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