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Multi-Modal Thinking in Agricultural Sustainability

Gareth Jones, University of Salford, April 2002.

1. Introduction

The aim of this report is to convey the integrated diversity of sustainability by use of a concrete situation. The location is Bunschoten, a town in Holland, and the focus is on the work of an urban farmer, Jan Huijgen, as he seeks to tackle the pressures facing his vocation, lifestyle and community. The report has been written after visiting Jan at his farm, Eemlandhoeve.

1.1 Sustainability Issues

The pressures facing Jan and many other farmers like him are ones of:

An ever-expanding urban population surrounds Jan's farm on all sides. Mass production methods and cheap imports impel him to squeeze as much produce from his land as possible - just to keep his head above the profit line. However, intensive agriculture is a polluting and degrading practice and Jan is expected to be a custodian and protector of the environment. Faced with this vicious circle, agricultural ministers have encouraged the farming community to respond by becoming entrepreneurs and agricultural innovators, finding new ways of meeting the needs of the environment and a price conscious populous. This expectation requires the farming community to not only understand the complexity of their situation, but to have the expertise and resources to innovate sensibly. This pressure leads many farmers to feel isolated and out of their depth.

1.2. Sustainability Solutions

Jan has managed to innovate and pioneer new ways of meeting the challenges of sustainability. His methods and practices have not only earned him pride of place in the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture's publication on 'Sustainable Agriculture', but have earned respect and trust amongst the farmers, producers and inhabitants of his local community. What I find interesting and unique about Jan is way his philosophical motive and world-view shapes his understanding of farming and his task as a farmer. This world-view is part of a cyclical process where theory is continually evolving as it is shaped and informed by practice and then used to enrich and critique practice.

2. The Philosophical Underpinnings of Eemlandhoeve

Jan is influenced by a multi-modal understanding of reality that is found in the philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd. This philosophy emphasises the diversity (multi-modality) of reality and yet its indissoluble coherence. Dooyeweerd proposed 15 modes of being for the whole of reality:

[See how, in general, these aspects relate to sustainability. AB.]

Jan uses the aspects explicitly, as an evaluative framework to assess the present and plan for the future, and implicitly or instinctually in daily practice. The remainder of this report will try to explain the holistic nature of multi-modal thinking and how the diversity and interrelatedness of these aspects express themselves in the Jan's work as he tackles the pressures of space, productivity and profitability, environmental protection, innovation, understanding, expertise and isolation.

[See also a more specific outline of how Eemlandhoeve is guided by aspects. AB.]

3. Holistic Thinking

Jan states that the heart of his integrated lifestyle is his Christian world-view. Multi-modal thinking fits squarely with this worldview, and, working in tandem, these principles and foundations have enabled Jan to view the nature of farming and the answers to its problems as richly integrated. Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence indicating that many of the problems facing Western society, and the failed attempts at providing solutions, can be attributed to an aggressive form of reductionism, where certain aspects (particularly the economic) dominate and subsume others. Therefore, in all of his endeavours, Jan seeks to acknowledge and respect the multi-modal nature of reality.

4. Multi-modal Sustainable Solutions

4.1. Space

When space is limited, conventional solutions have concentrated, almost exclusively on maximising production. However, while this is important to Jan, so are other spatial aspects. Jan recycles his wastes (economic) and has a spacious barn to protect the land and livestock in poor weather conditions. Modern farming practices (formative) are balanced with traditional methods (historical). He values land and space, recounting with feeling the sacrifice he made (pistic) in selling some of his land to undertake farm developments.

Jan also seeks to make his space available to the community (social and ethical). He has constructed a visitor centre where people can enjoy panoramic views of his land and gain an appreciation of the special quality (aesthetic) of the farming landscape. He also shares his land with individuals keen on local production (social and ethical) by providing a number of vegetable, wild flower and herb plots, and convenient locations for beehives.

Jan also considers the spatial nature of his buildings. He has represented the traditional styles of building in a modern and developmental way (historical and aesthetic) and has demonstrated this commitment by employing architects and designers (pistic). The impact of his buildings has had a positive social impact and Jan has provided, upon request, his designs to neighbouring farmers free of charge (ethical and economic).

4.2. Productivity and Profitability

Jan runs counter-culturally with regard to conventional farming methods, which primarily concentrate on intensive grassland and livestock production alone. Such an approach has led to the degradation of soil and biodiversity (physical and biotic) and results in negative impacts on human and animal health due to fertilizer and pesticide run-off (biotic, social, ethical and juridic). Jan also considers the productivity of the agricultural environment for the wildlife that depends upon it, the people that enjoy it (ethical) and the profitability of providing a rich and varied natural environment. This approach may result in a drop in the productivity of conventional economic commodities, such as hay and meat, but increases the 'productivity' and 'value' of economic aspects that are not represented by the euro.

4.3. Environmental Protection

Jan seeks to protect all aspects of his environment. His livestock benefit from ethical farming (sensitive), he has employed an ecologist to co-ordinate the planting of wildflowers and trees (biotic), has constructed pools and margins for birds, amphibians and insects and his farming practices are sensitive to wildlife (formative and ethical). Jan also includes community awareness and participation (social) as part of this task, perceiving that many pressures are placed on the environment due to commercial marketing (lingual) and consumer expectations (pistic). Education and practice (analytical) is a means of bridging this gulf and making the public aware of the costs involved in intensive agriculture (economic and ethical).

4.4. Innovation, Understanding and Expertise

When Jan seeks to be innovative, he endeavours to consider as many of the pressures facing his community as possible, seeking to provide integrated solutions. He also understands that sensitive innovation requires understanding (analytical) of the problem situation and the way it affects the environment (biotic) and others (social). The solutions to these problems are multi-faceted and require considerable expertise, therefore, Jan organises symposia (social) of stakeholders (ethical) where issues can be discussed (lingual) and ideas mooted and developed. This corporate nature engenders a sense of ownership, hope and commitment from all stakeholders (pistic). On the day I visited the farm, Jan held a symposia where local farmers, agricultural civil servants, agricultural and livestock economists, politicians and conservationists were in attendance, seeking new ways of tacking agriculture and sustainability forward. Jan rarely functions alone but as part of a multi-disciplinary team and demonstrates this commitment by employing those with the relevant expertise.

4.5. Isolation

Jan perceives isolation as taking many forms. Citizens of the urban environment are often isolated from farmland, open space (spatial), scenery and tranquillity (aesthetic) and an understanding of the agricultural environment and its pressures. This isolation often results in a depreciation of community needs and responsibilities (social, ethical, juridic and pistic). Jan provides a schoolroom on his site for local children to be educated with practical experience in environment, community and the natural environment issues. He has built a conference and resource centre for use by the local community and sells the produce from other farms on his site. He has constructed a comprehensive web site informing of his work and strategy; and negotiated to have an information centre built in a newly constructed housing development of 10,000 homes, welcoming the new inhabitants into the area, and informing them of local produce schemes, local producers and community facilities. Jan has constructed a template contractual document (juridic), which stresses the rights and responsibilities between farmer and land, farmer and consumer, consumer and local producers, as he aims to establish links between as many aspects of community production and consumption as possible.

5. Reflection

Jan has employed multi-modal thinking to tackle the problem of sustainability within a particular context. The result is the embodiment and evolution of a world-view, born not out of detached policies and methods, but from the commitment and vision of local people. Jan is keen to stress the sacrifice involved in such counter-cultural movements, not as some unfortunate painful thing external to us, but something that if we engage in will bring real benefits. The work at Eemlandoeve is continuing to grow, develop, permeate and benefit its local community - a sure sign that Jan is getting something right.

This page is part of a collection that discusses application of Herman Dooyeweerd's ideas, within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

Written on the Amiga and Protext.

Compiled by (c) 2002 Gareth Jones, University of Salford. You may use this material subject to conditions.

Created: 25 April 2002 Last updated: 29 August 2013 .end, .nav, unet, links to sust and eem.aspects. 5 September 2013 correction and shifted Gareth's name to top.