Communities of Oak or of Pyramids #29 #cong19


Environmental degradation is life-threatening for todays young people but it will not be stopped by the world-view that produced it. This is my account of how my world-view and that of my community of farming is changing. And a hope that in taking action we will find a path.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Our environment is being degraded; sometimes from our own actions in our own communities, more often by people with far more power than we have.
  2. The world-view of the communities we live in shapes our attitude to this.
  3. We need to help our communities to change their world-view in order to reverse the degradation.
  4. If we work together we might be able to change our path before it is too late.

About Conor O'Brien:

I come from a tradition of cooperative and local involvement and have always been involved in community and farming organisations. I am a director of Mitchelstown Credit Union. Also involved with a local group using walks on the Knockmealdowns and the Galtees to build the community. I help to organise a storytelling workshop on Cape Clear island in October every year.

Contacting Conor O'Brien:

You can follow Conor on Twitter or contact him by email.

By Conor O’Brien

It is no longer possible to claim ignorance of the reasons for environmental degradation; inaction is a deliberate decision. We need world-views that reflect reality.

This is my account of how my world-view and that of my community of farming is changing. It is also giving me hope that communities in our broader society can change how we view our environment.

I retired from farming 12 years ago, and am still part of the farming community; it is a good identity. I was a medium scale ‘progressive’ dairy farmer committed to using the Teagasc approach, and sometimes was among those who were ahead of it.

The world-view of progressive farming is one of maximising the growth of plants by applying the optimum amount of fertiliser and treatments. The soil was simply a medium to support the plants. Some soils had a greater range of minerals naturally available than others; any deficits could be made good by appropriate inputs. Insects and micro-organisms were treated as an incidental environmental feature.

I was sufficiently environmentally aware to avoid damaging hedgerows, or wild-life habitats at the field edge; leaving habitats like trees and small ponds as they were. Overall, I considered that I had respected my corner of the world; while I had been careless at times, I had done some good as well.

I have two brothers also farming; Ned in dairy, Pat in tillage. About nine months ago, we were each surprised when we realised that we had independently begun questioning our world-view of progressive farming as we knew it.

The trigger for me was a friend who wanted space to grow vegetables without chemical inputs. In Ned’s case it was a curiosity about maximising output on an outlying farm using a low input approach. For Pat it was a question about reducing inputs by avoiding ploughing. Initially none of these initiatives challenged our world-view but as we went deeper into them we began to come across work that did challenge it, and appeared to have solid scientific credentials.

The new information showed that with our focus on ‘the green plant’ we were dealing with only a third of the total earth ecosystem. We were ignoring the other two-thirds of fungi and other organisms which comprise the earth and soil in which the plants exist.

The Oak and the Pyramid

The world-view of intensive farming is a microcosm, a fractal, of the larger world-view. In this view we are external manipulators of the earth as a global test-tube which will not damage us if it fails. The criteria of success is power and control of the surplus produced by maximising the growth of components in the system. Considerations for the needs of the broader ecosystem become irrelevant to the pursuit of success. Any surplus flows up; power is exercised downwards. The structure is shaped like a pyramid in which the components are shaped to support the structure of control.

In an oak forest an individual plant grows as a result of the whole ecosystem growing, and no one tree can dominate the system. Oak trees have a greater diversity of organisms living on them than any other plant in our ecosystem because they need the contribution of each organism. The trees exchange the sugars they produce through photosynthesis for the minerals that the various organisms absorb from the ground.

All models are wrong, but some are useful. An ecosystem is not a full model of society but it could help us to see around the huge world-view of society as a pyramid of power. By seeing ourselves as part of an ecosystem, just as much as an oak tree or the organisms around it, we recognise that we and our communities are not bystanders but intimately involved with it.

Trust is essential in communities. There are no free lunches in nature, nor is there limitless growth and power. It depends on exchange, and just as finance is the currency of exchange in a pyramid, or carbon in an ecosystem, trust is the currency for communities. Trust is a personal commitment that grows through our interactions with others. It grows faster through real interactions than through the virtual ones of social media, but social media can be powerful in supporting real interactions.

It is right to be realistic about the environmental damage; but we should also be alert to the possibilities for change. The oak tree world-view is not strange to us. Just as the organisms of our soil have withstood our farming practices, so also do we have a pattern of strong communities and voluntary organisations; they are a real existing part of our world-view. Congregation itself is an immediate example. We do not have to learn how to build structures where trust can grow; they are waiting to be recognised in our own lives.

Changing our world-view of farming was not easy; it brings uncertainty and doubt about one’s future path as well as regret at what one now views as mistakes. It is a journey that one starts without realising the implications. It can not be done alone, nor with people in whom one lacks trust. We were helped by finding that there were other farmers on the same path. We were surprised by how much support there is outside of the pyramid. The change came from access to information through the internet, and the discussions, walks, and growth of trust that came through the groups.

Being part of a supportive community is like a walk in an old forest; no one ever regrets it.
The oak tree or the pyramid. There is the world-view to choose.

A major part of the change in thinking derived from the work of two Australian scientists, Drs Walther Jehne and Christine Jones.

Christine Jones.

Walther Jehne.

“ approximately 60% of the ‘greenhouse effect’ is due to water vapour, 20% due to carbon dioxide and 20% due to other gases including methane and nitrous oxide. Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels represent only 3 to 5% of the atmospheric carbon flux. Improvements to photosynthetic capacity, groundcover management and soil microbial status hold the key to both adaptation and mitigation of climate change and global warming.” Dr Christine Jones.

Bring Out Your Ideas and Move Them On #32 #cong18


I have very often found myself thinking about an idea and removing the more extreme parts of it to make it more presentable. Then finding when I explain it to someone, they agree with me, and also the parts I had toned down . Of course I agree with them, but come away thinking, “Damn, I wasn’t radical enough. The idea was fine the first time, and I could have gone even further”.

The problem is not shortage of ideas; it is getting them out into circulation. And leave space for the next idea to come forward.

4 Key Takeaways:

  1. Dont water down your ideas
  2. Extreme can be positive
  3. Leave space for the next idea
  4. Express your ideas

About Conor O'Brien:

I come from a tradition of cooperative and local involvement and has always been involved in community and farming organisations. I am now a director of Mitchelstown Credit Union; involved with a local group using walks on the Knockmealdowns and the Galtees to build the community, and develop it; and with a friend who wants to develop a food-growing low cost of living system so that a person with a project is not weighed with unsustainable living costs.

Contacting Conor O'Brien:

You can contact Conor by email or follow him on Twitter.

By Conor O’Brien.

I have a friend Seamus Duggan, retired now, who was the local mechanic cum blacksmith. Not the blacksmith with a forge, that time was well gone, but with the electric arc welder. In arc welding the two bit’s of iron are connected to the negative pole of the welder, while the positive pole held a special rod that melted in the electric arc produced when it was held over the negative iron. The temperature of the arc was high enough to melt the pieces of metal and the rod for that second in that spot until one moved it on, leaving the molten magma to cool and fuse the two metals together.

Seamus was a good mechanic, but he was gifted with the welder, a brute of a green Essex machine. Hard work, but eased with a few, or more, pints in the pub across the way. The view was that he could calibrate his intake so that the following morning the drink induced shake in his hands had the correct waviness for a few hours welding until his head regained it’s composure.
One evening during silage time Mick O’Brien came on towing a tractor that had broken the half-shaft in the back axle. Of course the silage took precedence over the pub. Seamus went at it, got the cab lifted enough to get at that side of the tractor, wheel off, hub off, and pulled out the broken side of the half-shaft hoping that the break was up close and he could grip the remainder. This time, no; the shaft was broken just at the splines, way deep inside. The whole back axle would have to be stripped; an all-nighter. He went and got the half-shaft out of a scrap tractor out the back. The back axle was still looking at him, so he sat down on the wheel and lit a cigarette, and another when Marie brought out a cup of tea to him. The broken stub was going nowhere.

Just as he got up, he thought of the welder. He had never heard of it being done, but a bad welder is always getting the welding rod stuck in the cooling magma especially on cold metal; and a welding rod would be long enough to reach the stub. Could he do it deliberately?
He practiced a bit on the broken shaft until he had got the right technique of jamming the rod on to it and flicking the power on and off fast enough to make the magma, but only enough to stick the rod. Then he carefully pushed the rod onto the stub, flicked the power and Halleluiah, the rod stuck to the stub. A tap on the stub to break any fusing to the gears, a gentle easing and out it came. Job done. The whole thing was back together in forty five minutes.

I was over in the pub that night. We all knew about the tractor and none of us were expecting to see Seamus, so when he came in, water still dripping off his hair from a quick wash and a smile on his face we knew something had happened.
We got the story and more like it; there were acres and fields cut for silage that night, machines broken and fixed, reputations made and unmade.

Later when the place quietened and Seamus and I were chatting, he turned to me and said something I will always remember. “Conor,” he said, “There’s no point in being crazy if you cannot show it”. It was the smartest thing said that night.
He is right; bring out your ideas and move them on.