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Taking Appropriate Next Steps to Progressive Change: Building on the Past and Risking Deep Transformation Towards More Sustainable Communities

Edited keynote transcript from the APEN International Conference March 2006

Professor Stuart B. Hill

University of Western Sydney


Appropriate next steps are deeply personal and highly context specific. This is why formulaic, centrally-directed and imposed change always fails to achieve its stated aims and invariably causes more problems than it solves. Consequently, the collaborative 'extension' task is to design and implement institutional and community structures and processes that can enable those involved to take those appropriate next steps, and to evaluate, celebrate and learn their way forwards as they go. Building on the progress made during previous sessions at this conference, the aim of this presentation will be to support this process through challenge, inspiration and the sharing of relevant theory and practice.


[Jo Vigliaturo]: Professor Stuart Hill is the Foundation Chair of Social Ecology at the University of Western Sydney. Prior to 1996 he was at McGill University in Montreal where he was responsible for the zoology degree and where in 1974 he established Ecological Agriculture Projects (, Canada’s leading resource centre for sustainable agriculture. He has published over 350 papers and reports, his latest book with Martin Mulligan, is ‘Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australia’s Ecological Thoughts and Actions’. Stuart has recently been part of what the Department of Primary Industries in Victoria has called its Industry Provocateur Programme. I would just like to read a couple of quotes from the feedback from a DPI staff member about Stuart. “Using amusing personal anecdotes Professor Stuart Hill has inspired DSE and DPI officers to achieve professional and organizational success by embracing paradoxical and bold approaches, while never forgetting every organization and community is made up of human individuals”. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Stuart Hill.

Thank you very much Jo, and thank you Kathy [McGowan] for your earlier presentation on International Women’s Day, which I would like to say more about as it provides me with an opportunity to focus on some key issues that are really important.

[Stuart showed a cartoon with a male farmer saying to the doctor about his wife: “she’s been feeling poorly, and now the crops are in I think she should have a check-up”]

Sadly, in rural Australia, this sort of mistreatment of women is still common.

I have been influenced in this area particularly by the work of a group of women psychologists in the USA who are associated with the Stone Center. This is concerned with relational psychology (Jordan et al. 2004; see also Josselson 1996) and is now part of Wellsley Centers for Women ( It was initiated by Dr Jean Baker Miller who noted that the psychology in most text books is men’s psychology and that women’s psychology is largely neglected (Miller 1987). Women’s psychology is particularly concerned with relational issues. As one of her colleagues, Dr Judith Jordan notes (Jordan et al. 1991):

1. Human wellbeing and happiness are more products of our connectedness, especially our mutualistic relationships, than our individual autonomy and separateness.

2. In addition to ‘I’ and ‘you’ there is also a ‘WE’ that has both recognisable qualities and agendas, i.e., it is not just a compromise or even an integration of the first two.

3. Our psychological development is shaped by our experiences of connection and disconnection in relationships, and by the meanings we attach to them.

4. Relational competencies are generally encouraged in females, but de-emphasized and distorted in males.

Recognising and working with the ‘We’ is really important in extension. The difference between an I and You world and a We world is that whereas in the former there are power struggles, polarised attitudes, defensiveness, avoidance and blaming, in the latter the emphasis is on respect, caring, sharing and understanding. If we are going to have sustainable rural communities and healthy ecosystems, we will certainly need to develop more towards a ‘We’ type world; and progress from the fifty plus one compromise of so-called ‘democracy’ towards the deep collaboration of what Hunter et al. (1997) call ‘co-operacy’.

I’ve been very privileged over the years working with Resource Consulting Systems ( and a group of graziers throughout the country and building trust with them. A couple of years ago they asked me to co-run a workshop for them on relationships (Shem & Surrey 1998). In one of the workshops all the men went into one room and all the women went into another. They then all brainstormed answers to three questions. 1. What’s one thing that the other gender brings to the relationship and enterprise that you want to appreciate? 2. What’s one thing you would like the other gender to understand and appreciate more about what your gender brings to the relationship and enterprise? 3. What’s one question you have for the other gender? [Not surprisingly many men asked ‘Whatever do you women talk about?’]

Then we came back together and projected onto a screen what had been said and alternately read out the responses from each group, with no discussion or comment. They were able to just take it in. It was amazing to see how much learning there was in that room just from hearing what had not been said before, or said in ways that could be heard.

Today is a painful day for me because I particularly remember my many ‘greats’ grandmother who was one of the last witches to be burned alive in England. Sadly this long history of abuse of women continues, and until it ends there cannot be genuinely sustainable communities, and all relationships are likely to be undermined and compromised.

My assumption is that we are truly amazing beings and although we have achieved an enormous amount, we have still hardly scratched the surface of our potential (Hill 2003a). Paradoxically this is my reason for hope, because the opportunities for progress are enormous, particularly in the area of whole healthy systems design. I believe that our major task is to learn how to design and redesign systems to enable wellbeing, making them problem-proof, and stop tinkering with ones that are poorly designed and that include barriers to these goals. This is particularly important with respect to our food systems and rural communities (Hill 1985, 1991, 1998, 2001a, 2001b, 2005, 2006, Hill & MacRae 1995, MacRae et al. 1989a, 1989b, 1990, 1993). For me, one of the greatest pioneers of this in Australia was P.A. Yeomans, who developed the Keyline system of landscape design and management (Hill 2003b, Mulligan & Hill 2001, Yeomans, A.J. 2005, Yeomans, P.A. 1958, 1971, 1978). This was a major inspiration for the development of Permaculture, which also emphasises a systems design approach (Holmgren 2002). I believe it is also important to acknowledge the pioneering efforts in Australia of Landcare, which aimed to address many of the issues being discussed here by enabling individuals to both feel that they could make a significant difference, and to do this more effectively by collaborating with their neighbours and working at landscape and catchment scales (Brown 1996, Cambell, 1994, Hill 1999a).

Most current efforts to change things still seem to me like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. We must stop ‘fiddling with the fine tuning of the status quo’, bite the bullet and engage in radical (root-level) redesign. We also need to focus more on what I call small meaningful initiatives that we can guarantee to carry through to completion, and resist the temptation of feeling that we have to construct change as Olympic-scale events (Hill 2001b). Partly because most of us have been systematically disempowered throughout our childhood, we tend to develop compensatory behaviours, including being seduced by the grand-scale and promising to do things that we cannot complete. One of the ways we can address this is by only promising to do what we can absolutely guarantee to complete, however small it may seem. Such completed tasks are the needed prerequisites for the achievement of sustainable larger changes.

We also need better indicators of the clarity of our goals and our commitment to them. A check list of these in the form of broad testing questions (Savory & Butterfield 1999) is provided in Figure 1. In addition to these, one of the ‘front-end’ indicators I use [and you may have to block you’re ears for this] is to say ‘HA HA’!! [from deep in your gut] after stating what you will do. So when you are out in the field having a private moment or driving in your car where nobody can hear you, practice a little, and keep practicing, until you can liberate your ‘HA HA’ [and your power to act]. Going from a strangulated ‘ha ha’ to a deep ‘HA HA’ is an indicator of crossing a significant empowerment boundary. We also cross other significant boundaries when we come up with paradoxical solutions to challenges (Fletcher & Olwyler 1997), when we learn how to collaborate across differences, publicly celebrate our small meaningful steps, and when we redesign systems to prevent problems and enable wellbeing.


  • Does it support empowerment, awareness, creative visioning, values clarification, acquisition of essential literacies and competencies, responsibility, wellbeing & health maintenance, vitality & spontaneity (building personal capital – personal sustainability)?
  • Does it support caring, loving, responsible, mutualistic, negentropic relationships with diverse others (valuing equity & social justice), other species, & place & planet (home & ecosystem maintenance)?
  • Does it support positive total life-cycle personal development & improvement?


  • Does it support: accessible, collaborative, responsible, creative, celebrational, life-promoting community structures & functions (building & maintaining social capital – cultural [including economic] sustainability)?
  • Does it support: the valuing of ‘functional’ high cultural diversity & mutualistic relationships?
  • Does it support: cultural development & positive co-evolutionary change?


  • Does it support: effective & efficient ecosystems functioning (building & maintaining natural capital – ecological sustainability)?
  • Does it support: ‘functional’ high biodiversity, & prioritised use & conservation of resources?
  • Does it support: positive ecosystem development & co-evolutionary change?


  • Does it support: proactive (vs. reactive), design/redesign (vs. status quo efficiency & substitution strategies) & small, meaningful, low-risk, collaborative, achievable initiatives (vs. an overemphasis on heroic, expert-based, exclusive, high-risk ones) & public celebration of them at each stage - to facilitate their spread?
  • Does it focus on: key opportunities & windows for change (pre-existing & spontaneously emergent change ‘moments’)?
  • Does it explain: how it will effectively monitor & evaluate its progress (broad, global & long-term, as well as specific, local & short-term) by identifying & using integrator indicators & by being attentive to all feedback and outcomes (& redesigning future actions and initiatives accordingly)?

Figure 1. Testing Questions for Radical Transformative Initiatives

I have used the following framework (Figure 2) when working with graziers. I might start by asking them to fantasize what they would like to achieve if they were to live beyond an average lifetime (perhaps 500 years). Then we progress right down to what they are going to do before they go to bed tonight. We reflect on all the areas listed in this table: themselves, their family, their enterprise, their local community, their local landscapes, special others, other families, other enterprises they might have, other distant communities, other distant landscapes, global issues and so forth, as appropriate.

Figure 2. Framework for Planning Change

Sustainable (long-term) progressive change in complex situations can only be achieved through significant human development. It cannot be achieved by means of technology transfer, problem solving, or even conventional education and extension. Such change can only be achieved through transformational human development. Van Beek and Coutts (1992) show this very clearly in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Extension in Complex Situations

Thus, holistic planning must always include enabling such human development. Also, rather than just focusing on maximizing productivity, which always eventually leads to increasing dependence on inputs and a broad range of impacts and break down of the systems involved, we must realise that sustained productivity is best understood as the by-product of healthy system maintenance (Hill 2006, Norgaard 1994). With this understanding it becomes clear that to have progressive global transformation we’ve got to have radical organisational and institutional transformation (Walker et al. 2004). We have all seen how our political leaders behave today in parliament – much of the time like naughty children, shouting at each other across the house – hardly the basis for ‘good’ governance. It’s a very sad situation. We clearly have got to design better ways to do politics within our societies. To do that, however, we‘ve got to enable the transformative personal change that I referred to above to take place. It is unrealistic to expect that screwed up individuals could ever design institutional systems that could make it possible for us to live equitably, well and meaningfully in an ecologically sustainable and socially just world.

We knowingly and, more significantly, unknowingly project our internal state of being onto the world, hence the imperative for all of us to achieve personal wellbeing and recover from our woundedness and distress (Hill 2003a, Jackins 1978). For other human development perspectives see also Beck and Cowan (1996), Hunter et al. (1997), Kaplan (2002), Senge et al. (2004) and Wilber (2000).

Consequently, my triple bottom line emphasizes the life on the planet (and it must be understood that this has absolute requirements, and that our disregard of this is why we are experiencing so much environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity), our culture, with its institutional structures and processes (including, but not privileging economics; money is just a tool that we may use, together with a range of political instruments, to enable us to implement our values), and people (individuals, groups and communities). The conventional triple bottom line is ruled by money and ECONOMICS, when these should be merely tools to be used to enable us to live according to our higher values (Hill 2005).

This ascendancy of economics and a monetary system of values has resulted in it seeming normal that we usually only reward farmers for productivity. The inevitable outcomes are that, despite all the well-intentioned efforts of extension agents, the natural, social, personal and spiritual capital of the systems involved will be eroded over time. It is imperative that we find ways to reward rehabilitation and maintenance of these systems, and to not back away from the realisation that this will require us to engage in radical personal and cultural transformation. Mezirow (1991, 2001) and others (e.g., Baumgartner 2001, King 2005, O’Sullivan et al. 2002) have developed useful theory and practice relating to transformational learning in adults.

Many years ago I became interested in organic farming. This was because when I asked people why they are willing to pay more for organic food, they said two things: “I think it is better for my health, and I think it is better for the environment”. This is the beginning of a society recognising the need to support and pay for maintenance of healthy systems (Hill 2001c).

The fact that the following comparison is as relevant today as when I wrote it in the late 70s is evidence of the ongoing resistance by most within our industrialized societies to such a realisation (Figure 4).

Patricia Maguire’s list (from her 1987 book Doing Participatory Research: A Feminist Approach) of the contrasting concerns of our present dominant society with a more preferable alternative one further elaborates on my list (Figure 5). She challenges us to move away from maintenance of the status quo and dare to engage with radical change, from an efficiency focus (which I have heard repeated a fair amount at this conference) to creating more just and equitable societies, from keeping everything dumbed down to actually dismantling things that don’t work and focusing on emancipation and a world that could be, and not being so limited by what is.


  • productivity

• nourishment/shelter

  • profit

• fulfilment

  • power

• sustainability/maintenance


  • more (no limit)

• enough (limit)


  • growth

• balance

  • competition

• cooperation

  • centralisation

• decentralisation

Non-renewable resources

  • wasted, exhausted

• limited, prioritised users

Renewable resources

  • degraded

• require balance management

The Human Condition

  • stressed

• joyful

  • detached

• integrated

  • degenerating

• evolving

Figure 4. What Are Rational Goals For Development?

Dominant view of society concerned with:

Alternative view of society concerned with:

1. Maintenance or evolutionary change of status quo

1. Radical change

2. Maintaining social order, existing systems un-questions

2. Transforming social systems, analysing structural conflicts and contradictions

3. Greater efficiency of current systems

3. Creating more just and equitable systems

4. Trying to maintain impressions of harmony, integration and cohesion of social groups

4. Acknowledging contradictions between social ideals and reality

5. Ways top maintain cohesion and consensus

5. Ways to dismantle systems of domination

6. Solidarity


6. Identifying and meeting individual needs within existing social system

7. Current systems incapable of equitably meeting basic human needs

8. actuality, discovering and understanding “what is”

8. Potentiality: providing a vision of “what could be”

[Adapted from Burrell and Morgan (1979), Paulston, (1976), Maguire, P. (1987) Doing Partic. Res.: a feminist approach. Centre for Int Ed. U. Mass, Amherst.]

Figure 5. Key Concerns of Dominant and Alternative Paradigm Views of Society

Farmers are treated by most in agribusiness and the banks primarily as money borrowers, input consumers and cheap raw material producers. Clearly if we are to live sustainably this has to change. In a recent book on agro-ecology, the editors (Clements & Schrestha 2004) described the paradigm shift that is starting to take place as an extension of our philosophy (beyond yield), a growing concern for whole healthy systems design and maintenance, systems that are locally adapted and relevant, complex cropping systems, taking into account non-crop biota, landscape/catchment-scale planning, supporting ecological processes, using natural ecosystems as models, and including human and social ecology concerns in all proposals and actions (Hill 1999b, 2005).

In Andre Voisin’s (1959) brilliant book, Soil Grass and Cancer, Figure 1 is a small dot next to an enormous circle. What we teach in schools and universities and what you can find on the net is all covered by that dot, which he labels as ‘the sum total of human knowledge’. What makes a brilliant farmer, a brilliant extension agent, and a brilliant communicator is someone who can effectively engage with the larger circle (the ‘unknown’). Einstein insightfully observed that ‘clever people know how to solve problems’, and then he whimsically added ‘wise people avoid them’. Wisdom involves engaging with that larger circle. It cannot be found by limiting ourselves to the dot. It is extremely important for us to realize that this is a major blind spot and debilitating limitation of our current obsession with ‘evidence-based’ approaches.

Rachael Lauer’s (1983) understanding of this is also of great value. She characterised five progressive stages in our thinking about things, and visualised these as a series of cones within cones. The first stage is when we get fascinated by some new concept, like sustainability, community capacity or capacity-building. The second stage is concerned with terminology, definitions and the measurement of things. That’s the stage that nearly everybody gets stuck in, partly because it is the stage for which one can most easily obtain research funding. This, in turn, is because it is non-threatening to existing power structures. I critically label most of this research as ‘monitoring our extinction research’. Rather than getting stuck at this stage we need to progress to recognising the relationships between the thing you’re interested in and all the other things, so that you can gain a deeper understanding of the thing. This enables you to reflect on its deeper meaning, and eventually engage with it more in relation to its unknown qualities than its known ones. This is the level at which we are able to engage wisdom rather than just cleverness.

John Heron’s (1992, 2001) image of a layered triangle can also be used to challenge us to broaden and deepen the ways in which we habitually engage with issues. Thus, when people meet to consider an issue they commonly sit around a table with the aim of coming up with a plan. When we do this we invariably produce a modified version of the old plan. Heron points out that underneath planning are imagination and creativity, and underneath that are feelings and passions; and all of this takes place within the context of our worldviews, values and beliefs (Hill 2004a). The key when working with progressive change is to start by engaging at these lower levels, and then progressing upwards through an emergent process that emphasises active listening over impatient telling.

When working with change, for example with a group of graziers, I might ask them what they particularly love about their work; what are some of the challenges they face; and then, what are examples of things they have already done to address some of these (Hill 2001a). We do this in ‘go-rounds’, and usually in the process there is much important exchange of information, as well as the formation of community and the building of social capital (Hill 2005). Most extension agents, in my experience, don’t adequately celebrate what people have already done and are presently doing. The important thing is that through this process the graziers are enabled to follow their personal agendas, not my imposed agenda. I then ask what would it take to do what each of you wants to do (and I encourage them to focus on initiatives that are actually doable), what gets in the way of doing that, how can you get what you need to do it, what are the barriers, and how might you get around them. Here I am using Lewin’s (1935) ‘Force Field Analysis’ and Peavey’s (1994) ‘Strategic Questioning’. Most importantly, I focus on small meaningful initiatives that they can guarantee to carry through to completion, and I ask them how they will publicly celebrate their completions (partly to enable their spread). Such processes lead to progressive sustainable change, whereas imposed change is always subject to resistance and eventual abandonment (Hill 2001a).

As an educator I have come to realize that I teach two things: the subject and myself. Similarly, as extension agents we are coming with information, but more importantly we are sharing the ‘gift’ of ourselves. It is one’s being (much more than any information) that is the instrument that can enable change. If you ask people about their learning they don’t talk about a particular bit of information, they talk about a person. I believe that we need to focus much more attention on our person-to-person roles as instruments of change (Hill et al. 2004).

These are some of the topics that I would have loved to talk about [Prof Hill had listed about 30 topics on the white board prior to his presentation] because I think they are all key issues that are core to being an effective extension agent. I will touch on what I consider to be some of the most important ones in the time remaining (most of the others are discussed in my past publications).

If you study any agricultural system comprehensively you will soon realise that it runs smoothly for only part of its operation [imagine a circle with tooth-like projections around part of its perimeter]. The parts that don’t run smoothly [the tooth-like projections] spin off problems. I first came up with this simple model for addressing problems within agro-ecosystems when I was thinking about pests (Hill 1984). At that time the common management response to a pest problem was to spray a biocide (note: there are no such things as pesticides as they can never be specific to pests; this would require pests to be defined by their biological properties, which they are not!). First efforts to improve such situations usually focus on efficiency, by spraying more accurately for example. The next strategy involves substitution, for example by releasing a predator or parasite or by using some other less disruptive alternative. The problem is that the more effective efficiency and substitution strategies are, the more we are unintentionally protecting and perpetuating the design and management features of the agroecosystem that are the underlying causes of the problem. One may recognise the same phenomenon in government, medicine, with regard to social issues, and, in fact in any area where there are problems. What we need to do is redesign the system so it can solve its problems internally (Hill 1985, 1998, 2004b). So, at this point in our history, a major focus of extension should be on helping producers redesign (and design) their systems to make them problem-proof. Eventually, as non-renewable resources become unaffordable and unavailable, system breakdowns become unacceptable, and when we sort out our values, then I suspect we will be ready to redesign whole food systems [and whole societies] to meet real needs (as opposed to manipulated and compensatory wants). My hope, of course, is that our culture, and each of us, will decide to act responsibly ahead of this ‘mega-crisis’ stage, when for most life on the planet it will be too late!

Throughout this presentation I have been emphasizing that when working with social change we need to pay much more attention to what’s involved in progressive, sustainable personal change. The challenge to this is that in our socializing culture, in which one generation aims to control the behaviour of the next generation, such personal change is compromised and, as a result, there is an enormous amount of co-lateral damage (Hill 2004b), as there is with the use of biocides (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Establishment of Adaptive Compensatory Selves

Individuals are regularly stressed and wounded by such ‘socialising’ efforts that are not compatible with individual agendas. We survive such experiences through adaptive processes that involve the construction of ‘other’ selves that are compliant and/or rebellious. After thresholds of manipulation are reached we start to live our lives mostly as our ‘other’ selves. For most of us in industrialised societies this threshold is reached between ages seven and eleven, when we also tend to switch from living ‘from the inside out’ to living ‘from the outside in’. This can often be seen in our eyes, which change from being bright and engaging to dull and frequently distant or vacant. Such ‘adapted’ (diminished) selves are characterized by being less powerful, less aware, less visionary, less clear about values, which they more readily compromise, and because they are more fearful they tend to let fear guide much of their behaviour. These characteristics contrast with our ‘core’ or essential self, which is recognisable as being empowered, aware, more fully in the present, with clear visions and values, with actions being consistent with them, and typically reflective of love rather than fear. We are all made up of both of these types of selves. Clearly the first group of selves needs to be managed, and ideally provided with opportunities for recovery and ‘healing’, whereas our essential self needs to be enabled to be expressed. My hope is that doing this will result in our species’ psychosocial co-evolution towards an enabling culture (deMause 1982, 2002, Hill 2004a, Loye 2004, Max-Neef 1991). The relevance of this for extension (and, in fact, for any activity) may become clear if we critically examine the ‘self-level’ roots of our extension practices. This is very difficult to talk about because as R.D. Laing (1971) observed, ‘it is as if each of us were hypnotized twice, firstly into accepting pseudo-reality as reality and secondly into believing we were not hypnotized’. This is one of the main reasons why denial is so common at a first response in most individuals and societies.

As noted above, I believe that we are evolving as a species both psychosocially and culturally. This evolution is undoubtedly a major driving force for our progressive change from a supply driven world to a demand driven world. We are now in the process of moving into a network society driven world (Figure 7). To progress further I believe that we will need to evolve towards a higher values driven world, one in which we critically examine what is in the service of what. That perhaps is the most important extension question to continue to ask ourselves in every situation. Is what I am doing primarily in the service of making it look as if I am in control and being efficient (but efficient for what)? Or, is what I am doing the best way I am able to live in concert with my higher values? These are certainly challenging questions with potentially profound life-changing and culture-changing implications.

Figure 7. Psychosocial Evolution

As I mentioned earlier, I believe that we are evolving from a socializing society (in which one generation largely determines the direction of the agenda of the next generation) to an enabling society, within which the benign agendas of the individuals within it are supported. The potential of this has already been revealed in a major study of health in England called the Peckham Experiment (Hill 2004c, Stallibrass 1989, Williamson & Pearse 1980). This was a very large experiment that involved over 1,000 families over a dozen years. The relevance to my argument is that the participants were enabled to do what they wanted to do (they were supported in following their own personal agendas). During this period there wasn’t a single marriage breakdown, not a single case of bullying between children; and there was only one accident, which was minor. The whole population became healthier and the children rarely chose to play competitive games. Through this extraordinary experiment we gained a glimpse of what an enabling society could be like: significantly different from most societies today. So, I view my work in extension as enabling the emergence and progressive development of such a better world. This gives me enormous pleasure and satisfaction, which is why I can say, ‘HA HA’! Thank you.

A questioner asked for more elaboration about the psychological ideas that were presented, and their implications for extension.

When we get hurt our self-healing processes are activated. In frustration we often end up trying to solve our internal problems externally. And, often we try and give what we didn’t receive. We may even become employed in jobs that enable us to do this professionally. Thus, in extension it may be relevant to ask how much of what goes on involves such subconscious drives to give the generically related types of ‘good’ things that we did not receive, and to what extent do we focus on things that might compensate for these? I suspect that a significant amount of inputs and control initiatives associated with extension work may partly be serving these functions. There would certainly be benefits to our practice, and for those we seek to help, if we were more aware of this and avoided such driven behaviour.

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