Editorial – February 2018

Kerry Cochrane, Editor

With Christmas and the New Year out of the way, attention is drawn to the year ahead and its challenges. From an AIEA perspective, we will be focused on our various purposes which include education, extension, consultancy and climate change. In addition, we are hopeful of a more regular newsletter and a website that offers more – particularly to do with online forums and webinars. The Institute would also like to see some progress on forming a united body around the term holism. While we exist as separate entities we limit our capacity to represent our form of agriculture in a more meaningful way.

One of the highlights in 2017 was the release of Dr Charles Massy’s book The Call of the Reed Warbler. Undoubtedly, it was a most popular read over the summer with many indicating that they were putting it aside for that period. While anecdotal evidence suggests readers got a lot out of the book, there has been some criticisms as well, but this is not unexpected given that it is about seeding a new revolution. Revolutionaries are about change, and change that is transformational.

The most strident criticism to date has been from Patrick Francis and his online article (see reference at the bottom of this page). Patrick Francis is an experienced journalist having edited the Australian Farm Journal for many years. His criticisms might be distilled down to:

  • The labeling of farmers who are not interested in regenerative agriculture but continue with the same old practices. He believes Charlie Massy’s verbal pasting of farmers  will put them offside.
  • A sense of “entitlement to the truth” which is the base of regenerative agriculture.
  • It is a rewrite of Charlie Massy’s PhD and uses language that is not accessible to many farmers.
  • It is too long.
  • There is no recognition of the excellent work done by researchers and farmers towards a more holistic approach.
  • The use of feeling based language, words such as love and spirituality, which many could not relate to.

Here are the AIEA’s reflections on Patrick Francis’ criticisms.

Charles Massy is a rare farmer. He is a practical person; having operated a very successful sheep stud for many years and he is strong on theory as demonstrated by his PhD. His PhD was awarded after 5 years of study in which he discusses the evolution of agricultural thinking in Australia and what influenced its style. This led Massy to predict that the next phase of agriculture to emerge would be what he referred to as New Organics (a combination of conventional and ‘old’ organics). It is a PhD that would be a popular read in itself. Contrary to Patrick Francis’ position on The Call of the Reed Warbler that it contained too much of his PhD I was disappointed it didn’t include more!

Having swotted for 5 years while continuing his farming operation was no mean feat. But then to continue writing for another three years to complete his book was exemplary. At the end of that journey he was able to cast a critical mind over Australian agriculture and assert some well thought out principles. One such principle is that of the emergent mind as distinct from the mechanical mind. The notion of an emergent mind is new thinking although the mechanical mind is as old as the hills having been born through the Enlightenment period of the 18th Century. The mechanical mind tells the story about science and rational thinking. It has dominated agriculture in this country since 1788 and it is what gave birth to the Green Revolution of the 1960s. In fact, conventional agriculture and its first cousin industrial agriculture knows no other way of thinking other than through the scientific method and its application to ways of increasing farm production. While all this is good, it needs to be said that the scientific rational reductionist wordview has also had some highly significant negative impact particularly on the environment. Enter Emergent Thinking.

Emergent thinking reflects holistic thinking i.e., the opposite of reductionist thinking. It basically maintains that when the parts work together the resultant product is greater than the sum of the parts. In other words, something is added to the mix which cannot be explained by the composition of the inputs into that mix. In brief 2+2=6. A good example is water. When hydrogen and oxygen combine to form H2O the resultant water characteristics cannot be defined by the inputs of hydrogen and oxygen. The same ‘magic’ is said to apply to ecosystems and to social systems as well. This might seem a bit woo woo but such thinking is common with some science writers such as Franjif Capra (and his book the Systems View of Life) and it is beginning to be explained at universities (in certain courses).

The point is, when learning about systems thinking or systemic behavior of ecosystems or that of emergent thinking, Dr Massy was able to formulate an understanding of agriculture that, while seemingly different and strange to what exists today, will become common place in time to come. Charlie Massy has done farming a service by introducing such different concepts to our understanding. Part of the connection made in the book is between the emergent mind and that of regenerative agriculture. The two terms hang off each other and are supportive. In interviewing the 79 farmers for his PhD, many of whom appeared in his book, he drew a line between their on-farm management strategies and that of regenerative agriculture. He then joined the dots between their approach and the paradigm referred to as the Emergent Mind. In this way Charlie Massy is enabling farmers to look ‘outside the square’ and to challenge their existing routines and principles.

Yes, regenerative agriculture (as underpinned by the emergent mind) is different – very different – and this is something that Patrick Francis needed to consider in his criticisms. Francis suggests that farmers can arrive at emergent thinking incrementally. I question this. Two paradigms as opposite as emergent thinking and mechanical thinking do not permit a bit-by-bit transformation from one to the other. It requires a transformation in one’s world view. It is possible, though, for farmers who come from an emergent worldview to utilise mechanical thinking (skills, tools, rational ways of managing issues) but in doing so they understand at all times it is the emergent mind that remains the master and mechanical thinking its slave. By this process there is a clear connection between strategic thinking and operational thinking. Perhaps this is where Patrick Francis sees Massy as having a “sense of entitlement to the truth”. The truth is knowing
(a) what constitutes the emergent mind, and
(b) how this connects with the operational engagement in the real world.

Patrick Francis is critical of Charles Massy use of feeling based language such as spirituality and love:
He wants revolution in farming methods to produce what he sees as a spiritual utopia where farmers, gardeners, scientists and advisors express love for nature and each other.”

For this and other reasons he cannot see his book being read favorably by those farmers who are conventional and who might align with the mechanical mind category. However, what Dr Massy is referring to here is a deep ecological connection with the landscape which some might describe as love or spiritual. While such words may sit uncomfortably within the mechanical world mindset, the same cannot be said for the emergent mindset. This mindset encourages exploration of one’s inner emotional landscape as well as the outer landscape.

Patrick Francis is also critical that Massy doesn’t recognise the innovative nature of conventional farmers and how these innovations have had a big impact on current agricultural practices. This is an interesting argument since it highlights the nature of paradigms and how we become beholden to them. What Charlie Massy is saying is that a paradigm is a framework of understanding or a worldview. In AIEA’s view Patrick Francis is writing from a mechanistic paradigm and is therefore viewing the emergent paradigm from that framework. Charles Massy is writing from the emergent paradigm and is therefore putting emphasis where Patrick cannot see the value in doing so. This represents the contest for ideas that exists in the world of paradigms, and therefore, by association, with farming.

One workable solution to the messy-ness of conflicting points of arguments is to work out which principle of or point of view acts as the most significant (to ecosystems and therefore the planet) which we will call the Master. The opposite argument is therefore seen to be of lesser value and is called the Slave. This is a useful tool in demonstrating that the emergent mind takes precedent (the Master) and therefore embraces and makes use of the Slave (i.e mechanistic tools).

For an interesting coverage of this analogy refer to YouTube talk given by psychiatrist Dr Ian McGilchrist (see reference at the bottom of this page).

What Massy is suggesting is that the emergent paradigm is with us and represents a much needed direction for agriculture. He is pitching his arguments at that level and inviting the reader to engage in the debate. There is no fence sitting on this. One cannot have one foot in the mechanistic and one foot in the emergent unless you do as psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist says in the above mentioned metaphor and determine which is the master and which is the slave. There is no place for a hybrid version as mentioned by Patrick Francis; unless the declared position is the emergent worldview with the supporting act coming from the mechanistic. In only this arrangement we have a marriage.

It is often said that the problems of today cannot be solved with old thinking. We have to rethink our assumptions and create a new form of thinking built on a different value base. That is the challenge and Dr Charles Massy is leading the charge with his book The Call of the Reed Warbler. Leaders have a vision of the possible and learn to project that so that others might follow. In this context the AIEA believes farmers will want to hear more about Charles Massy and why he thinks the way he does, and to ask about the pathway into that way of thinking and doing.

In writing in defence of Charles Massy’s arguments we are aligning ourselves with the book and its content. In saying this we recognise the need for educational programs to assist farmers to get to know this emergent paradigm. It is our intention to do so this year and details of this will be promoted via the website.

Kerry Cochrane

If you have a view on Dr Charles Massy’s book please send it to kcochrane@ecoag.org.au.

Call of the Reed Warbler book review by Patrick Francis: http://www.moffittsfarm.com.au/2017/11/30/call-of-the-reed-warbler-book-review/

Dr Ian McGilchrist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ok2W7kVVDkE

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