Sustainability and Relevance

John M. Gerber, Director

University of Massachusetts Extension

Amherst, MA 01002

Presented in Portland, ME on September 30, 1999

9th National Extension Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Conference


I applaud the organizers of the conference for choosing to focus on sustainability. The title of my presentation in the program is Maintaining Extension's Relevance: Changing Issues and Changing Clientele. I will try to touch on the ideas of relevance and change, within the overarching context of sustainability. But please be forewarned - my ideas are not necessarily those of other Extension Directors or Land Grant leaders. I try to tell my truth, as I know it today. This presentation consists of my current thinking on sustainability, three levels of relevancy (relevancy to the public, relevancy to our constituents, and relevancy to ourselves), and concludes with some thinking on change. Lets begin with sustainability.



Although the term sustainability is often overused and sometimes abused by politicians, academic leaders and corporation public relations representatives, for me sustainability remains a vision worthy to serve. That is of course, if we are talking about sustainability of something of lasting value, like the planet, humanity, or our capacity as a society to love and care for each other. If on the other hand our focus today is simply on sustaining a 20th century organization which provides us with employment, than I'm in the wrong place. Organizations like ours will survive and thrive if they serve their mission and care for their people. If we begin acting in ways we think will sustain the organization itself, blowing with the ever-changing political winds, we loose focus on the mission and go into decline. Personally, I'm not worried about the long term sustainability of the organization called Cooperative Extension. I contend that either Extension will survive or some other organization that does the same type of work will arise. There is a basic societal need for knowledge and wisdom, but the form in which it is created and shared may change. If Cooperative Extension disappears, some other institution will take its place.


My focus today is on sustainability of the earth, humanity, and the ideals which I cherish, like community, wisdom, service and love. Of course, I hope Extension will be one of the organizations that participates in the generation of knowledge and wisdom in the next millennium. As a director, I try to speak out on how Extension must change in order to survive and thrive. In Massachusetts I work toward that end. But today, I intend to talk about something bigger than any organization or institution.


Many of us have been thrashing around with definitions and understandings of sustainability since we were introduced to LISA in the early 1980's. My own experience with sustainability is in the agricultural arena, but I believe those of you working in wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture will be able to relate your experiences to some of mine. LISA, the Low Input Sustainable Agriculture program of the USDA was an honest attempt to bring attention to the non-sustainability of our current agricultural production system which exploits and degrades soil, water and people. And it worked. LISA did get the attention of those of us working in agriculture. But in doing so, it unnerved a powerful political voice. LISA, which was clearly focused on lowering inputs of non-renewable resources and ecological toxins had to be changed. Lowering inputs was not an acceptable strategy. And while I must admit that simply reducing inputs is a limited strategy, it is surely one of those that must be considered. But that was not why LISA had to change.


Land Grant scientists and chemical industry voices led a battle against the low input strategy using the political tactics of derision and ridicule. They voiced loud criticism of many of the flaws of LISA and also criticized many attributes that were not part of LISA but were constructed in their own minds to discredit the call for agricultural sustainability. It was all too easy to set up "straw men" and then burn them in effigy. Much like the response of agricultural science to Rachel Carson=s Silent Spring a decade earlier, it was a sad spectacle of public educators attempting to sustain their own world view at the expense of an honest public discourse. It was an embarrassing moment for the land grant university.


I share this view of recent history today to give you some context for my own thinking on both sustainability and relevance. This is not the official party line of either USDA or the land grant system. Nevertheless, I believe that unless we create a richer understanding of sustainability through honest, scholarly and sometimes controversial dialogue, we will remain vulnerable to the manipulation of opinion by greedy corporations and arrogant academics.


Many of us who have thought about sustainability have come to accept economic viability, ecological integrity, and social justice as three principle attributes of a sustainable system. I suspect you can find a way to apply these concepts in your own fields. I like these ideas and generally support this perspective, but this description doesn't tell us much about how to achieve sustainability. Recently I've been attracted to the principle of sustainability developed by scientists in Sweden called The Natural Step. While the direct translation of the name of this concept from Swedish may not be particularly useful in English, the concept itself is sound and worth your consideration.


According to the Natural Step, the basic systems conditions, or rules by which human society must work if it is serious about sustainability are:


1. Substances from the earth=s crust must not systematically increase in the ecosphere. That is, fossil fuels, metals and other minerals must not be extracted at rates faster than their slow redeposit and reintegration into the earths crust.


2. Substances produced by society must not systematically increase in the ecosphere. That is, substances must not be produced at a faster pace than they can be reintegrated into the cycles of nature or deposited into the Earth's crust.


3. The physical basis for productivity and diversity of nature must not be systematically diminished. That is, we cannot extract and use fossil fuels and geological water, or allow depletion of soil and biological diversity at rates faster than they are regenerated or replenished.


4. We must provide fair and efficient use of resources with respect to meeting basic human needs. That is, basic human needs must be met in the most fair and resource-efficient methods possible or a population will destroy its own environment in an effort to survive in the short run.


Whether you ascribe to these concepts of sustainability or not, I believe it is critical that we couch our discussion of relevancy within the larger context of a true public good such as long term sustainability. The fourth system condition of The Natural Step is one way to think about public good. And for me, sustainability of the earth, humanity and the ideals mentioned earlier is the ultimate public good. If we evaluated our current practices in wildlife and fisheries management and aquacultural systems, I suspect we would fail several of the sustainability tests suggested by The Natural Step system.



I share this picture of sustainability with you today so that you clearly understand my biases. I have been a critic of the land grant university and an academic administrator in the system for about 10 years. I also want to make it clear that I admire and respect many of the land grant scientists and educators who truly are devoted to serving the public good. There are many. But the vocal defenders of current practices, particularly those used to manage natural resources in exploitive ways, deplete natural fisheries stocks, and destroy wildlife habitat that is key to biodiversity, do not have my respect. There is no excuse in my mind for a public scientist or educator to defend management practices which result in the accumulation of natural toxins (in violation of system condition;

1), human-made toxins (in violation of system condition

2), or sacrifice the long term productive capacity of the soil and water (in violation of system condition

3) or the people (in violation of system condition

4) of this planet.


There is no excuse for public science to support practices which trade short term profit for the long term capacity of managed ecosystems to support our children. We can do better.


I want to be clear that I am not saying that economic viability is unimportant. Short term profit is necessary for businesses to survive, but short term profitability is not enough. Sacrificing the future for the sake of the present is irresponsible. Public science should seek to develop practices and systems which serve both the public good and the best interests of our constituents. Therein lies the relevancy. But most of us seem much too easily convinced that we must choose either private or public good as our primary goal. I don't believe we can afford to choose. I contend that we must serve both.


At the University of Massachusetts we have spent the past 7 years in various stages of strategic planning and marketing. For these purposes, I define marketing not as promotion or "spin-doctoring" of our own personal wants and desires, but as truly listening to the needs of our primary partners and doing our best to provide the kind of research and education products that serve their needs in ways consistent with our public mission. If we do not address the most critical short and long term needs of the farmers, foresters, wildlife managers and others we claim to serve, we will not be relevant to anybody. We do not farm, fish or manage wildlife or natural resources. Unless we are able to work with those who do, we will be irrelevant academicians. If we serve the needs of these special interest groups in ways that are not in the best interest of the larger public, we will violate our mission and sacrifice our relevancy in this way. We must be relevant to both our primary partners and the public good.


I believe that a clear understanding of how the land grant organization serves American citizens, those today and those yet to be born, is key to the future of the institution. Most people agree that the system has an obligation to serve the public. But we have difficulty talking about "who is the public ‑‑ and what is the public good?" I suggest that many of the current research and extension programs are designed not to serve "the public" but to serve particular publics, or special interest groups. I propose that there are interests, common to all people which we might call "basic human needs" such as: affordable and nutritionally adequate food; adequate clothing and shelter; a healthy, livable environment free of violence; opportunities to provide for one's livelihood; and accessible educational opportunities.



Serving the public good does not necessarily mean directly serving the public through educational programs such as home horticulture. Nor does it mean abandoning our traditional constituents. I believe universities must work with the managers in agriculture, forestry and fisheries among others, to address new and emerging issues effectively. While we can surely expand and diversify our constituency base, we cannot afford to abandon those we have traditionally served. Rather, we must work ever harder to be relevant to their needs today and those in the future. Recent USDA requirements to enhance our stakeholder engagement processes is a critical step toward this end. Of course, many of us have been involved in stakeholder engagement for some time. UMass Extension, for example, currently has over 1000 citizens of the Commonwealth serving on one or more of our many advisory committees. Our major challenge has been to ensure a diversity of voices on those committees so that we don't become captured by our own constituency into serving their immediate short term needs at the expense of the public good. At the same time, our engagement with stakeholders must become more meaningful. Weak rules of engagement will not improve our likelihood of serving the needs of primary stakeholders or the public. I support recommendations made by the Consortium for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education that stakeholder engagement standards include:


1. Fairness: Basic fairness requires equal access to the process by all citizens.


2. Transparency: All aspects of the stakeholder process should be in the open and on the public record.


3. Accountability: Those who take the time to provide input and recommendations should be given the basic courtesy of reviewing the written record of any meeting they participated in for accuracy as well as some type of timely reporting as to how the stakeholder input was utilized, and if any specific recommendations were rejected, the reasons why.


4. Balanced Representation: Each institution should be required to demonstrate a good faith effort to solicit input from, and active engagement with, traditionally under‑served or under‑represented constituencies.


5. Comprehensive and Meaningful Role: Stakeholder input should be sought on a variety of different levels, including but not limited to:

* advice on priority setting and program development

* input on both immediate needs and long‑term goals

* participation in relevancy and portfolio reviews

* guidance on monitoring, evaluation, and oversight systems employed to track performance and results

* counsel on emerging technologies, and recommendations for public education and discussion about the mission and directions of the institution.


I believe Extension can serve both the special interests of our immediate constituencies and the public good if we continue to use the many means available to maintain communication and build partnership-based relationships with diverse interest groups. But that too is not enough. I believe we must work at the intersection of issues which serve the public good, benefit our immediate constituents, and elicit our own professions and passions. I believe we must be relevant to ourselves by being consistent with our own personal values.



The so-called "value-free" university must be more laden with 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 satisfaction in my life. Some of the personal values I choose to profess and try to act upon are; truth over objectivity, public service over selfishness, scholarship over politics, and compassion over competition. When my actions have become inconsistent with my personal values, I have gotten sick. I want to share a set of personal values and a belief system that I believe is related to the issue of sustainability.


For the past 2 years I've been privileged to participate in a group of activists and scholars who have put their values in a public forum. Last month we sponsored a 2-day workshop in Moscow, Idaho and Pullman, Washington, in the heart of the dry land wheat growing area of the Palouse, at which we expressed our own beliefs about sustainability and asked others to join us in a public dialogue about the future of agriculture. I believe those of you working in fisheries, wildlife management and aquaculture will also find value in these ideas.


During these workshops, we presented a set of beliefs we had developed a year earlier. It is called the Declaration of Interdependence and it states;


"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Thus begins the Declaration of Independence, the first premise of American democracy, signed by the Founding Fathers on July 4, 1776, to establish independence from tyrannical foreign rule. While honoring the wisdom of the founding documents, we recognize that they have fallen short of providing essential protection against a modern form of tyranny not envisioned in the 18th Century: the tyranny of unbridled market competition, combined with rapidly expanding corporate control of production, marketing, and political power. This new form of tyranny often undermines the Right of humans to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Further, conventional economic analysis, being inherently devoid of ethics and compassion, often supports and directs public policy and private actions detrimental to these Rights. Specifically, we hold these truths to be self-evident:


           that the Earth and all its components (both living and non-living things, including Air, Water, Fire and Earth) and all species have inherent worth apart from their current or anticipated future market value;


           that humans as an integral part of Earth, and Earth as a living entity, are worthy of respect and protection from exploitative actions motivated by unlimited greed and financial self-interest;


           that in community relationships based on love, respect for life, and stewardship of Earth rests the primary source of true abundance, beyond short-term material gain;


           that all things on and in the Earth are interconnected, and that this interdependency is eternal and universal, transcending time and space;


           that according to universal laws of Nature, the quality and sustainability of human life depends on harmonious, interdependent relationships among people, and between people and their natural and social environments.


Humanity's struggle for independence and prosperity has not benefited all persons equally. While many have attained freedom and material prosperity, hundreds of millions chronically lack essential freedoms, the bare necessities of survival, and hope of a decent quality of life. Humanity's struggle has often created dis-harmony with Nature and among people. Where resources essential to future generations are depleted or degraded, and where equitable access is denied, both the current and future quality of life for all humanity is jeopardized and Earth itself is imperiled.


Humanity lacks the wisdom to anticipate which resources will become critically limiting in the future, and which seemingly benign technologies and institutions will later prove to be destructive to the environment, harmful to human health, and contrary to community values and norms. Therefore, we should follow the Precautionary Principle of taking steps to prevent unknown harm, and the Seventh Generation Principle traditionally practiced by many Native Americans, seeking to leave for future generations opportunities better than those we inherited from our ancestors.


Therefore, We Declare Our Interdependence with all things, all peoples and the Earth, of which humanity is an integral part. All decisions must be made wisely, in view of this interdependence.


The dominant economic paradigm, postulating unlimited greed and financial self-interest as the basis for allocating income and wealth, must no longer be allowed to miss-direct public policy or to justify socially, ecologically, and economically harmful behavior of firms and individuals. We challenge the profession of economics to re-invent its paradigm in ways that will become consistent with the first premise of democracy -- that all humans have an unalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. Economics can and should begin to promote sustainable human well-being and long-term stewardship of Earth.


We acknowledge and embrace our responsibility for ourselves, for each other, and for the stewardship of Earth. We invite all people to join us in dedicating our lives and fortunes to the goal of sustaining the ecological integrity of the Earth, and attaining prosperity and quality of life for all.



The Looking Glass group's Declaration of Interdependence is a call for changing the focus on the issues we address. In agriculture, this means shifting from a short-term profitability production focus to a long-term profitability sustainability focus. As experts in the areas of aquaculture, fisheries and wildlife, I'd ask you to think about how the Declaration makes sense or perhaps doesn't in your own field. In any case, we must bring our personal passions to our work.



The title of my talk today included the words "changing issues and changing clientele." Lets begin with clientele. First, I prefer the word constituent or partner to clientele, which for me describes a dependency relationship rather than one of co-learner. If by "changing clientele" we mean that they are changing themselves, I agree. If we mean that we must abandon our traditional constituents, I do not agree. We must work with farmers and other natural resource and wildlife managers for example, in new ways since they are changing and so is the world in which they work. We must understand that all of us are faced with multiple conflicting demands from many new interest groups and we should acknowledge these interests, even when they seem to threaten our primary constituents. That is part of our commitment to the public good. We might also expand our base of constituents if funding is available. But lets not ever abandon our traditional clientele.


And what about issues? In a desire to appear relevant, Cooperative Extension seems to be continually restructuring its portfolio of program activities. We constantly reorganize and rename ourselves, and in doing so confuse our constituents and frustrate our staff. I suggest that if we focus on a long term and comprehensive societal need such as sustainability, our specific tactics could then evolve within relatively stable long term strategies. Personally, I don't see changing issues and changing clientele as a major problem. I say we stick with the partner who brought us to the dance. Of course, we need to be ready to learn new dance steps and try new music. My concern is that while the rest of the world has moved on, we still want to dance to the old music. For me, the problem of change is us. We like the idea of change, but rarely do we embrace changes when it means that we must do the changing.


To build an institutional commitment to change - a love of change - we've got to create an environment in which individuals feel secure enough to take risks. This means that we must tell the truth as best we understand it today, and expect others to disagree. Telling your truth isn't always a well-received activity. University Deans and Extension Directors generally dislike controversy. But that is exactly where Cooperative Extension must be. If there is a controversy in an area in which we have some experience, we should be in the middle of it. Sometimes that means we must speak out on issues which may anger our traditional clientele. In fact, that may be the best way to serve them. I contend that a better response to Rachel Carson's claim that there was DDT in places where it should not be found would have been "hmmm, lets have a look." Instead we in the land grant system generally defended agriculture and lost public credibility.


If we defend our traditional clientele when their practices are not serving the public good, we may are not serving their long-term best interest either. Deans and Directors who do not support and encourage staff engagement in controversial issues are not working in the best interests of the staff member, the clientele, the public, or the institution. To be relevant, we must be willing to get involved. One of my concerns about the future of Cooperative Extension and the land grant system today is our failure to speak out when we think something is not right. Of course if we do speak out, there is a chance that on occasion we will be wrong. We need to be willing to acknowledge when we are wrong. I've spent a good part of my academic career being wrong. I may be wrong today.


Nevertheless, I know that when I am true to my values I sleep better at night. When I sacrifice my ideals our of fear, I do not. I meet too many academics today who began their careers with grand ideals and a strong social commitments who have been beaten down by a system more concerned with selfishness than service. I find this sad. But at the same time there are many who have rediscovered their ideals and commitments and are willing to speak out with courage and humility to work on issues of worth. And you can join them. I encourage you to begin by telling the truth about what you know to be true today.


As the Red Queen told Alice "Always speak the truth -- think before you speak C and write it down afterwards." And when you do, please send me a copy.



Presented as a keynote address at the 9th National Extension Wildlife, Fisheries, and Aquaculture Conference, Portland, ME.

September 30, 1999.