MU professor advocates sustainability

Wednesday, June 20, 2007 | 1:41 p.m. CDT; updated 9:43 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
John Ikerd, MU professor emeritus of agricultural economics and author of “A Return to Common Sense,” sits at his home just outside Columbia with his dog, Wilson. In the past nine years, Ikerd has advocated against the industrial model of capitalism and for sustainability. “It’s just ingrained in this culture, to look out for your own self and to make things work like a machine,” Ikerd said.

John Ikerd was dead for two minutes before the defibrillator paddles jump-started his heart. The last thing he remembered was watching his heart’s frantic pace in the jagged lines on his heart monitor. This could have been the end. But it wasn’t. Ikerd still had more to do, and he saw this as a warning to get on with doing it.

What had been a routine checkup and stress test for Ikerd became the turning point in his life.

“When you’re confronted with something like that, it really makes you stop and think about what you’re doing with your life and where you’re going,” said Ikerd, an MU professor emeritus of agricultural economics. “And so I just took it as an opportunity, a signal, for reassessment.”

That was nine years ago. Since that moment in the hospital, Ikerd has been fighting on the front lines of a revolution: society’s transformation from the industrial era to one that is based on sustainability.

Mary Hendrickson, a 10-year colleague of Ikerd and an MU professor of rural sociology, can attest to Ikerd’s devotion to the cause.

“He has a deep understanding of the challenges of sustainability in our society, but a deep optimism that we can collectively achieve the goals of sustainability,” Hendrickson said. “He is authentic in that he lives the values he talks about.”

Ikerd’s passion is also evident in his newest book, “A Return to Common Sense” — a straightforward chronicle of his personal transformation from a traditionalist in support of industrialized agriculture to an advocate of sustainability. It also outlines this revolution through what he calls the villain, vision and victory of society’s most pressing problems.

The book was inspired by the words of Thomas Paine, the American Revolution-era writer. Through his study, Ikerd noticed a pattern in Paine’s works, one that holds relevance to today’s societal challenges.

“I began to see this pattern,” Ikerd said. “He always talked about what was wrong — what it is that we have to overcome.”

Ikerd dubbed this problem the villain.

Paine’s villain was the British monarchy. Ikerd’s is a neoclassical concept of capitalism.

The industrial model of capitalism is an efficient way of using resources, but it’s a one-way process, Ikerd said. It doesn’t put anything back in, and thus exhausts resources.

“It’s just ingrained in this culture, to look out for your own self and to make things work like a machine,” Ikerd said. “There’s nothing in it about nurturing or regenerating or renewing.”

Paine never stopped after identifying the problem, and neither does Ikerd. In what he calls the vision, Ikerd cites what the future should hold and how society can begin to pull itself out of the hole it’s been digging for decades.

For the world to begin remedying its mistakes, it must re-evaluate the values it endorses, Ikerd said. This can be achieved by replacing the current self-centered society with one based on community and relationships, he said, trading the corporate philosophy of producing more for less at any cost for that of sustainability, harmony and balance.

“I don’t dwell upon any particular issue, like pollution or energy depletion or climate change,” Ikerd said. “All of those things are very important, but they’re all just symptoms of the larger problem. Until we change our ways of thinking, then we’re going to be continually looking for the fixes for our problems that won’t solve the bigger problems of sustainability.”

Margot McMillen, a friend of Ikerd’s and a farmer from Fulton, is confident that Ikerd’s views will flourish.

“I think that the ideas that he’s talking about are really catching on, and he’s kind of added something to the chorus that wasn’t there before,” McMillen said. “People are understanding now that the old system is very destructive. I think that people are saying we’ve got to find something new. They may not know exactly what it is, but they’re looking for it.”

Ikerd’s revolution also won’t happen overnight. Roughly every 200 years, society goes through major changes, like the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. And, like the shifts in perspective before it, this revolution can be expected to take at least 50 or 60 years to transpire, Ikerd said.

Though it may seem insurmountable, dramatic change can be made one person at a time, Ikerd said, when people can look past social conventions. The biggest obstacle, he said, is getting people to open their minds.

“It’s not impossible to reverse this thing and have it just turn out to be a negative blip on a positive track,” Ikerd said. “Hopefully.”

Ikerd’s book concludes with what he calls the victory, or hope for the future.

“Hope is not the expectation that things are going to be easy or quick,” he said. “Hope is the possibility that something better is to come. It’s not the likelihood or the probability. It’s that you know it’s possible. And if it makes sense, then it’s possible.”

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