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

Dancing with Nature: The Sustainable Challenge

I am not much of a professional sports fan these days.  But every year at this time I remember myself as a kid, pulling out my old Maury Wills baseball mitt and Carl Yastrzemski bat from the basement to play outside with my friends, following what seemed like endless winters while growing up in the Midwest.

Throwing a baseball back and forth for hours felt like absolute freedom. And every once in a while you could reach an exalted state with a best friend whereby the two of you would feel at one with each other, the gloves and the ball – nothing would miss the mark, until you fell out of that groove due to fatigue, or maybe the dinner bell ringing.

The same kind of thing happens with other sports, including an outdoor sport like fishing, another harbinger of spring. As any good fisherman will tell you, it is at those times when you feel unified with the fish, and the stream in which you both do your dance, that the true nature of the sport and the freedom it has to offer is realized. For me, there is no greater sense of liberation, and belonging at the same time, than to commune in this way with nature, often in the company of a dear friend. Continue reading

Denial, Avoidance & System Failure

Those of us who have toiled much of our adult lives in the world of alternative and sustainable agriculture sometimes feel like we’ve been dressed up for years to attend a party that has never arrived.  We get closer and closer, it seems, though the main event just doesn’t materialize. But even without the culminating experience we hope for and expect – a complete revolution in farming and food systems – we also know that its achievement is no less critical.

Problem is, there is no amount of empirical evidence or scientific analysis that can make a true revolution happen. Such input just piles up, as though behind some kind of socio-political dam until desperate situations can unleash the change that will flow down like rushing waters. The science itself can sometimes become part of that obstruction, preventing necessary change more than pushing it ahead as we’d like to believe.

I’ve said it before and it bears repeating – there has never been a time in human history when we’ve known so much about what must happen, yet remain so incapable of taking constructive steps toward a better future.  We see the tragic loss of topsoil and biodiversity around the globe, the rise of super-pests of all kinds, driven by technology unfettered with ethics, and the increasingly failed economic systems that enrich the barons of Big Food while leaving farmers quite literally “in the dust.” We see the rise of chronic illness corresponding to the nutritional diminishment of our food, and rural communities choosing to install prisons and landfills as “hopeful” strategies to achieve economic development. We see the condition of the natural environment changing right before our eyes, as we continue to invent increasingly efficient methods for extracting fossil fuels and releasing more carbon into the atmosphere.  However, we can’t seem to muster the necessary determination to do anything broadly effective about any of this. Continue reading

Letting Nature Lead

The past year has been an extraordinary one in the world of sustainable agriculture for many reasons, some of which may not be fully understood for many years to come.  That year (November ’12 thru November ’13) included much attention across the country to labeling of genetically engineered foods, including two high-profile public referendums that went down to defeat in California and the state of Washington. For many, this effort, occurring state-by-state, has become the holy grail of the effort to promote local, sustainable and organic food and farming systems for the future.

But for me and many of my closest colleagues across the country, the past year has been about something much less glamorous, i.e. the drive to understand, explain and then fix the problems in proposed regulations associated with the federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This was certainly a long slog by any measure, with dozens of folks working together to generate hundreds of pages of public commentary in response to thousands of pages of material we were given to digest last January. It was an extraordinary experience that I wouldn’t want to repeat, but the sort of work that had to be done at a critical moment in our sustainable food system movement. Continue reading