University of Missouri professor-emeritus in economics Dr. John Ikerd spoke at OSU this afternoon with a good group there to here him, including some of the leaders in the state’s sustainable agriculture movement, including Dr. Jim Horne of the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Rita Scott of the Oklahoma Farm and Food Alliance, Jane Talkington of OSU (who is working on an exciting new project to build an ecovillage on 100 acres of OSU property next to the main campus), Harlan Hentges, the “organic lawyer”, also Nancy Osborn, long-time Oklahoma Food Coop member and co-owner of Cordero Farms. The University of Missouri at Columbia is something of a hotbed for the academic study and research of sustainable agriculture. Besides Dr. Ikerd in the Economics Department, the school’s School of Rural Sociology was greatly influenced by its long-time chair (now retired) Dr. Bill Heffernen, known as a “populist pragmatist” who with his wife became founders of what became known as the Missouri School which has focused on structural arrangements and power relationships in agriculture and its associated economics, and students such as Dr. Mary Hendrickson who now are faculty at the school.
The rest of this blog entry consists of notes I took during his presentation, which was titled:
Essentials of Economic Sustainability: Implications for Farm Management
Sustainability: Meeting the needs of the present without diminishing opportunities for the future.
Now is a time of great transition. The next 50 years will see greater changes here at home and throughout the world than we saw in the past 50 years.
The future our young people experience will be very different from our present now.
The 2008 recession continues. It is a blessing in disguise, since it wakes people up. It has also significantly reduced confidence in the prevailing system and increased our understanding of unsustainability. It has made obvious a salient fact our politicians like to deny: our present economy does not meet the needs of everybody.
All economic value comes from nature via society. There are no other possible sources of wealth. Nature is the sole source. In nature, there is no waste. Everything is food for something.
The economy creates nothing without nature. It facilitates productive work but creates nothing that does not have its origin in nature.
One reason our economy is in such trouble, is because we are degrading the productivity of nature by destruction, pollution, etc. As we degrade nature, we degrade the capacity of our money economy.
Most classical economists say that “we only need to get the prices right” for everything to work. This has never happened in history.
The ecological worldview consists of three concentric circles (he had these drawn on a powerpoint slide): the outer ring, encompassing the other two, is nature. The middle ring is society. The inner ring, the donut hole, is the economy.
This is the hierarchy of sustainability. Nature encompasses everything including society and the economy. We are not separate from nature. Society contains within it the economy. Classical economists would relabel these so that the outer ring was economics.
It is a hierarchy because purpose is defined at the higher level. Thus, nature gives purpose to society which gives purpose to the economy.
Some things have no economic value but are absolutely essential for sustainability.
To fix our broken economy, we need to work on our principles.
Ecological Principles — holism (something is greater than the sum of its parts), diversity, interdependence.
Social Principles — trust, kindness, courage
Economic Principles — scarcity, efficiency, sovereignity (freedom to choose, absence of coercion)
It takes moral courage to live sustainably. We can violate these principles but there are always consequences that cannot be evaded or escaped.
Economic values: these are individual, instrumental (always expecting something in return), and impersonal
Social values: these are interpersonal, instrumental, and personal.
Ethical values: these are communal, non-instrumental, impersonal.
(Bob note: you’ll have to read his book, The Essentials of Economic Sustainability, for the economic, social, and ethical values to make sense since he was talking so fast I barely got the points written down and he was on to the next. lol)
Economic sustainability requires non-economic investments to ensure economic sustainability. Our problem is that our present economics is inherently short term. No economic investment that pays off after you are dead makes sense to our present system of economics. If you make an investment that will pay off for your children, you are adding a non-economic value — your love for your children — to the economic equation. Thus our need for non-economic investments to ensure economic sustainability that lasts for generations.
The Hierarchy of Intentionality governs what we can do as individuals and when we act as governments. It consists of ethical, social, and individual values.
The essential characteristics of economic sustainability:
Characteristics of economics — resourceful, regenerative, resilient
Essential function of markets: establish value, ration, reward, allocate
Essential functions of governments in economics are to ensure autonomy and equity — economic, social, and intergenerational.
The hierarchy of economic sustainability is the hierarchy of human happiness.
There has been no increase overall in human well being in the developed countries since the 1950s. Once basic needs are met, it is the quality of relationships that are critical to happiness. People must have some sense of meaning and purpose.
SUSTAINABLE FARM MANAGEMENT
Sustainable farm management asks how farmers should relate to nature and each other.
Farms and farmers have purpose beyond making income or wealth. Farmers accept responsibility for the well-being of society and the future of humanity.
Sustainable farming respects the basic principles and laws of nature.
- Managed as wholes,
- Value diversity,
- Interdependent relationships
- Mutual benefits
- Trusting relationships
- Caring relationships
- Moral courage to be trusting and kind,
- Produce economic value
- Uses resources wisely and efficiently,
- Free to make choices (sovereign)
Managing Farms for Sustainability
Farmers must respect the purpose, principles, and priorities of nature and align their actions with the hierarchies of sustainability and intentionality.
Sustainable farming is a way of life, not just a business. It involves, ethics, society, as well as economics.
Sustainable agriculture must provide the basis for a sustainable human society.
Managing for sustainability is a better way to farm and live and leads to happiness.
We are biological beings as dependent upon nature as our hunter gatherer ancestors.
Life is too precious to live without hope. While I know things look grim, there have never been so many people who know the way we are going is wrong. Some estimate that 1/3 of the population is actively engaged in some kind of sustainability activity. We know we need values. Adam Smith could not imagine economics without social and ethical values
Dr. Ikerd says he is an “ordained economist,” which is a bit of a play on words. All economists have certain assumptions on which they base their theories. Modern classical economics is based on assumptions like “wants are insatiable,” and “creative people can find a solution to anything, we can always find a resource to substitute for a resource that is exhausted. Human creativity is capable of solving all problems.”
Economists present these as facts, but they are not facts like “the earth orbits around the sun” is a fact. Moreover, these rosy assumptions of economists are contradicted by the Laws of Thermodynamics, which are physical laws that constrain all human activity. The laws can be summarized as — you can’t win, you can’t break even, you can’t get out of the game. The 2nd law in particular is problematic for economists. Every time you do something useful, you lose some of it, every time, without any exception whatsoever.
US ethanol policy is insane. Why, during a drought, are we burning up 40% of our scarce corn crop as corn ethanol?
Question from the floor (from a farmer): How can a farmer transition to this kind of agriculture.
Answer: The first thing that has to happen is that the farmer has to change his head and unlearn the lies he or she has been taught. Farmers must learn how to farm using solar energy. While corn ethanol makes no sense for cars, FARM BASED ETHANOL makes major sense, as does pyrolisis of waste materials (wood chips, crop residues, etc) to make fuel and growing oil crops to make biodiesel (Bob note: see http://www.energyconservationinfo.org/compendium.htm#2.2%20Biogas.) Farmers and the food production system are using 10 calories of fossil fuels to make 1 calorie of food. Farmers should forage-feed their animals. As far as marketing is concerned, if sustainable farmers try to deal with the conventional ag marketing system, they will be perpetually at a disadvantage. The sustainable farmer must create a new food chain, like CSAs and customer-producer ownder cooperatives. What motivates ecological farming? Stewardship.
Government is a reflection of the people.
There are more hungry people in the US now than there were in 1960s. And those who have enough to eat, aren’t very healthy. So how is it that we brag about our food system as if we were doing somethig right?
Afterwards, in a conversation with Jim Horne of the Kerr Center, he told me about a project they funded to test growing sunflowers for on-farm biodiesel. See
Homegrown Horsepower: Thad Doye’s Sunflower Biodiesel
http://www.kerrcenter.com/nwsltr/2006/summer/summer2006.pdf scroll to page 4
Crushing Seeds and Crunching Numbers: Sunflower Biodiesel