Three links: green revolution, scientific commons, and transition towns

1) Jeremy Cherfas writes on the Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog about the history of the green revolution:

The standard litany against the Green Revolution is that it failed to banish hunger because the technologies it ushered in were no use to small peasant farmers. Farmers with access to cash and good land did well, but poorer farmers on marginal land got nothing out of the revolution, and if they did somehow buy into it (subsidies, handouts) they were worse off afterwards. That’s not to deny that the Green Revolution increased yields, especially of wheat and rice. Just to say that it did nothing for most smallholders.A wonderful paper by Jonathan Harwood, in Agricultural History, demonstrates that this wasn’t always so. In the early days of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Mexican Agricultural Program, starting in the 1940s, the target was “resource-poor farmers who could not afford to purchase new seed annually”. The MAP’s advisors put improving cultivation practices at the top of their list, with better varieties second. And the improved varieties were to come from “introduction, selection or breeding”.

2) Ethan Zuckerman writes about John Wilbanks on Science Commons, and generativity in science:

One way to think of the mission of Science Commons, Wilbanks tells us, is to spark generative effects in the scientific world much as we’ve seen them in the online world. He quotes Jonathan Zittrain’s definition of generativity, from “The Future of the Internet… and How to Stop It“: “Generativity is a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences”. This raises some provocative questions, when applied to the world of science: “What does spam look like in a patent system? What does griefing look like in the world of biological data?”

The truth is that the scientific world is far less generative than the digital space. He proposes three major obstacles to generativity: accessibility, ease of mastery, and tranferability. He points out that, as science has gotten more high tech, it’s far harder to master. The result is hyperspecialization: neuroanatomists don’t talk to neuroinformaticists… “and god help you if you cross species lines.” And so universities are making huge investments to try to encourage collaboration: MIT’s just build a $400 million building – the Cook Center – to force collaboration between cancer researchers… and predictably, researchers are fighting the mandate to move in and work together.

3) Judith D. Schwartz writes about the Transition Town movement in Learning About Transition Via Its Vocabulary in Miller-McCune Online Magazine.

Transition: In Hopkins’ words, “Transition” represents “the process of moving from a state of high fossil-fuel dependency and high vulnerability to a state of low fossil-fuel dependency and resilience.” Transition “is not the goal itself — it’s the journey,” he says. Specifically, it’s seeing this journey as an opportunity to embrace rather than a calamity to approach with dread.

“Transition” is predicated on the assumption that society cannot keep consuming energy and other resources at our current pace and that we’re better off accepting this reality and choosing how to adapt rather than letting ourselves get backed into a crisis. The idea is that the adaptation process can harness creative and even joyful possibilities that until now have laid dormant in our towns and cities. As Hopkins has been known to say, “It’s more like a party than a protest march.”

Resilience: A community’s ability to adapt and respond to changes, as well as to withstand shocks to the system, such as disruptions in food or energy supply chains. Resilience differs from “sustainability” in that the emphasis is on community survival as opposed to maintaining the structures and behavioral patterns that currently exist.

“Resilience is the new sustainability,” says Michael Brownlee, a member of the Transition U.S. board and co-founder of Transition Boulder County, the first Transition Initiative in North America. “It’s been co-opted by almost everybody. Everybody is sustainable these days.”

Marketing aside, Hopkins says the two are intertwined: “Sustainability only works if it has resilience embedded in it.”

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