Eating is an agricultural act - Wendell Berry

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

creating impact

in my job at akanksha - i was heading up impact measurement.
we were putting down some quantitative and qualitative measures to see and show how effective and efficient our methods were. largely in the time i spent in this role, i focussed on classroom related measures.

so it was all about numbers, measurements, check lists, spreadsheets, databases and suchlike.
my underlying hope and expectation from this process was for the teacher to be able to make use of this and help her reach out to her students.
it would eventually spiral outwards to cover the entire organisation.
i left well before the first spiral took off.

creating impact is latest fancy buzzword in business/corporate/NGO boardrooms.
from my own experiences and in my personal funda now, this buzzword has absolutely no place. i would go onto say that in case one is trying to 'impact the community/society' through their work - they are likely to fail; not only in making an impact, but also in doing a decent job of their core work (for e.g., education, health, etc).
here i do not cover government actions/policies and only apply this theorem to the non-government space.

i will re-engage the words of wendell berry here in his famous "in distrust of movements" as my support.
And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not behaviour.
he goes onto lay a large part of the effort at the doorstep of each individual.

creating impact is directly associated with scaling and scaling is directly associated with creating movements.

kishore's comment on "milling around the corner", asks this (among many other things):
As the cause gains momentum, how do you then make it have more of an impact without losing the core beliefs and inspiration?

using the above passages as my detailed response, i will summarise my answer to this question - "it is not possible to expand the cause and make more impact without losing the core beliefs and inspiration."

or in a toned down version, "i am not at point return to create impact/change local behaviour/evangelise natural farming/organise, rather i am at pR to lead a simple and healthy and less exploitative life.


Krupakar said...

Very profound! The satisfaction of a moral life has to be in the living of it, not in the validation of it by others.

Anonymous said...

Somehow this reminds me of a Kerala poet I recently read about -- he declared that "Living life as a poet is more important, not writing poetry", and stopped writing.

We forget that outputs come naturally from processes, and the latter is what is important. Focusing on the output changes the process. Mango trees don't try to produce perfect mangoes. If you get perfect mangoes, it is because the tree's life was great that year.

(Though I recently read about a possible aberration to this principle. In Kerala, when a person is critically sick in a house, and a tree/field yields a bumper harvest, it is considered to indicate that person's passing. Called "marana vila" in Malayalam.)

Alexander Berger said...

I think that "impact" just means making the world different from it would be if you didn't do anything, and it's hard for me to see why you think that "in case one is trying to 'impact the community/society' through their work - they are likely to fail; not only in making an impact, but also in doing a decent job of their core work (for e.g., education, health, etc)." If you are trying to educate but don't have an impact, then you have failed at educating; if you are trying to heal but don't make a difference, you have failed in health care. Why do you think this is true of private action but not government?

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with your conclusion, but I don't think that the fact that you've decided to move away from a personal attempt to make an impact means that no one else ever can.

Jayadeep(JDP) said...

Interesting thoughts CSM - I tend to agree. Impact or goal directed activities usually go off the track even though they may claim victory(or change the measures). They tend to measure things too much and put it in numbers that the system itself adapts or coerced to make the good numbers. (As someone said, any measurement of a system would potentially impact its behavior or something similar). And typically there are no measures in place to see how the impact was achieved. May be all we need is a direction, not a goal.

Jayadeep(JDP) said...

@Anonymous - If the poet decides to stop writing poetry, he is indeed worried about the impact of his poems more than the writing. Instead he should just be writing and not worrying about the impact of his poems.

In people oriented systems, focusing too much on the process is a recipe for failure, instead focus on the people, they will find the right process.

Anonymous said...

Jayadeep, my interpretation of the poet is that he realized he was paying too much attention to writing, putting the ideas and words in order, trying to publish, and forgetting to live as a poet. If he lives as a poet, he might still write, but that writing will be an aside, like the mist around Niagra. Then again, he may not write, and just walk around humming to himself.

Ventaky said...


While reading the first part dealing with 'quantification', I was recalled a saying generally attributed to Einstein: "Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts." :)


Anonymous said...

You probably know about this person's work, but just in case you are not familiar:

SurveySan said...

////"i am not at point return to create impact/change local behaviour/evangelise natural farming/organise, rather i am at pR to lead a simple and healthy and less exploitative life.///

you may want to rethink this.
The purpose of pointReturn like venture will be lost, if all that comes out of it, is a 17 acre greenery and 10 folks leading a 'simple life', IMHO.

there should/will be indirect/direct impact on others and the goodness should/will cascade.

Ekluvya said...

Be the change that you wish to see in this world..MKG ji. Just follow what you preach without propagating and if everyone does that...the impact will be seen..

Anonymous said...

Must say that only after reading this essay of Wendell could I understand your line of thinking better. He has expressed remarkably well.

Your approach seems to be in line with his approach. At least at a broad level.

The problem it seems is that there is no way that the entire system can be rehauled since no own owns this gigantic machinery of capitalism, democracy etc. Moreover there are vested interests all over.

Regarding impact, it can be measured at certain levels provided we believe that something can be done without bringing a new order of living. If we are wanting a new order and nothing less than anything that you see as a change will appear meaningless.

I read your initiative as an experiment being done because you find this problem unsolvable. There are others who try to acquiese to the system and become part of the problem while yours is a kind of an initiative to escape the morass and live peacefully since there is really no singular way of solving this gigantic puzzle of present day of living.

csm said...

i did expect this post to raise a lot of dust.
but i did not expect so much head-nodding in agreement.
i was sure that surveysan would interject ;-), but i thought he would get much more support.

post writing this, i could list a variety of stuff that is definitely high impact:
1. count the extra oxygen that is being generated through our tree planting. 1000+ trees should be right up there on the impact scale.
2. we are growing food on an abandoned piece of land. thats bringing into production fallow land.
3. we are reducing dependency on market for our food, so more is available for all the rest.
4. and our carbon footprint. that is serious impact.
and all this without interacting with any human being.

@alex - you define impact differently to mine. i was making a point in direct response to kishore's comment on an earlier post.
in my definition, when you teach a child, you should be trying to make her better than yourself. and that is not impact, that is surrender :-)

@anon - nice article. thanks. feel that prakash is creating all the impact that is needed in the agri field.

@surveysan - i have rethought and will not make any change to the assertion.
i will restate this statement drawing an analogy with a tree - it remains stationery, but draws a wide variety of visitors. its has a duty to do and it does that diligently - growing, leafing, flowering, fruiting. some will come for shade, some for firewood, some for nesting space and so on. it allows and even welcomes these visitors. it does have to say, "i shall house 100 brids, 1 million ant, 1 ton of firewood, etc.". it just knows that if remains a tree, these things will happen as per the laws of nature.

@anon - glad you liked berry. there is really no end in looking at the system and cursing. you are part of the system and the dirt you cast falls on yourself. individual action is where all the power will come from.
ours is not an escape. it is our career choice. as you have chosen your field/employer, we have chosen ours. how come your choice is not 'escaping' and our is?

thanks again to all commentators. i am hoping to be less condescendig and aggressive in my responses and trust i shall be forgiven for causing any itch to anyone.

Kishore said...

The discussion is invigorating.

First of all, I want to again extend my appreciation and admiration to DV, CSM, Karpagam, Siddharth and others who are shaping pointreturn from a burden to an asset.

Now before we get caught up in semantics, words on a blog cannot always convey our complete ideas.

Having said that I find that when I discuss ideas, it is an opportunity for me for inner reflection. We make our decisions based on our own thought process, which is influenced by a whole host of extrinsic factors and circumstances.

Although I admire Wendell Berry's deep insight, I find that the attitude of helplessness in the great scheme of things does not resonate with me.

I will give my take on it and hopefully stimulate thought and discussion.

1. We are alive. As long as we live, we have to use the Earth's resources and will leave an impact.
2. What we have in our very puny hands is the most important choice - how do we live our lives?
CSM and others have shown how we can be a positive influence, rather than negative one.
3. As said"no man is an island" we do not, at pointreturn or anywhere else, live in isolation without influencing the world around us and interacting with it. Therein lies our influence on our surroundings and our actions (to a lesser extent our words) create either a net positive influence or a negative draining influence.

So, I do believe that even if we are not changing the entire world we can be a positive influence and the ripple effects may not be seen/felt in our lifetime but will be there whether we perceive it or not.

csm said...

kishore - the stone's 'duty' is to fall, it is the water surface's 'duty' to ripple.
this analogy has been useful to me to understand the role we play.
and i restate again, my karma as a 'stone' is fall accurately and well and settle at the bottom of the lake.
that ripples will happen is a given.

my stance is not to be understood as "we do not want to create impact!".
just the very fact that this discussion is happening could be interpreted as 'creating impact'.
impact will happen, but we are not hoping/aiming/measuring for it.
we are hoping and aiming to be like trees!

you should read my earlier post on berry's "local economy" for solutions.

SurveySan said...

this post and the discussion is certainly food for thought.
in my personal life, i am at a stage, where i have started thinking, 'what next', how can i spend the remaining years in a 'meaningful way'.

being a tree sounds simple and i certainly understand the benefit of it.
but, it is also so limiting and i feel like, people like you who have selfless attitude should consider doing a bit more :)

Anonymous said...

Consciously or unconsciously this discussion is leading to the Karmic philosophy of 'Karmanyeva dhikaraste ma phaleshu kadachanah'. All these pursuits are intended only at action which is thoughtful according to your understanding of world. Yes the 'tree' will have other impact. Whether there is merit in measuring it or not is also not a black and white question. You choose not to evaluate. That is a choice. No universal truths here.

Measuring things allows us to tailor our efforts better and we are not talking about it here.

Existence on this planet is a sum total of all perspectives. This one has its own value.

All the best!

arjun said...

I agree with with your thoughts...

SurveySan said...


more questions here. answer when you have a moment. you can email your answers to surveysan2005 at yahoo dot com.


SurveySan said...

thanks to you, DV and Karpagam for the detailed response to all the questions.

Q&A posted here:

Ben said...

SurveySan may want to rethink this.
The purpose of pointReturn like venture will be lost, if all that comes out of it, is a 17 acre greenery and 10 folks leading a 'simple life', IMHO.

My Take: There is no reason to have a purpose. Will all americans become farmers..NO..but who cares.

PR is the way to go.

?!!!@#%* said...

thanks to all of you!

it helps to pacify my thinking too!

and many of sriram point comes from my understanding of zen!

hope ss will have some acceptance some time later! if my grasping the point right!