Thursday, 7 July 2011

A Glimpse of Something Different (Better?)

I first met Stuart Hill back in the early '70's. I was teaching a course on environmental issues at Carleton University and wanted to give students the best insight possible on a variety of  topics, and invited a number of guest lecturers who knew what they were taking about (I learned a lot too).  Stuart Hill had just set up the ecological agriculture program at MacDonald College near Montreal. What impressed me at the time was how curious and non-dogmatic he was. Yes he thought organic agriculture was better than what's now called conventional agriculture, but he wasn't a purist. If one spray of a synthetic pesticide could solve a problem, when many sprays of an organic pesticide was needed, he was OK with that. What mattered to Hill is that the farmer had thought deeply about the problem (weed, insects, disease) they were facing and looked for the most natural solution, the one that most mimicked what goes on in nature.  He said then and now "When you kill an organism, you take over its job."   He admits problem solving isn't easy, that conventional agriculture offers what he calls "deceptive simplicity", the impression that some purchased product can solve the problem. Ignoring that throws a person into "confusing simplicity" when there appears to be many, many causes. The end result is something he calls "profound simplicity", a practical insight that gets at the heart of the problem. As I've written before, a salesperson for a chemical company isn't always the best person to get advice from, but farmers have been left with little  else to turn to as governments cut back extension departments, and experienced researchers and inspectors retire.

Here are a few Stuart Hillisms: from

• Always be humble & provisional in your knowing, & always open to new experiences & insights

• Devote most effort to the design & management of systems that can enable wellbeing, social justice & sustainability, & that are problem-proof vs. maintaining unsustainable, problem-generating systems, & devoting time to ‘problem-solving’, control, & input management

• See no ‘enemies’ – recognise such ‘triggers’ as indicators of woundedness, maldesign & mismanagement – everyone is always doing the best they can, given their potential, past experience & the present context – these are the three areas to work with

• Be paradoxical: ask for help & get on with the job (don’t postpone); give when you want to receive; give love when you might need it, or when you might feel hate

• Learn from everyone & everything, & seek mentors & collaborators at every opportunity

Stuart Hill does believe that personal change has to happen first before the world can be fixed. Many think the problems the world faces are too big and immediate to wait for that. Maybe both can happen at the same time. I did get this picture On Tuesday (July 5th, 2011) when Stuart Hill was in Charlottetown, PEI, and it was a moment.

Hill is the thin balding man (like me) in the middle.  He's talking to George McRobie who also has a distinguished career in problem solving. He worked for years with E.F. Schumacher, famous for Small is Beautiful. Behind them both is  Ralph Martin who is just getting ready to take up a new job at Guelph University as the first chair focusing exclusively on sustainable agriculture production.

Almost everyone knows about "Small is Beautiful", but I always thought the second part of the title of Schumacher's book was more important "Economics As If People Mattered."  Hill, Schumacher,  McRobie all try to get problems down to a scale where people can become constructively engaged, and not depend on some expert or product to fix everything.  All speak about tackling issues first within yourself, at home, in your neighborhood and community. I tend to agree, hoping that "government" will solve things could be a long wait, but starting locally to solve issues of food and energy production, protecting the natural capital that's all around us, is profoundly empowering. Reading anything by Hill, Schumacher and McRobie is a good start, and seeing Ralph Martin's interest in what they're saying speaks well for what he'll accomplish too. If I sound too optimistic, blame this week's workshop with Stuart Hill.

Here's a link to an interview with Stuart Hill:

Direct Link:

No comments:

Post a Comment