Anticipating Changes—And Preparing for Them in Advance

Frederick Kirschenmann

Frederick Kirschenmann shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and is President of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.  He is a prolific author, whose most recent book, Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays from a Farmer Philosopher, was published in 2010. In addition, Kirschenmann manages his family’s organic farm, where he developed a diverse crop rotation to improve the health of the soil without synthetic inputs.

In our current culture it is not unusual for dominant innovators to attempt to predict the future and develop new technologies that they believe will more effectively control life on earth by further enhancing what we have done in recent centuries. However as Jared Diamond has pointed out there are compelling reasons to question that strategy. Following his Pulitzer prize-winning best seller, Guns Germs and Steel, in which he outlined the reasons Western Civilization created the technologies which enabled them to dominate their world, Diamond published a second game-changing book, Collapse; How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In this second treatise he points out, based on his study of past civilizations, that while there is little evidence that people have been successful in predicting the future, those civilizations that “anticipated changes coming at them,” and prepared for those changes in advance, were the ones that tended to thrive, while those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to “collapse.”

I would suggest that those findings are worth paying attention to in our own time. Given that there are always more unknowns, than we are able to identify, in any evolving, emerging world, any attempt to predict the future based on what we can know, is seldom likely to be “right as rain”. However we can anticipate potential changes and if we prepare for them in advance, the likelihood that we can effectively deal with them—if they occur—increases. Similarly, if it turns out that they don’t happen, it is generally not a serious problem.

I realize that there are some who do not see much of a difference between “anticipating changes” and “predicting the future” since both are based on an attempt to foresee the future. But while it is true that both attempt to prepare for future occurrences, predicting the future assumes that we are able to foresee future occurrences clearly and that we can sufficiently dominate nature to control evolving events. Anticipating changes, on the other hand, assumes that we can neither predict future occurrences, nor can we dominate nature to control them. Consequently, a more effective alternative is to prepare for potential occurrences so that if they occur we will be far more likely to be able to adapt to them.

Wendell Berry has, as always, succinctly described the “mistake” we continue to make in our current culture. “Our original and continuing mistake has been to ignore the probability, even the inevitability, of formal misfitting between the human economy and the economy of nature, or between economy and ecology” (Our Only World, p. 146) Yes, assuming that we can predict the future is grounded in principles of economy while anticipating changes is grounded in the principles of ecology.

That is why I think it is much more important for us to collectively anticipate some of the changes that may emerge in our not-too-distant future, and prepare for them in advance, than it is to attempt to predict the future and assume that we can control it sufficiently to insure the prosperity of humans.

Fortunately we have some creative thinkers who have already provided us with important information that can enable us to anticipate changes and prepare for them in advance. One contribution to this effort, which I have found particularly useful, is a study produced by anthropologist, Ernest Schusky. In 1989 he published Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Framing Systems. In this comprehensive historical analysis Schusky provides us with useful information about changes we can anticipate. However, while he bases his analysis on the question “how have we humans fed ourselves ever since we have been on the planet” his perspective is relevant to much more than the future of food and agriculture. In fact, it provides us with important information about the evolution of humans on planet earth and the “era” in which we now find ourselves, as well as some of the changes we can anticipate.

Schusky points out that we humans emerged as part of life on planet earth, roughly 200,000 years ago, and that, for the first 190,000 years, we fed ourselves as “hunter gatherers”. In other words we were not food produces, we were food collectors. We did not begin to become food producers until about 10,000 years ago, when we began to do agriculture, and initially we were mostly “slash and burn” producers. We cut down perennial grasses and/or trees and then planted our preferred plants into the fertile soils which had evolved in earth’s perennial poly-cultures, and eventually we also began to domesticate our preferred animals. Of course the soil fertility in our slash and burn plots eventually became depleted, and then we would slash and burn a new plot and let the original plot lay fallow.

However this slash-and-burn approach required a lot of land and labor and eventually led to the evolution of a new era of feeding ourselves that Shuskey called the “neo-caloric era,” which “began in the 19th century.” That revolution was driven largely by the development of the industrial economy and the “use of fossil energy” which ultimately developed the input-intensive, highly mechanized agriculture of the modern period.

Another moment in our history which encouraged the adoption of this input-intensive system was a contribution by Justus von Liebig, a German scientist, who developed the discipline of organic chemistry and was influenced by another German scientist, Carl Sprengel. Sprengel was intrigued by the industrial economy and came up with the concept of “the law of the minimum” in 1828. Sprengel was interested in making the industrial economy more efficient and one way to do that was by implementing the law of the minimum—introducing technologies that enabled one to get the maximum output for the minimum amount of input. And Liebig was attracted to that concept and decided to apply the principle to agriculture. After some research he published his influential paper, “Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology,” in 1840. It was the law of the minimum, applied to agriculture, that ultimately led to the adoption of the principle goal of modern agriculture—“maximum efficient production for short-term economic return.” That goal was largely achieved by applying cheap inputs—mostly N, P, and K—instead of wasting energy on the “laborious process” of managing soil. And that ultimately led to the adoption of the concept of “specialization, simplification, and economies of scale.”

All of this created what Shuskey called the “neo-caloric era.” That “era” was largely defined by inputs that are non-renewable, and since we are rapidly using up those non-renewable inputs, the neo-caloric era, he argued, will of necessity be ”a very short period of time” in the time-line of human history. That is one of the “changes” it might be especially important for us to anticipate!

Anyone who still believes that it would be a disaster to abandon the phenomenal progress of the industrial economy, might want to acquaint themselves with some insights provided by another anthropologist, James Suzman. In his intriguing, recent book, Affluence Without Abundance, he points out, that the “Bushmen,” in southern Africa, never transitioned from being hunter/gatherers in order to adopt industrial principles. As a result they lived lives of contentment and were able to meet their few needs easily, and he invites us to consider whether it might not be possible for us (especially as we enter the post-neo-caloric era) to cope with such radical changes by learning from people who have already demonstrated, by example, that it is possible to live “affluent” lives without an abundance of work and wealth. An interesting cultural consideration.

Of course this obviously will not only require us to anticipate changes in agriculture. In fact based on his research, Ugo Bardi, an Italian scientist, pointed out in his book, Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet (which is now a new Club of Rome Report) we are rapidly reaching a point that will require us to design an alternative way of living on the planet, which will include ways that recycle our “wastes” and regenerate our resources.

Of course the end of the neo-caloric era suggests that we need to anticipate an assemblage of changes, like these, that will challenge our current culture. The evolution of the industrial economy fostered a culture that promotes the notion that we humans are in charge of nature and that it is our responsibility to dominate nature. As Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon already pointed out in the early stages of the industrial economy, in the mid-17th century, that we humans needed to “become the masters and possessors of nature” and that we needed to “bend nature to our will.”

Ironically, there have been a few visionaries, almost a century ago, who recognized that this view of nature was the wrong direction. However, their perspective has certainly not become part of our culture.

One of those visionaries was Liberty Hyde Bailey who in 1915 published one of his many books, which he titled The Holy Earth. In that alternative vision he argued that we should not be trying to “control nature” but rather we should relate to nature as if it was “holy” and try to determine how we could learn from nature. But that perspective got very little attention in our culture of becoming the “masters and possessors of nature.” And while the culture of controlling nature still prevails today, one of the changes we may want to anticipate is the need for a cultural transformation.

Such a transformation is already articulated in Brian Thomas Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker’s new booklet, Journey of the Universe. In this creative treatise they remind us that we humans, living on our tiny planet earth, which is a small part of our universe, is actually a very small part of the “cosmos” which has been evolving for “14 billion years.” Since we humans on planet earth are part of that long-term evolution, which is on-going, if we, on our tiny planet earth, still think that we are “in control” we are truly kidding ourselves.

As they put it, given that we are part of this long-term, on-going evolution “no one knows what the future holds—all of that is hidden in the darkest night. The future is being created by all of us, (i.e. all of the cosmos) and it is a messy and confusing process. What is needed is courage to live in the midst of the ambiguities of this moment without drawing back into fear and a compulsion to control.”

In anticipating these changes and preparing for them in advance they suggest that “Our challenge is to construct livable cities and to cultivate healthy foods in ways congruent with Earth’s patterns. Our role is to provide the hands and hearts that will enable the universe’s energies to come forth in a new order of well-being. Our destiny is to bring forth a planetary civilization that is both culturally diverse and locally vibrant, a multiform civilization that will enable life and humanity to flourish.”

I think this is the kind of cultural shift that we might consider as we anticipate the changes coming at us in the post-neo-caloric era—it can be part of what we can do, in advance, to prepare for the changes coming at us.

Jared Diamond, 1997. Guns Germs and Steel: The Fates of human Societies. W.W. Norton & Co.
Jared Diamond, 2005. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking.
Wendell Berry, 2015. Our Only World: Ten Essays. Counterpoint Press.
Ernest Schusky, 1989. Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming Systems. Bergin & Garvey.
Justus Von Liebig, 1840. Organic Chemistry in Its Application to Agriculture and Physiology.
James Suzman, 2017. Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushman. Bloomsbury Press
Ugo Bardi, 2014. Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet. Chelsea Green
Liberty Hyde Bailey, 1915. The Holy Earth. C. Scribner’s Sons
Brian Thomas Swimme & Mary Evelyn Tucker, 2011. Journey of the Universe. Yale University Press

Restoring Rural Communities of Necessity

John Ikerd

Note: John Ikerd is professor emeritus at University of Missouri, Columbia whose teaching, lectures, and writings on sustainable agriculture and sustainable economics have made him a frequent speaker at conferences here and abroad. His message here is one we desperately need to hear and implement.

During the 1940s and 1950s, when I was growing up on a small farm in Missouri, we still had strong rural communities. Farming communities were interwoven networks of people who knew each other mainly out of necessity. Most farms in those days couldn’t be farmed by a single farmer or farm family. Farming was a community affair, by necessity.

In the early days, steam engines that powered threshing machines led threshing crews with teams of horses from farm to farm. Crews of up to forty men and boys traveled from farm to farm to fill silos with corn silage. Each farmer brought along their share of farm equipment and labor. For my dad, it was mostly labor—as there were three growing boys in our family. Haying crews tended to be smaller because there was less equipment involved, but it still took a crew, a community, to put up hay. The men and boys worked hard, but a lot of socializing also took place at these gatherings. There was a feeling of social connectedness.

The “farm wives” also renewed relationships during these times of harvest. Several women and girls would gather at the host farms on harvest days to help the hosting wife prepare the noon meal for the harvest crews. The farm women also had their own groups or social clubs who gathered periodically to make quilts to keep their families warm in winter. They also helped each other can fruit and make preserves or cut meat and make sausage on butchering days. The work was often tedious and tiresome but the varied conversations helped to pass the time and maintained bonds of social connectedness.

These networks of necessity were interconnected through local churches and schools. Everybody knew everybody in their own churches as well as most folks in the others churches nearby. The parents of kids who went to school together all knew each other for school sports and social activities. Visiting on Sunday wasn’t limited to kinfolks but also included neighbors. People visited and passed the time of day at the local country stores and at barber shops, filling stations, and farmers’ cooperative exchanges in nearby towns. “Giving someone a hand” wasn’t limited to helping out in emergencies, but was given any time someone “needed a hand.”

These communities, created out of necessity, were communities that not only helped rural people make a living but only gave them a common sense of purpose and brought fullness and meaning to their day-to-day lives. Personal relationships back then, as always, were difficult to maintain, and disagreements naturally arose. But, rural folks knew they needed to “get along to get by” in life. They weren’t going to move away and live somewhere else simply because of a difficult relationship with a neighbor. The challenges of community, as well as the rewards, added a sense of substance, significance, and quality to day-to-day rural life.

But “times changed” in Rural America. The industrialization of agriculture removed the necessity for community-based farming. Individually owned field choppers replaced the big silo crews, individually owned combines replaced the big threshing crews, and inexpensive hay balers replaced the big haying crews of my youth. Networks and communities of farmers were no longer necessary. Farmers were free to harvest their own crops whenever they chose, rather than wait their turn to be helped by the big crews of neighbors. Even on farms without their own harvesting equipment, the work sharing groups were far smaller. Modern kitchen conveniences also eliminated the need for farm wives to share housework. Farm wives may have had more free time but fewer reasons to spend it with others in their local communities.

Social circles in farming communities narrowed still further as farms grew larger and surviving family farms became fewer and farther apart. With fewer farm families, many rural schools were consolidated into larger schools and rural churches struggled to survive. With improved roads and cars, farm families bypassed the country stores and even nearby towns to shop in larger stores elsewhere.

The number of people rural people still knew grew fewer and fewer as they grew older and their kids left the community to raise their families elsewhere. New people moved into some rural areas. Some were seeking the low-paying jobs in small factories that moved out of metropolitan areas and others found work in the large “factory farms” that were replacing family farms. Some new residents were simply trying to escape the high living costs in cities. Most people in rural communities didn’t bother to get to know their new neighbors because they “didn’t need to.” Communities were no longer a necessity in rural areas.

The disintegration of rural communities has not been an accident of fate or even the inevitable consequences of a “free-market” economy. The process can perhaps best be described as “economic colonization.” Economic colonization is a term used to describe a process by which nations use superior economic power to exploit the natural and human resources of previous political colonies. Political colonization was deemed immoral and ended in the early 1900s, but economic colonization continues and is not limited to exploitation of nations by other nations. Today, large financial and agri-business corporations are using their dominant economic power to exploit and extract the natural and human resources of rural areas under the guise of rural economic development.

Rural economic colonialization is defended by the proposition that rural people are incapable of developing their own economies and thus must rely on outside investments. Local officials are told outside investments will bring badly needed jobs to rural areas, stimulating the local economy and resulting in a greater variety of retail businesses and an expanded the local tax base. More local tax revenues will provide opportunities for better schools, better health care, expanded social services,

In cases where promises of prosperity have failed to persuade the people, corporations have resorted to economic favors for local leaders or outright “bribery.” If all else fails, they simply resort to interstate commerce laws and claim an “economic right” to force their way into communities where they are unwanted. These are the same basic strategies colonial empires have used with the indigenous peoples of their colonies throughout history. As with political and economic colonies of the past, the promises of economic development are soon replaced with the reality of economic extraction and exploitation.

Whether intentional or not, industrial agriculture has been a primary means of colonizing rural America. Rural communities have been promised economic prosperity through industrial agriculture. Instead, industrial farming operations have eroded the fertility of the soil and polluted the air and water with chemical and biological wastes—more like mining operations than traditional farming. Comprehensive corporate contractual arrangements have replaced thinking, caring family farmers with far fewer “farm workers.” Communities are supported by people, not simply production. It takes people not only to buy farm supplies and equipment at local dealers but also to shop for clothes, cars, and haircuts on Main Street, to fill desks in local schools, pews in local churches, and seats on town councils and school boards.

Rural kids who grow up and choose to “stay home” are often labeled as not being among the “best or brightest.” Some are “bribed” to stay by parents who help them get long term loans they must stay to repay. New rural residents are more likely to be immigrants desperate for temporary work or people fleeing the cities for a variety of reasons. These remnant rural residents may be good people but they have no shared commitment to a common vision of the future. The sense of community has been lost and the shared hope for the future is lost.

A recent Wall Street Journal article calls “Rural America the New Inner City.” It began, “For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times. Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places. Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings”1—below inner-cities.

Wendell Berry summarized the current plight of rural America in a recent letter to the book editor of the New York Times: “The business of America has been largely and without apology the plundering of rural America, from which everything of value—minerals, timber, farm animals, farm crops, and “labor”—has been taken at the lowest possible price. As apparently none of the enlightened ones has seen in flying over or bypassing on the interstate highways, its too-large fields are toxic and eroding, its streams and rivers poisoned, its forests mangled, its towns dying or dead along with their locally owned small businesses, its children leaving after high school and not coming back. Too many of the children are not working at anything, too many are transfixed by the various screens, too many are on drugs, too many are dying. 2 The economic colonization of rural America has turned promises of rural prosperity into the reality of rural ghettos.

Margaret Wheatley, a leading thinker on institutional and cultural change, recently identified three major trends in American society: First, “A growing sense of impotence and dread about the state of the nation,” second, “The realization that information doesn’t change minds anymore,” and third, “The clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action—that there is no greater power for change than a community taking its future into its own hands.”3 I agree with Wheatley.

First, I believe the prevailing mood in rural America today is one of “impotence and dread.” Many rural people are beginning to awaken to the sources of economic exploitation but feel powerless to stop it. Their desperation makes them even more vulnerable to continued exploitation. Second, I agree that information no longer changes minds. We now have more than 50 years of “sound science” and the real-world experience of people in rural communities confirming the negative environmental, social, and economic impact of agricultural and economic industrialization on rural America.4 However, many in positons economic and political power are heavily vested in the industrial model of agricultural and economic development and have deflected blame to various “others” and fed a widespread sense of fear and denial in rural areas.

So where is the hope for the future of rural America? I agree with Wheatley, the hope is in the “clarity that the world changes through local communities taking action.” I think most rural people either don’t understand or don’t want to believe what is happening to their communities and why it is happening. If they understood, I believe people in rural communities everywhere would realize they are once again living in “communities of necessity”—and would take action. 
People act whenever they feel it is necessary to defend against acts of nature—windstorms, floods, fires. People also take action whenever they feel compelled to defend deeply held social and ethical values. Honesty, fairness, responsibility, compassion, and respect! “These five core ethical values are common to many cultures, regardless of race, age, religious affiliation, gender, or nationality,” according to the Institute for Global Ethics.5 The economic colonization of rural America violates every one of these core ethical values. Whenever people fully comprehend this blatant disregard for the values of basic human decency, I believe people in rural communities will be compelled take action.

To break the cycle of rural economic extraction and exploitation, rural people must again join together, as communities of necessity to protect themselves and their families from the ecological, social, and economic consequences of economic colonization. This is a not a farm-versus-town or rural-versus-urban issue. It‘s a matter of necessity for those who care about the future to come together and reclaim the sovereignty of their communities that has been sacrificed to economic expediency. A common sense of community is no longer an option or choice, it is absolutely necessary.

Meaningful change is necessary but real change won’t be quick or easy. The defenders of the status quo are economically and politically powerful. The personal relationships and commitments necessary to empower local communities and to build alliances or communities are difficult to form and to sustain. We Americans have a long history of striving for self-reliance and independence, making it difficult to admit we need to rely on each other. That said, we also have a long history of coming together, even making government work, whenever it has been necessary to do so.

We don’t have to wait for the federal or state governments to step in and defend our basic human rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. All other rights are dependent on a right to life. If we have a right to life, we have a right to air that is safe to breathe, water that is safe to drink, and enough wholesome, nutritious food to sustain human health. The fact that those rights are not specifically enumerated in the U.S. Constitution does not mean they are excluded as constitutional rights. The 9th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” Certainly, everyone has a right to make an economic living, but there are many ways to make a living that do not threaten the basic human right of others.

We also have the power to claim our constitutional rights. The 10th Amendment states that “Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The Declaration of Independence states that the fundamental purpose of government is to secure the rights of the governed. We have the power to restore purpose to government, if we begin at the local level. One person can’t change the balance of political power, but a small group of committed people can, particularly at the local level. Individual concerns can become community concerns. Communities of concerned people can link with other concerned communities to form community “alliances” committed to protecting their communities collectively.

As people change, communities change, and eventually, societies change. That’s the way change has happened and always will happen; one person, then another… one community, then another and another… one at a time. A major challenge is to find fertile places to start. This will be the theme of the next piece in this series: Reclaiming Communities of Necessity.

End Notes:

1 Janet Adamy and Paul Overberg, RURAL AMERICA IS THE NEW ‘INNER CITY’, The Wall Street Journal, May 26, 2017, .
2 Wendell Berry, “Southern Despair,” New Your Times Review of Books, Reply to Nathaniel Rich, .
3 Margaret Wheatley, “Big Learning Event,” University of Wisconsin, Madison, .
4 John Ikerd, “The Economic Colonization of Rural America; Increasing Vulnerability in an Increasingly Volatile World,” .
5 Institute for Global Ethics, “Fast Facts,” .

You can learn more about John Ikerd’s works with links to his books at

See also Building the Agricultural City:

See John Ikerd’s website: