The Imperfect Vision of 2020

The urge to write again surged as our nation prepared for the dual milestones of Memorial Day and 100K deaths from COVID-19 simultaneously. I acknowledge the peril of commenting on a crisis while in the middle of it and wish to avoid the temptation of “predicting” outcomes just as they become assured. The latter does seem to be a common political practice these days, showing just how much courage we are lacking in terms of leadership at all levels of society. Lack of effective leadership may, in fact, be the most dangerous and pervasive pandemic of our times.

I am old enough to remember when, as the turn of the century approached, many nonprofit organizations began visioning exercises with the convenient assumption that the year 2020 would represent a chance to achieve a “perfect vision” for the world, or at least for their own domain of influence. We could not have imagined how distant from that ideal we would be at this point in history. Of course, there are good things happening too, but the number of crises we currently face, without clear and actionable solutions, is astounding. It is a common perception that we are adrift in ways we had not anticipated, though any meaningful attempt to correct that status remains elusive.

What would it take for our society to achieve the high expectations of a 2020 vision? I think it may be too shallow or gratuitous to assume that lack of leadership is the whole problem. Leaders do need followers, after all, or at least constituents who are willing to give their leaders the benefit of the doubt until, as a group, convinced otherwise. Much has also been said about American individualism overwhelming our sense of the public good. This is no doubt a factor, but it is not clear to me if this condition is causal or just another symptom of an underlying problem. Something more fundamental seems to have shifted in recent decades, and I may have a sense of what has changed.

When I was in college, more than just a few years ago, there was a weird dialectic beginning to appear that seems only to have grown since. I studied a wide array of subjects then, as I still do, and the teachers I respected most, whether in the arts and humanities or both hard and soft sciences, emphasized one thing in common – everything we think to be true must be examined, leading to the opportunity for learning, discovery and, ultimately, meaning in life. Yeah, this is core message of the liberal arts for sure. I flourished like a good crop of zucchini in that fertile soil. But there was an emerging trend on that small Midwestern campus too, which was a tendency for some to assume just the opposite, that answers are relatively easy to come by and complexity should be avoided as though an instrument of evil. This latter way of thinking, while only a small seed at the time, seemed to grow over the years, affecting not only the social structure on college campuses everywhere, but also political reality and every national election since.

I believe, however, that the dynamics of the situation go deeper than a struggle between simplicity and complexity in the public sphere. After all, even the most complicated truths sometimes seem the simplest to comprehend once you have studied a matter sufficiently. A more important indicator might be the relative time frame of one’s grasp of what is true, and how quickly a reward for perceiving it can be claimed. Reality, after all, can be brutally stubborn when it comes to yielding its just rewards, and my generation grew up at a time when looking for shortcuts to those rewards came newly into style.

It was in those days of somewhat credible innocence that I began to think about the multidimensional nature of life, with human purpose and, not incidentally, authentic connection to one another, residing in the fourth dimension of time. Only as four-dimensional beings, I surmised then, could we perceive a good direction to go in almost any troubling situation. A truncated sense of time was, in my understanding, a sign of dysfunction and moral confusion. Applying that thinking today, I cannot help but wonder if a growing inability for any of us to occupy the perspective of extended time, with the skill to both remember and anticipate events as we consider important matters, might be at the root of our problems with leadership.

Nearly everyone has heard about the inclination for Native American cultures to make decisions based on the effects that will be visited upon seven generations. As my favorite native writer Vine Deloria, Jr. liked to point out, this does not refer to seven generations into the future, as is commonly misperceived, but three generations back, three into the future, and with a firm grasp of the current generation as well. This is significant because most healthy and fortunate people today still can hope to know this many generations personally while living. In other words, this is neither rocket science nor mystical speculation, but a realistic measure of the wisdom that can be attained by the elders of any society.

Think about it. My own great grandparents, three of whom I knew, were born in the 19th Century, while my great grandchildren, if I am blessed to know them, will likely live well into the 22nd. This common potential to span multiple centuries within an individual person’s experience is a true miracle, one never taken lightly in traditional societies. While still at the beginning of a new century, each of us has the ability, and perhaps the urgent responsibility, to directly influence the next one, and all the critical decisions that will be made to get us there safe, healthy and thriving as a species.

The question I have for all of us right now is this. Are we able to individually exercise judgments and collectively makes decisions thinking back at least a century and imagining where we want to be a hundred years into the future?  I submit that would be the four-dimensional approach we need right now with respect to the important matters before us. That would be the proper way to realize the promise of a 2020 vision of the future that we all can embrace and respect, until which time our great grandchildren inherit the civilization we are willing to leave them.

Holy Saturday

I last wrote on this blog nearly four years ago. That time – early fall of 2016 – was poignant for a few reasons, but especially because of big changes to the American political landscape that were about to occur. Back then, I thought maybe I was beginning a new series of essays that would appear in the ensuing months and years. It did not happen, however, partly because of some very confusing things that occurred in my personal and professional life, as well as the public sphere. I’m hoping this will be the new beginning I was thinking about in that less complex and troubled time.

As the name of this piece implies, I began writing it on the day between Good Friday and Easter this year, which happened also to be my birthday. It is perhaps easy to take too seriously the convergence of such occasions, but please understand that, considering the way Easter bounces around each year, this kind of thing does not happen all that often for me. I can remember over the years my birthday falling on both Good Friday and Easter, as well as Palm Sunday, but this is the only time I can recall it falling on that mysterious day in the middle. Continue reading

When the Very Old is New Again

An Onondaga elder once explained to me that plants come to us when they are needed. If we show them respect by using them and appreciating their gifts they will grow stronger. They will stay with us as long as they are respected. But if we forget about them, they will leave.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses

That which hath been is that which shall be; and that which hath been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

The summer of 2016 was when everything started to change for me. The most obvious change was in my professional life, as I moved from my long-held position of executive director with the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) to the Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) at The Ohio State University. My title remained the same, but almost everything else is completely different in my work life now. Other changes occurred or began over this period, and they will always be merged in my memory as a single complex transition that may take some years to play out completely.

The immediate point here is that I simply had no time to manage my nearly 4,000 square feet of garden space over this growing season, and my choices were to either put in a cover crop for the whole summer, or try something that would require the lowest maintenance possible. Since I have always been fascinated with ancient forms of agriculture, I decided to try a Native American style “three sisters” garden, utilizing heirloom varieties of corn with pole beans and winter squash, to see if this style of companion planting really could manage itself. Truth be told, I added a fourth sister in the form of several sunflower varieties interspersed with the other crops, and bordered the outside of the plot with other things I like, including summer squash and okra. Continue reading

The Future of Sustainable Agriculture

We have come a long way in the 15 years I have been privileged to serve as executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. When I first started, I remember being ridiculed or, even worse, ignored in a lot of public contexts where PASA now is a welcome voice for change. For this we can feel some pride, while also thanking myriad other national groups and personalities who have paved the way, often in the face of withering uphill battles.

As I prepare to transition to a new position in June, my main concern is that we don’t lose the momentum gained over the years. There are a number of critical factors that I believe need to be kept in mind, as follows:

  • Words matter. Though faced with abuse and even cooption of the word sustainable by corporate interests wanting to steal our thunder or undermine the power of our ideals, we must never give in to that. Other words like natural, local, and fresh are similarly threatened, even within our own ranks, but we must never relinquish or walk away from the words that got us here in the first place, even as we develop more descriptive terms, like regenerative, to convey the significance of our vision.

Continue reading

Looking Back; Surging Ahead

It should readily be apparent that we arrived at PASA’s 25th annual conference thinking more about the next 25 years than the past. We could easily have built this year’s conference around a celebration of all that has come before, and indeed there was some of that to be found in the conference center and on the program.  But the predominant motivation for all of us – staff and board members alike – in planning the event was to make manifest the urgency of taking action to change agricultural systems in the immediate future, and our plans for doing so.

I also want to add here a few additional thoughts about the nature of this organization, our work together and the success we anticipate for the new programs PASA is now developing. To do this I want to return to a favorite topic of mine, one that I talked about just over fifteen years ago as I first interviewed for the job of executive director. Instead of looking back just 25 years, though, I’d like to go back in our consideration to a little over 500 years ago. Continue reading