From the category archives:

Creativity as Agriculture

In the initial post in this series, I implied that ‘Big Agribusiness’ generates an over-abundance “that feels like progress, but doesn’t actually solve the problems we set out to solve.”

With 6.5 billion people on the planet, and a significant percentage hungry each day, isn’t any method of increasing crop yields a good thing?  I’ll leave the farm policy debates for other venues.

I made the connection because of the emphasis on efficiency and hyper-productivity in modern industrial agriculture, an emphasis that has been implicitly transferred to other areas of life.

Efficiency is positive when it describes the amount of the sun’s energy a solar panel converts, or how quickly a pain reliever takes effect.

In human activities, efficiency is a kind of surplus of skill and know-how. Once you understand how to do one thing well, it’s easy to do it over and over again. Others acquire the same skills, learning to do it the same way. Efficiency can become a habit, and habits are often maintained long after they are relevant or helpful.

When a process becomes facile and automatic, and the inputs are in good supply, the result is monoculture.

Think of Andy Warhol’s decadent portraiture phase, when his Factory was cranking out prints for every movie star or royal that could write him a big enough check.

Which do we value more: his cow wallpaper and mylar floating pillows, or the dozens of images of unknown European duchesses?

Efficiency and idiosyncrasy are foes. What one person sees as inefficiency, another person treasures as culture.

Decisions based on quantity and efficiency lead to qualitatively different outcomes.

Heirloom Tomatoes (photo: mercedesfromtheeighties)

Heirloom Tomatoes (photo: mercedesfromtheeighties)

In your own ‘idea’ farming, do you want to produce 70,000 copies of the same tomato?  Or do you want to grow heirloom tomatoes and several varieties of basil, for a mid-summer tasting party with good friends?

Sure, the second option might be more work, require more study and carry a greater risk of failure. But which one makes your mouth water?

The sample plate of heirlooms from Capay Organics

Note: This post is the fourth in a loose and evolving series on creative surplus. So far, I’ve asked if we can have Too Many Ideas, pondered the process of choosing our work, and explored plankton blooms and creative dead zones. Update: the full list of articles is available here.


We are conditioned to think of abundance as a good thing, but there are instances when abundance is toxic. We need water to live. Yet if we have only water, and no air, we drown.

Blooms around the Mississippi Delta

Blooms around the Mississippi Delta

Eutrophication provides a more nuanced example: Eutrophic comes from the Greek for ‘good food’. We need food as well as water, and if we are lucky, we have access to good food.

But good food isn’t always so good if there is too much of it. In a eutrophic lake, for example, nutrients are so abundant that algae bloom out of control. Water quality declines, and so does oxygen content. Many larger plants and animals in the lake die.

Abundance at the bottom of the food chain overwhelms the resources needed by the more complex and evolved species above, and the result is a so-called ‘dead zone’.

What’s the primary cause of these lethal blooms? Runoff from farms, filled with chemical fertilizers, which enters creeks and rivers, and changes the nutrient balance of nearby bodies of water — lakes, seas and oceans.

NASA map of plankton blooms along the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico

Plankton blooms, northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico (NASA)

Could the same scenario play out in our creative process?

Ideas, of course, are a key ingredient of creative output, but can an over-abundance of ideas cause ‘creative dead zones’ that don’t support more refined idea-making and complex expressions of thought?

A Pipe or a Web?

Words like ‘blocked’ and ‘unblocking’ imply that creativity is a linear process: that on the way from A to B, there is something in the middle of the road which must be surmounted or blown up or routed around.  Or maybe it’s like a pipe, with a blockage in one section: clear the blockage, or replace that section of pipe, and ideas will flow again.

In my experience, creativity is a web of interconnected relationships and processes, with different ideas at different stages of development — an ecosystem of ideas. It’s multi-dimensional, and striking a balance between all the disparate parts is essential for the whole system to flourish.

In such a model, brainstorming represents a proliferation in one phase of the life cycle of ideas, which may have a positive or negative influence on the health of the entire ecosystem. There is no single measure of how many ideas are ‘too many’ or ‘too few’ without looking at the context.

I’m not advocating a lack of ideas, just suggesting that dumping the equivalent of chemical fertilizers into our brains can cause an ‘idea bloom’ that throws the entire system into dysfunction and decline.

Your creative ecosystem can break down in many ways. What if the predators — the critics and the naysayers — are over-abundant, and devour simpler forms of life before they can reproduce and evolve? I’ll discuss that in a future post.

Re-balancing Your Ecosystem

If your own creative process resembles a dead zone, what’s the solution?

Dead zones are not permanent, according to an article in Scientific American:

“Only a few dead zones have ever recovered, such as the Black Sea, which rebounded quickly in the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a massive reduction in fertilizer runoff from fields in Russia and Ukraine.”

And surely it’s easier to heal our own ecosystem of ideas than rehabilitate an entire sea!

In the case of the Black Sea, the recovery of the ecosystem was an unintended side effect of political and economic disruption — not exactly the kind of external triggers we hope for, or can afford to wait for when our creative process is unbalanced. Instead, by being sensitive to the imbalances, we can intentionally make adjustments, before the situation is critical.

If idea fertilizers are creating a surplus that threatens to have a negative impact, a return to organic processes — a focus on hand-crafted and carefully cultivated ideas — is one possible way to restore the balance.

If there is a surplus in one part of your creative process that is negatively affecting the whole, what changes could you make so that your ecosystem of ideas will thrive again?

This post is the third in a loose and evolving series on creative surplus. Last week, I introduced the potential ‘problems’ of having too many ideas and also pondered the process of choosing our work when there are so many worthy projects and ideas to explore. I’ll add links to subsequent posts in the series here as I publish them. UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on inefficiency and culture.

Related: The full list of articles in the creative surplus series is available here.


I’ve been mulling over Zoë Westhof’s recent post Midnight Blogging from the Bathroom: Do We Have to Choose?

Here is her framing of her key question:

“The dilemma it leads me to is this: I cannot decide if I want to devote myself to supporting creative endeavors or to supporting deep-rooted social issues. When it comes down to it, I adore giving my attention to both. So my question is this: Do we have to choose?

Should we be creative, or should we save the world?

What if the only way to save the world is to be more creative?

The Big Problems

The most profound problems we face as a global society are complex, hard-to-understand, and require ‘non-linear’ solutions. Small solutions fail as we scale them up to the size of the need.

For example, how do I reduce my carbon footprint? I know how to do that. How do we get nation-states to do the same in a coordinated and effective way? That’s hard.

How do we prevent one pregnant HIV-positive mother from passing the virus on to her child? We know the answer to that. How do we prevent 20 million mothers in the next five years from passing the virus on to their children? We don’t know the answers to that yet — financially, socially or logistically. It’s still too big for us.

We can make big problems little through cooperation, attrition and persistence, but sustaining those efforts requires creative and non-linear approaches.

Personal Choices

In a sense, this question of choosing is a personal version of a classic political question: how can a society spend a cent on space exploration or some other long-term investment when there is a single person hungry?

It is a moral riddle with many unsatisfactory answers. The most satisfactory answer for me: we invest in basic research in the hope that it will help us learn something that will dramatically reduce hunger in the future, and we balance that with what we can do to help our fellow citizens today, in this moment.

When we make this societal dilemma personal, when we place the goal of long-term progress on one shoulder, and instant relief on the other, we may wilt under the pressure, and not achieve either one. While a sense of duty and obligation can be motivating, and keep us from inertia and apathy, too much can tear us apart.

Choosing is excruciating for the curious mind. There is so much to know, so much to learn, so much that needs to be done.

Do we personally have to choose?  In a given moment, for a specific period of time, I think the answer is yes. There is no reason you can’t lean from one side to the other over your lifetime, as your skills and opportunities allow.  But in terms of effectiveness, if you constantly feel the tug of all the other undone things, will you be able to do your best work in a particular moment?

Do we want a scientist, on the verge of a breakthrough in discovering an HIV vaccine, to feel an obligation to stop researching, leave the lab and spend a month working in a soup kitchen? And do we want someone who genuinely enjoys running a soup kitchen to leave that critical job to study biology so that they might know enough to do vaccine research in five or ten years, even if they don’t feel they have an aptitude for it?

This dilemma is a variation of the ‘too many ideas’ theme I started exploring in my last post. In this case, the problem is too many worthwhile projects and needs. I’ll be returning to the exploration of ‘too many ideas’ in the next few posts. I wanted to respond to Zoë’s post first, while it was fresh in my mind.

Your Role

We each have a role to play. Creative exploration can help us find it.

What if your role in solving a particular problem is not navigating the complexities of international law, but helping a legal expert think more creatively?

If you are writing about the creative process, maybe there is a lawyer somewhere reading your work, and it gives her a new insight into how to approach a tricky human rights advocacy issue? Would that make your writing human rights-focused, or still ‘just’ creative? Maybe it is both?

You can’t know the effect of the ideas you share. You can do your best to craft your ideas, and share them widely.

Sowing Seeds

For the past few years, Mercy Corps has used a quote by Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I’d like to suggest a slightly altered version: Seed the change you want to see in the world.

To me, the verb ‘be’ implies an immediate and localized effect: by embodying our values, we change those around us, who, in turn, change those around them.

The word ‘seed’ reminds us that results take time. Different seeds take root in different seasons. We don’t have to limit ourselves to one kind of seed. When we fling the seeds of our ideas far and wide, they can spread beyond our reach, out of our sight.

We cultivate those seeds, whatever they may be, because that’s what we do best.

And we sow the seeds of our beliefs, with no assurances we’ll be there for the reaping.

Related: This article is part of a series on creative surplus.

Update: A hat-tip to Sunday Oliver for pointing out the difficulty of ‘sewing’ seeds, and reminding me the correct spelling is ‘sowing’ seeds. I tend to think aurally, and the homophones always trip me up. (And yes, I did mean aurally, and not its homophone orally!)


“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

– Charles Darwin


But isn’t Darwin all about brutality and competition and death and extinction?

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He doesn’t have the best reputation, especially in America. The word Darwinian — not unlike Orwellian — has taken on a pejorative sense that maligns the profound ideas of the man. In modern usage, it is often associated with the death of “weak” and “undesirable” creatures, and sometimes people, as in pop culture references like the Darwin Awards.

A dim and destructive view of things, yes, but it’s certainly not the only way of looking at Darwin’s work.

There is another perspective: that Darwin’s natural selection (to be more specific about it) is the means  through which life survives and adapts. Adaptability depends on mistakes in reproduction, some of which make a species better able to carry on despite changes in its local environment. If such a process were not in operation, life might have been extinguished long ago by changing circumstances. How much more dismal and destructive history would have been if everything had stayed as it originated! In fact, there wouldn’t be any living history to discuss — nor beings to discuss it.

Static species die, and nourish the tree of life. Dynamic species adapt and evolve.

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

Darwin’s articulation of evolution was a significant break in the tapestry of human thought, as momentous as the realization that we are revolving around a star, one of many, rather than all the stars revolving around us; that the firmament is not a protective shell encasing us as a kind of cosmic womb, but rather that we are a constituent element of something that is far from firm; that we are a tiny little piece of an immense whole, on a pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan once put it.

If we are not at the center, we began to wonder, then what does that mean?  If Copernicus forced us to think about what we are on the edge of this vastness, the findings of Darwin and other biologists since have us wondering about who we are as a species in the span of time.

If we are designed creatures, each made from a single divine mold, then any attribute that is distinct is a deviation, a flaw, a blemish to be sanded down, or a reason to be sent to the seconds bin by the Quality Assurance team.

But if we are evolved creatures, then diversity and constant variation, the interaction of our distinct forms with our surroundings, and the way we adapt to those interactions all contribute to the ongoing creation of the species. Diversity is the very mechanism through which we have become what we are today, and through which we will become whatever we will be ten or a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Enough of cosmology and biological history: What does this have to do with creative expression?

In our thinking and our work, do we strive to find a single and original expression of an idea, some unreachable urtext or perfect Platonic form? Or do we let our ideas emerge, move into a particular moment and place, gain form through interaction with the minds and ideas and perspectives of others, and be sculpted by time and the elemental forces of history and culture?

Do we hover over our ideas, trying to control and force them towards a particular destination?  Or do we fertilize and nurture and ultimately follow our ideas as they twist and turn and become, recognizing that we are but one factor in the shaping of their future?

Darwin’s natural selection reminds us that even a process without a goal, or a journey without a destination, can produce interesting and useful and meaningful results — such as creatures who evolve to the point of understanding the process through which they became observant and reflective.

On the Origin of Species ends with these lines:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.  This is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Creation is not some dusty fact of history, something that has already happened, something finished.

Life continues to adapt, and we are in the midst of it.

{ 1 comment }

In addition to this blog, I plan to post an article or two a month that explores these ideas a little more deeply.

The first article outlines my notion of creativity as agriculture, a key theme of my work at the moment.

Creativity is frequently described as a fire that needs to be rekindled, or some kind of (implied) beast that needs to be unleashed. For me, creativity is a slower, more complex process which none of these standard metaphors really capture.

Put on your sunhat: we’re headed into the fields.

Read the article: “Creativity as Agriculture: An Introduction



by Matt Blair on July 3, 2008

in Creativity as Agriculture

This is the moment when the soil parts, and we don’t quite know what will emerge, what kind of thing this is. But we have decided affirmatively, maybe for the first time, to let it emerge.

This website will feature the fruit of years of labor, labor that seemed like it must be done, even if the ends were unknown, and remain somewhat hidden below the surface.

There are things we must do, things we must say, parts of ourselves that we must give over to the whims of sun and soil, not knowing what precisely they will grow into, but eager and curious to find out.

Welcome to Elsewise Media.