Cor ad Cor Loquitur”  – heart speaks to heart

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As an example, I’ll close with one of my favorite short videos.  Notice that Paul Hawken begins with an expression of values and a new compelling worldview (mental model) and then introduces thousands of structures (organizations) that are real (realistic).  He presents a pattern of behavior represented by these structures and closes by claiming that “human kind knows what to do.”  This is a clear call for action.   See if you are moved by the story……

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I believe the shift in mental models that Hawken is talking about is possible  – and in fact is happening now…….

Do you?

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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.

Which comes first – sustainable policies or sustainable behavior? Neither – sustainable thinking must come first!

Last week one of my Sustainable Agriculture students declared “you’ve got to change government policies before you can expect people to change their behavior.”  Of course we know that policies such as tax incentives and regulations are effective in influencing human behavior.  But changing policies (particularly in the current divisive political climate) is a daunting task.  This blog post presents a framework for thinking about social change.  We’ll begin with an iceberg!

icebergpict1-250x239The “iceberg” model is used by systems thinkers to understand the root cause of human behaviors.  In this model, an “event” such as stopping your car at a red light, is influenced by the “pattern of behavior” of everyone stopping at the red light, which is caused by “systemic structures” such as the traffic light and state and federal motor vehicle regulations.  But the root cause of the entire systems is the “mental model” or the thought that safety matters and society has a right to regulate individual behavior.  Get it?

Lets apply the iceberg model to try to understand why so many of us participate in non-sustainable behaviors.  Another example…  An event might be something like putting a dollar in a vending machine and purchasing a bottle of water.  This simple action is part of a larger pattern of behavior in the industrialized world we might think of as “convenient lifestyle.”  It is so common that most of us don’t even think about it.  When we are thirsty, it is “common sense” to buy water delivered in a plastic bottle – so we do.

bottlesOf course environmental activists shudder when they think about this everyday act.  We buy millions of plastic water bottles daily, drink the water (it takes just a few minutes) and then……. we throw the bottle “away” (most plastic water bottles are NOT recycled in the U.S.).  We know that a plastic water bottle will not decompose in a landfill.  So for a few minutes use…… we toss out a product that will last a thousand years!   Yikes, not very sustainable, huh?

dasani

How can this be?   Well, lets look around and notice the systemic structures we have created to support this behavior.  I don’t know about you, but when I look around, I see Dasani vending machines EVERYWHERE. We buy plastic water bottles because we have created structures to make this kind of behavior easy.

To change behavior, we MUST change systemic structures, such as:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

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The dominant structures in the industrial world encourage non-sustainable behavior. For example:

  • a national highway system that makes individual driving more convenient than mass transportation,
  • fast food restaurants on every corner,
  • subsidized fossil fuel,
  • tax incentives for factory farms,
  • weak regulations on off-shore drilling, and
  • plastic water bottle vending machines EVERYWHERE,

…..are all systemic structures that encourage non-sustainable behavior.  And why have we created physical things, and organizational and policy structures that support and encourage non-sustainable behavior?

Right – mental models!   Mental models support systemic structures that in turn influence social behavior (patterns) and individual behavior (events).

Mental models are powerful!

The iceberg helps us to understand why it is so difficult to change human behavior.  Unless we look well “below the waterline” of the iceberg, we will never understand the root cause of non-sustainable behaviors.

icebergpict1-250x239Non-sustainable actions and patterns dominate mainstream society.  We burn fossil fuels carelessly, we allow toxins to enter our air, water and bloodstream, we purchase products that are cheap (because someone in a developing country isn’t paid a living wage).  People frustrated by this behavior, try to change regulations (structures) and encourage more sustainable behaviors (patterns).  But change comes slowly  – primarily because of mental models.

As a faculty member at a major agricultural university in the late 1980’s, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to change patterns of behavior within the conventional farming community by flying around the U.S. giving speeches about sustainable agriculture.  As a university administrator, I spent much of the 1990’s trying to change the structure of university research and extension education programs to be supportive of a more sustainable agriculture.  Neither strategy proved effective, primarily because of rigid mental models.

Maybe we need to try another approach.  While activists are working to change policies and educators are trying to help change personal behavior, we also need to change the way we think.   Unless mental models (common sense) shifts, changes in behavior and patterns won’t last.

When mental models begin to shift, structures, patterns of behavior, and events will follow.

This is basic systems theory (which I will explore more in a future blog).  For now, lets just say this concept is represented by the reinforcing feedback loop pictured on the left.

Not convinced?   Lets look at how a powerful mental model prevents us from protecting human health.  Remember the salmonella outbreak and egg recall that struck the U.S. egg industry last summer?  The industrial system for producing eggs not only treats live hens as if they were part of a giant machine, but can’t adequately protect human health.  Of course, industrial egg production is part of a larger pattern of behavior many of us think of as factory farming.  These farms make sense in the context of the industrialized worldview that is our dominant mental model of agriculture today.  Many of us believe this must change.

However, as long as most humans continue to pursue busy, stressed and competitive lives focused money, power and prestige, we will not likely take the steps necessary to change the way we grow food.  The mental model of “industrialized living” not only results in human stress but also recalled eggs.   Lets have a look at an example….

Can you identify characteristics of the mental models that result in BOTH industrial eggs and industrial human lives?  What attributes drive both of these systems?  Well, perhaps……

  1. a desire to increase productivity (at all costs)
  2. systems which focus on efficiency (at all costs)
  3. the belief that success is defined by how much money you make
  4. the belief that humans are not subject to natures rules
  5. what else?
  6. please share your ideas in the comment box below.

Systems thinkers know that while mental models are difficult to change, this is where we will find the leverage needed to create a sustainable human society.

The next logical question ishow?

I will attempt to deal with this question in a future blog.

For now, please share your own thoughts in the comment box below.  Thank you…..

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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.

Social justice must remain one of the three pillars of sustainable agriculture

walmart-sustainability

Last week I posted a blog exploring the recent announcement that the Walmart Corporation plans to sell over $1 billion of goods purchased from small and mid-sized farms.  Walmart also intends to train 1 million farmers in sustainable farming practices around the world.

I congratulated the corporation for their efforts to improve the economic status of small farmers and to enhance environmental quality by minimizing waste.  But I’m concerned that the significant economic power of the Walmart Corporation will cause a shift in emphasis of  sustainability programs to focus on only two of the three pillars of sustainable agriculture.

An earlier blog examined the three pillars of sustainability: 1) economic vitality, environmental quality, and 3) social equity/justice.

pillarsAs sustainability becomes increasingly recognized as a good business strategy, there may be a tendency to “sanitize” the concept by focusing more on environmental practices that are economically feasible and leave social equity out of the equation.  I believe it is vitally important to keep social equity as a central goal of sustainable food and farming systems.

I’ve been involved in sustainable agriculture research, teaching and policy debates for over 20 years.  In the early days, the dominant voice calling for a more sustainable agricultural system came from disenfranchised and struggling farmers working in community.  University scientists slowly joined the chorus and today, with the Walmart announcement, sustainable agriculture has entered the mainstream.

While its important to recognize the progress we’ve made over the past 20 years, I’m concerned that if we allow the power of corporate money to expunge social equity from the quest for sustainable food and farming systems, we will lose the soul of the movement.

The good news is that there remains a powerful voice calling for social equity in food and farming systems, not only professing a strong commitment to the ideal of food sovereignty, but also presenting practical steps toward that end.  And much like the early days of sustainable agriculture, the leadership in the quest for food sovereignty is coming from community groups including family farmers.

The concept of food sovereignty emerged from the struggle against oppression and was coined by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina. In the U.S., the National Family Farm Coalition recently joined with a host of hunger, poverty, environmental, and faith-based non-profits to give birth to U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance.  As we grow more sustainable farms, we need to stay true to the vision of the people who began the movement…. those farmers and others working in community to improve their lives.

As an example, my University of Massachusetts Sustainable Agriculture class visited the Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center in Orange, MA and identified them as a terrific example of a sustainable food and farming organization based on all three pillars.

greenwashwalmart

As Walmart enters the sustainable agriculture arena, I hope we will hold true to the original vision and support those people and organizations that remain committed to all three pillars of sustainability.  I’ll conclude with the opening statement from a resolution created by the Food Sovereignty People’s Movement Assembly..

“…over a half-century ago, Mahatma Gandhi led a multitude of Indians to the sea to make salt—in defiance of the British Empire’s monopoly on this resource critical to people’s diet. The action catalyzed the fragmented movement for Indian independence and was the beginning of the end for Britain’s rule over India. The act of “making salt” has since been repeated many times in many forms by people’s movements seeking liberation, justice and sovereignty: Cesar Chavez, Nelson Mandela, and the Zapatistas are just a few of the most prominent examples. Our food movement— one that spans the globe—seeks food sovereignty from the monopolies that dominate our food systems with the complicity of our governments. We are powerful, creative, committed and diverse.

It is our time to make salt.”*

I believe social justice requires us to consider the impact of our actions on others.  When “normal” behavior, such as buying cheap food at Walmart, results in the suffering of others, I need to stop and think about my behavior.  The only way for food prices to remain as low as they are at Walmart, is for the corporation to exploit workers and farmers.  This is not sustainable – nor just.  It is a choice.

* From: A resolution of the Food Sovereignty Alliance.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  For more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now, or check out my blog, Just Food Now, or my webpage, Just Food NowIn the face of hunger, poverty and social injustice – just grow food and grow food justly.

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