Five Truths V: finding wisdom in humility

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I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. The third blog in the series looked at how leadership becomes disconnected from others, and the forth looks at how “busyness” keeps us from the truth. This fifth post is my last blog post for 2012 and examines the last of the series of “my truths.”

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My Truth Five:. . .  the quest for sustainability may be the best hope for public universities, the farming communities we love, and perhaps for ourselves –  but this quest must be founded upon a strong sense of humility. 

This “truth” had much support in the survey.  About 87% of the respondents choose either strong or full agreement.  Public universities badly need a bold idea to focus our energy and rebuild hope –  and thus “save ourselves from human cleverness“.

The public agricultural universities that should contribute to a more sustainable food and farming system are perceived by many to be part of the problem.  The American public has questioned the credibility of land grant universities because of the seemingly close relationship they maintain with the world of business.  The response to this criticism has been that that university research contributes to economic growth and business is the engine of growth.  And this appears to be partly true, at least in the short term.  But universities should also think beyond the short-term economic growth.  One respondent wrote:

“A country’s strength and standing in the world community should be measured by the health of its ecosystems…”

A public research university devoted to ecosystem health (rather than corporate wealth) would certainly be a shift from the situation today where universities have created special offices designed to attract corporate funding and faculty are rewarded based on how much grant money they attract. This is a far cry from the university of the people created over a century ago.  University leaders respond that they have no choice but to seek private funding, as the public commitment to higher education continues to erode.  One has to wonder however about the long-term effect of corporate partnerships have on the mission of a public university.  Students in our Agricultural Systems Thinking class investigated and presented their own thoughts on a corporate gift from the Monsanto Corporation recently.   When I first picked up the banner of sustainable agriculture in my own work, I had great hopes that the public university I worked for would make a serious institutional commitment to this great project.  The initial response among most of my colleagues was ridicule and derision.  That was over 25 years ago.  Today the university I work for (a different institution) has taken up the banner of sustainability as part of our public message.  While I applaud this message, I hope we are also ready to examine our relationship with corporate power and the influence of corporate money and rebuild the dream of a public institution that truly serves the public good.

University leaders have called for a transformation in research and education to embrace the goals of sustainability.  My hope remains that a major public university will make a serious institutional commitment to this great project.  Our agricultural programs are working toward this great change.  So far, much of the progress toward sustainability by my own university has been in the arena of cost saving changes to our energy systems and the construction of new energy efficient buildings – and this is good.  If we are going to truly transform our research and educational institution however, a fundamental shift in how we think about sustainability is needed.

A few of our leaders are indeed exploring how to think about sustainability and are trying to help faculty grapple with the fundamental change that is needed if we are to achieve this transformation.  For me, this is a transformation from the quest for knowledge to the quest for wisdom and recognizes that thought alone is not enough. This quest for wisdom, I suspect, will require a shift to a perspective founded upon a strong sense of humility.   T.S. Eliot wrote;

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Maybe Eliot meant that only the ‘wisdom of humility’ is truly sustainable (if we substitute  Eliot’s word “endless” for sustainable).  In any case, it seems a worthwhile quest.  And it sort of makes sense that the sustainable agriculture community might be a good place to begin this quest for wisdom in humility, as the Latin word “humilitas” has the same root as humus and means “to be grounded” or “from the earth.”  What do you think?

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Five Truths IV: we are just too busy

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I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit.  The third in the series looked at how leadership becomes disconnected from the rest of us. This post examines the forth of “my truths.”

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My Truth Four: many of us in agriculture are running ever faster to stay even –  on a treadmill where farmers pursue technologies that don’t offer long-term solutions, researchers pursue the next grant, and teachers offer ever bigger classes.  There is nothing sustainable about the way we live, the way we work, the way we farm, or the way we relate to the earth.

Everyone seems to be running ever faster to stay even.  At least 96% of the survey respondents thought so, indicating strong or full agreement with this truth (see my introduction blog).

Farmers adopting the latest technology are particularly vulnerable.  Each new technology that enhances productivity or improves efficiency makes the technology treadmill run faster.   For those who know how to read a systems model (see this link for instructions), the diagram here presents the dilemma.

The problem is not intuitively obvious.  Most of us think increases in food production would be a good thing.  But the diagram above suggests that as Total Production increases, Commodity Supply also increases (the “s” indicates it moves in the same direction).  Therefore a technology that increases yield does little to benefit individual farmers as competitors quickly adopt the new technology and total production drives prices down.  The major beneficiary is the company that created the new technology and consumers who realize lower food prices.  In the industrial farming system the greatest return on investments in technology go not to farmers but corporations. The technology treadmill turns and if you don’t get on, you get lost.  But if you do get on, you have to run faster to stay even.  As a society, little is gained but much is lost.  Food is cheap, but there are other problems.

One survey participant wrote:

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

This is true for both “agriculture and society” as the quote suggests.  We substitute material things for ‘substance’ and sacrifice honest relationships, personal serenity, ecological integrity, and inter-generational responsibility.  What we have gained is fast,  cheap food and very busy lives.

There is no end in sight so we run ever faster, yet it doesn’t seem possible to keep up with the accelerating speed of the treadmill.  Many of us (farmers and non-farmers alike) know we are caught in our own personal treadmills but don’t get off, thus we each contribute to making the treadmill run faster.

Stepping off before the inevitable fall is difficult, but is a necessary act of honesty and courage.  According to T.S. Eliot again, in our normal workday lives all too many of us wear…

 …strained time-ridden faces

Distracted from distraction by distraction

Filled with fancies and empty of meaning

We search for meaning in ‘distractions’ and amusements.  We find our days filled with emptiness, so we run faster.  Some of us deaden this feeling with addictions like yet more work, desiring something indefinable but not achievable.  And the treadmill keeps moving, turning, ever turning.  Eliot writes. . .

Desire itself is movement

Not in itself desirable;

The process of getting off the treadmill begins with telling your own truth and acting according to a clear set of personal values.  When I am clear on my personal values and my actions are consistent with those values, I know that I am not only more effective in my work but I find more joy in my life.

Many of us who came to work in agriculture because we deeply cared about people, hunger, or the environment found ourselves working for the economic self-interests of those who hold money and power.  But we can’t see the truth of what has happened as long as we are on the treadmill.

The industrial agricultural system and the public university that supports it are on an economic treadmill that won’t change unless we change individually.  We need our lives to be less busy and more full.  We must step off the treadmill before we fall off, and in doing so perhaps save ourselves and the earth.

My fifth and last truth suggests that the quest to discover wisdom in humility may be what we need to save ourselves from our own “busyness” and wake up to “the truth.”

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts or my personal webpage or my resource page.

Five Truths III: leaders of hierarchical organizations become disconnected

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I began this series of blogs on “my truths” with an introduction to the project and then explored “My Truth One (that modern agriculture is not sustainable).”  My second truth examined the tension between public good and private benefit. This post examines the third of “my truths.”

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

There was slightly less agreement with this statement among survey respondents (see my introduction blog for an explanation).  Only 76% indicated strong or full agreement.  One participant noted the complexity of the situation:

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

 Another participant disagreed for a different reason.

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

Still another sees this as part of a larger pattern.

 “…the leadership of the farming community has come to rule farm policy, but it is only fronting for the interests of powerfully concentrated private capital.”

These are strong statements and seem to carry a fair amount of anger.  If we can get past the anger, we might begin to notice how all large organizations seem to allow their leaders to become disconnected from the vast majority of their membership.

Most organizations have promotion and reward policies that support individuals who conform to the dominant paradigm.  Talented conformists are the people chosen for positions of power and higher rank.  Talented ‘trouble makers’ rarely find themselves in positions of authority, and when they do – they generally lose some of their ‘fire’ as they learn to compromise to get along.  Why is that?  What happens to people when they get into positions of power?  It seems they get disconnected from the ‘rank and file’ and more important perhaps, they seem to lose track of the mission of the organization.  Of course this is not always true.

I know many organizational leaders who have dedicated their talents and passion to serving their organization with integrity.  At the same time, I’ve seen many more begin a leadership career with strong ideals of service only to get beaten down by power and politics.  I don’t think we should blame the individuals.   In today’s typical organizational hierarchy of power-over relationships and competition for resources, many are led to sacrifice values they care for deeply, just to survive.

In a hierarchy of power, successful leaders may lose their focus on mission and values just to keep the organization afloat.  Even well-meaning sustainable agriculture organizations are susceptible to this problem.  One survey participant wrote;

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

Replacing old leadership with new voices rarely changes systems built on hierarchical power-and-control relationships.   All of our mental models of how organizations work (especially with respect to the relationship between leaders and followers) carry this fatal flaw.  Leaders and followers (members or employees) act in collusion, expecting leaders somehow to know what is wrong with complex systems and how to ‘fix it.’  This is a form of dependency that is not healthy in a living system or community.

We need to understand how organizations create an environment in which leaders and members alike have internalized power-over ways of thinking and accepted either the role of “boss” or of the “bossed.”  Power-over thinking makes domination and control normal and acceptable.

T.S. Eliot, warns us that;

We shall die of the absolute paternal care

That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

 

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

Part of the problem is the hierarchical model of organization and part of the problem is our “busyness”.  Stopping to think about the situation requires an investment in time.  But we are running so fast to sustain the status quo that we can’t even wonder if the status quo is worth preserving.  Busyness kills sustained thought and creativity.  My “forth truth” shall examine this systemic problem of organizations built on the industrial model.

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I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   Go here for more of my World.edu posts. And finally if you are ready to study sustainable food and farming, check out our our Bachelor of Sciences degree program.