How Our Generation Can (and Must) Thrive in Exponential Times

a couple of years ago
 By Alice Beth Stankovitch

Imagine you were a young man during World War II. The draft came, dragging you and your friends with it. You’d probably be pissed, right? Hell, you might not even agree with the war in the first place. But the war is happening, and the responsibility is somehow deemed yours– passed down from the past generations and policy makers who created it.

If you didn’t want to go, it didn’t matter. You showed up, because that’s what the times required. 

Jon Trimarco wants our generation tackling today’s environmental issues with a similar fervor.

“The so-called greatest generation didn’t get to opt out of World War II. If you were a young man in the US, in France, in Germany, you were going.”

Jon draws an interesting parallel between the draft of the 20th century and today’s environmental “call to arms.” He believes our generation has a responsibility to be aware of the exponential issues our world faces today, and to build solution-building into our lives and careers.

Meet Jon.

Or, as we like to call him, Farmer Jon.

Jon’s a stand-up guy. He’s the kind of guy you can turn to and say “Jon, would it really matter if all mosquitos were to go extinct?” (because it’s wet season, and they’re eating you alive) and he will give you a well-researched and good-natured explanation of their exact role in the regional and global ecosystem.

Jon knows about more than mosquitos, though. He’s the director of our Sustainable Agriculture program, and he manages our ever-expanding Food Forest. Before this, he spent two years farming in Ghana with the Peace Corps, received his Masters in Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, conducted ethnobotanical research in Kenya, and took time to “travel without an agenda,” working with farmers in developing countries to understand sustainable agriculture and food systems.

Jon Trimarco walks to the Food Forest, looks cool doing it.

Besides all that, we like Jon because he’s an insightful, funny dude with a good heart and a lot of passion for what he does. He also keeps us all accountable, never afraid to ask the hard questions, and he looks pretty cool walking through the jungle with his machete sheath, as proven above.

“We’re Living in Exponential Times”

Jon led the first FOCIS week for the Summer 2017 semester. FOCIS is a core class at Kalu Yala that meets every week to explore a topic related to sustainability, innovation, and community. It’s our way of weaving together all 13 programs at Kalu Yala, exploring cross-disciplinary issues that relate what we’re doing at Kalu Yala to a larger, global context.

Jon’s lecture, “Exponential Times,” got students thinking about the increasing magnitude of today’s environmental, social, and economic issues, and the role our generation should play in addressing them.

Jon Trimarco leads a FOCIS discussion on the increasing urgency and interconnectedness between today’s most pressing global issues.

“I want you to come up with the five most pressing issues you think the world is facing today,” he asked the group, a mishmash of 80-odd students with varied backgrounds. There was no shortage of answers– climate change, desertification, biodiversity loss, peak phosphorous. 

It’s not that there’s a “right” answer. Jon wanted students to collectively consider these issues, confronting both their individual urgency and the interplay between them. As Jon would say, “We’re living in exponential times. All these issues are accelerating so quickly that it’s becoming more difficult to predict what those consequences will be, especially when you factor in the interplay between those issues.

Generation: Cognitive Dissonance

Complacency is amongst our generation’s greatest challenges, says Jon.

“What we like to do as a generation is detach ourselves. We have this cognitive dissonance towards anything that’s too hard. Here, we want to break through that dissonance and say yes, these are real issues. Let’s acknowledge that and figure out your place in this.”

His claims are not unfounded. Consider the 2016 Millennial Impact Report, which asserts that “Millennials remain passionate about their desire for a better world for more people, but they aren’t exhibiting that passion as overtly as their parents’ generation.” Our obsession with all things clickable may be to blame. While 54% of millennials consider ourselves activists, and 64% have signed online petitions for issues we care about, only 36% claim to “get involved in demonstrations such as rallies, protests, boycotts, and marches.” (Huffington Post.)

Agriculture students in the Kalu Yala greenhouse

While Jon gets the appeal of keyboard activism, he stresses it’s not enough. “In our generation, we like immediacy. We like for answers to be there in front of us. Big, easy, actionable – done. That mentality won’t take us very far. We have to look back at what we know. We have to look at our roots, and the solutions before us, and we have to make those scalable in a globalized world.”

Making small solutions scalable. That’s something Jon Trimarco can get behind.

“The Future is Not Elon Musk.”

There’s a tendency, both in society and the millennial generation, to assume solutions are synonymous with technological breakthroughs and game-changing epiphanies. It’s a sexy idea. But Jon warns us:

“The future is not some crazy underground tunnel by Elon Musk. The future is soil, it’s biodiversity, it’s people creating livable environments at a small scale and figuring out how to make it happen on a large scale.

In other words, the solutions we need probably already exist. Most are land-based, most are things we’ve figured out as a species long ago.” says Jon. “So we have answers, what we need is to figure out how to create systems that allow for scale.”

Take the Kalu Yala farm. Our two acres of Food Forest have changed a lot in the last seven years. A revolving door of experts, from academic agriculturists to field-of-hard-knocks farmers have cycled through, applying various techniques and knowledge. The most effective input often comes from local farmers, using what westerners might call traditional or outdated systems. But these are the systems that work in the environment they were wrought in. Part of our goal at Kalu Yala isn’t to create new systems, but to take existing systems and scale them for broader society.

Part of our goal at Kalu Yala isn’t to create new systems, but to take existing systems and scale them for broader society.

So how do we take existing solutions and get them to scale? According to Jon, town-building is the way to do it.

Kalu Yala as a Mechanism for Cultural Evolution

Town-building, says Jon, creates an excellent environment for the experimentation and scaling of solutions that will ultimately drive cultural change. He (ever the farmer) uses the Kalu Yala Food Forest as an example.

Over the past 7 years, we’ve been experimenting. Bringing in different experts and students, making mistakes, figuring out what grows well, what doesn’t. Here, we can take those ideas and solutions and scale. The need for feeding more people will drive us to find more effective sustainable practices. We can then share those practices with the world.

Just as a species evolves slowly, accidentally, one “mistake” or mutation at a time, so do towns, cultures, and societies. It is through – Jon would argue – sustainable town-building that Kalu Yala hopes to drive that cultural evolution. 

Apply to study abroad at Kalu Yala, or…