Humanity at the 4th Agricultural Crossroads: A Choice of Cleverness or Wisdom

Harvard University Extension School

Humanity at the 4th Agricultural Crossroads:

A Choice of Cleverness or Wisdom

ENVR-120 Environmental Ethics & Land Management

Department of Environmental Management


Chris Oestereich


St. Louis, MO

December, 2011

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Looking for Simple Solutions to Complex Issues?

I’m working on a paper for my environmental ethics class.  I recently read a couple of articles for the effort which I thought were worth sharing.  The first, an essay from Wendell Berry, farmer, philosopher and poet, titled “Whose Head Is the Farmer Using?” (From “Meeting the Expectations of the Land“) suggests that we stretch ourselves to the point of overwhelm and then attempt to apply quantitative solutions to qualitative problems.  Check out this excerpt:

Given the right amount of work, the mind lives in its place, not merely as owner or user, but as a fellow creature with the other creatures that belong there, the effective husbander of both the agricultural and the natural households.  A mind overloaded with work, which in agriculture usually means too much acreage, covers the place like a stretched membrane–too short in some places, broken by strain in others, too thin everywhere.  The overloaded mind tries to solve its problems by oversimplifying itself and its place–that is, by industrialization.  It ceases to work at the necessary likenesses between the processes of farming and the processes of nature and begins to order the farm on the assumption that it should and can be like a factory.  It gives up diversity for monoculture.  It gives up the complex strategies of independence (the use of manure, of crop rotations, of solar and animal power, etc.) for a simple dependence on industrial suppliers (and on credit).

Once the mind is divided from its work–once qualitative problems have begun to be “solved” by quantitative solutions–then no amount of additional mechanization, automation, remote control, computerization, scientific research, expert advice, or stress management can stop the damage, much less heal it.  All those would-be solutions are based on a mistake about the kind of work good farming involves and the quality of mind required to do that work.  This mistake is now not only firmly established in the government and universities; it is widely believed by farmers themselves.

Mr. Berry was referring to farmers in specific, but I think the idea applies broadly.  Attempts to subdue complexity through the codification of work will only remove the opportunity to respond appropriately.

An interview with Professor Clayton Christensen, of the Harvard Business School, appears to agree with this take.

“We measure profitability by these ratios. Why do we do it? The finance people have preached this almost like a gospel to the rest of us is that if you describe profitability by a ratio so that you can compare profitability in different industries. It ‘neutralizes’ the measures so that you can apply them across sectors to every firm.”

The thinking is systematically taught in business and followed by Wall Street analysts. Christensen even suggests that in slavishly following such thinking, Wall Street analysts have outsourced their brains.

“They still think they are in charge, but they aren’t. They have outsourced their brains without realizing it. Which is a sad thing.”

Further down…

Christensen recalls an interesting talk he had with the Morris Chang the chairman and founder of one of the firms, TSMC [TSM], who said:

“You Americans measure profitability by a ratio. There’s a problem with that. No banks accept deposits denominated in ratios. The way we measure profitability is in ‘tons of money’. You use the return on assets ratio if cash is scarce. But if there is actually a lot of cash, then that is causing you to economize on something that is abundant.”

Is it time to reintegrate thinking in our economy?

We’ve shackled our workforce with stultifying rules which kill engagement and limit outcomes.  Our economy has flatlined for the last couple of years.  Maybe it’s time to remove the shackles from our workers and let them think the way out of this mess.  Can they do any worse than those who’ve been doing the thinking?

 For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

-H. L. Mencken