AoR 19: The Philosophy of Art of Range: How Does Conversation Promote Deep Thinking?

Why a podcast to teach on range ecology and livestock production? Tip discusses some of the thInking behind using podcasting to counter the ”Age of Distraction” and to promote deep thinking about complex subjects. 



>> Welcome to the Art of Range, a podcast focused on rangelands and the people who manage them. I'm your host, Tip Hudson, range in livestock specialist with Washington State University Extension. The goal of this podcast is education and conservation through conversation. Find us online an

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The Art of Range is the first of its kind podcast produced by Washington State University in cooperation with the Society for Range Management, and the Rangelands Partnership, and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education. This project is a little different than other projects funded by the Western Center. Specifically, they don't usually fund projects that just talk to people, especially faceless, nameless people that you cannot track to verify that the education they're getting is doing any good for them. However, there are several compelling reasons why we've undertaken a podcast as an educational medium for rangeland users. At a shallow level a podcast is useful, because the target audience is spread out across the United States, and they are not particularly geographically dense anywhere, so in person instruction is really not possible. Additionally, range users across the United States have similar issues. Certainly there are notable differences driven by vegetation type, climate, et cetera, but there are remarkable similarities as well. Maybe more importantly, a podcast that broadcasts a longish conversation about a topic in depth has significant psychological benefits, and that's what I want to talk more about today. The title, Art of Range plays on the idiom that range management is both art and science. Science is classically understood as a body of knowledge to be acquired. There is much we know about the physical and biological world, and the numerous ecological interactions among organisms. And art, classically understood, is the practice or the application of a body of knowledge. Rangeland management is an art as well. Those whose livelihoods depend on making good decisions over a lifetime requires skill developed from continual learning. Doing things well requires practice and the right kind of practice. Somebody who has encyclopedic head knowledge of welding or truck driving may not actually be any good at building, say a steel frame shed or driving a semi through a mountain pass. These are skills developed by practice acting on knowledge combined with experience from sensory input. This podcast, which is an educational medium mostly novel to the field of range ecology will help aspiring an established range managers learn from those who have mastered the art and understood the science. Domestic livestock have been a significant influence on the health of rangelands over the last 150 years in western North America. And this podcast focuses on range managers who are directing the effects of domestic livestock on rangelands. Range folk are a colorful social group. They represent the entire spectrum of political persuasion, socio economic classes, geographic identity, and demographic characteristics, but these people are united by a love of land. Rangeland professionals and practitioners are trying to maintain natural ecosystem processes in settings where human natural resource use is part of the landscape, and they see this particular connection, the one between humans and natural plant communities as unique and valuable and worthy of careful attention. That attention happens more effectively when you have rich human to human interaction. Fred Provenza said in a 2013 paper that the process of creating in science and practice is enabled through dialogue. And dialogue is the free flow of ideas among peoples of diverse backgrounds. Ranchers which are a subset of what I'm calling range practitioners or managers, are among the few people in developed nations that are economically dependent on healthy rangelands. Jim Corbett is a Southwest environmentalist turned advocate of sustainable rangeland based livestock production, and he said a while back that "Ranching is now the only livelihood that is based on human adaptation to wild biotic communities." Even though not everybody involved in rangeland management is involved in ranching, and even though not all ranchers rely exclusively on rangeland, and certainly not all rangelands are grazed by livestock. Still this rare interdependence of economics and natural resource use commands public attention. People with diverse philosophical commitments can rally around food and fibre production that relies on naturally occurring self-perpetuating plant communities. While crop scientists and agronomists may engage in semantics over whether a 21st century crop farming practices are sustainable, the fact remains that most cultures do not plant corn on a piece of ground without removing what was their first. Rangeland ranchers rely on grazing locally adapted ecosystems and taking a minimalist approach to inputs. Rangeland ranching might be critical to human flourishing, if, and some would say when we run out of cheap petroleum, which has supported modern agriculture since the 1940s. Rangeland based animal husbandry is a method of food and fibre production that meets human needs while maintaining naturally occurring plant communities and providing less tangible ecosystem goods and services. In my opinion this is a good endeavor if we can do it well. The Art of Range podcast has been designed to support this good endeavor and to help answer the million dollar question of how to do it well. The rangeland practitioner public mimics natural diversity with each member playing a role in a large and complex social ecosystem. This is an ecosystem that has definable enough edges to set it apart from, say, the forestry public. And this distinct social network is important to sustainable ranching. Social networks enable us to navigate social problems, and our biggest problems really require serious social skills to solve. According to Nathan Sayre, [assumed spelling] who we've heard from before on the podcast, from a 2013 paper, "The threats to ranching today are not fundamentally ecological ones. The forces arrayed against it are economic and political in nature." There was a statewide survey done in California back in 2011 that showed that from ranchers perspectives environmental regulations, government policies, and the use of land were the biggest threats to the future of ranching. Also my own institution, Washington State University did a survey of Beef Conference participants in 2017. Half of those said that they were optimistic about the future of their operation, but half were uncertain of their ability to manage through the economic and social risks that trouble their waking hours. Meantime, millions of acres of North American rangeland, both public and private, where the scars that bear evidence of our learning curve over the last 200 years. A learning curve that has been shaped as much by political pressures and economic pressures as ecological ones. So education that addresses the breadth of social, ecologic, and economic risk topics that are specific to raise land based livestock production is needed. But education has been defined mostly by default through current practice in the United States may not be quite the right concept. Education is often proposed as the solution to all of humanity's problems, but education is usually unhelpfully thought of as just information delivery. The developed world is awash in information about sustainable land management, and we who are in places with Internet have unprecedented access to more information than one person could ever digest in a lifetime, even on a single narrowly defined topic. The presence of information available to anyone looking for it does not accomplish anything on its own. The presence of a library down the street doesn't make a child growing up on the same street a literary genius. And children are decreasingly able to meaningfully consume what's in a library or any other information source, including the Internet. Human development theorists use the term "external storage hypothesis," to refer to the popular idea that having the ability to review information that having instant access to everything is effective for actual learning. The overwhelming evidence shows that in contrast a person has to consume relevant information, chew on it, digest it, synthesize it, break it down, and create something in their own mind something original and more complex before it does any good in their own brain, and can be turned into action in the real world. This requires something more than information transfer. It requires real mental labor. Nicholas Carr in a book from a few years ago called The Glass Cage, The Social Costs of Automation explores our diminishing capacity for important mental labor. The book is as the subtitle suggests about the social costs of automation, of handing off to machines work that may be necessary to form healthy humans, and work that perhaps should only be done by humans, including and probably especially knowledge work. He warns that if we're not careful, this is a quote. The automation of mental labor by changing the nature and focus of intellectual endeavor may end up eroding one of the foundations of culture itself. Our desire to understand the world. Predictive algorithms may be supernaturally skill that discovering correlations, but they are indifferent to the underlying causes of traits and phenomena. Yet it's the deciphering of causation, the meticulous untangling of how and why things work the way they do that extends the reach of human understanding and ultimately gives meaning to our search for knowledge. If we come to see automated calculations of probability as sufficient for our professional and social purposes, we risk losing or at least weakening our desire and motivation to seek explanations to venture down the circuitous paths that lead toward wisdom and wonder. Conversational podcasts in general, and the Art of Range in particular, can lead listeners down these vital paths. We aim to improve the listeners ability to do this mental labor. Life in a digital world really reprograms our plastic brains to be less able to chew and swallow whole strings of thought. You may have heard the old axiom, the medium is the message. That idea has reached maturity, at least in America. The idea goes back at least to Plato who argued with Aristotle over the formal dangers of shifting from an oil to a written culture, and how this would affect human thought and life. Their main fear which was later realized was the loss of memory. The formal dangers of only digital communication include distraction, the loss of relationship to other types of knowledge or might call the atomization of knowledge, the trivialization of communication, decreased ability to filter knowledge and recognized sources of authority. Digital communication also promotes an audience oriented sense of self, which damages realism, which sends out our communication, and tends to promote disembodied relationships. Some of these ideas were popularized by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s. The topic was revisited in the 1985 by Neil Postman, who is a communications professor at New York University. You may be familiar with his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman's predictions have proved [inaudible], and an early 2000 study on the effects of Internet use on young people who have spent their entire lives on digital devices found that digital immersion affects the way students absorb information. I'm quoting from this study. They don't necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around scanning for pertinent information of interest. Similar studies of university professors who are the stereotypical, or at least assumed to be stereotypical studious reader, found erratic, truncated, non-linear reading behavior. Linda Stone who is a former executive for both Microsoft and Apple describes the pattern of thought that's characteristic in a person formed in the digital age as continuous partial attention and post multitasking behavior. Interestingly, Frederick Mehta [assumed spelling] switched from writing longhand to writing with a primitive typewriter in response to his eyesight failing as an adult. He wrote about how this changed his writing style something that had already been observed by friends who were also writers. He said, "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts. And today many adults no longer read, much less write." The plasticity of the human brain is well known by now. James Olds, who is a neuroscientist at George Mason University, said that the brain has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions. That principle is no longer a theoretical. This is now known in neuroscientists heads rule. Cells that fire together wire together. When we take in all of our communication and entertainment digitally, it changes our thinking and speaking due to physical changes in our brains. And tragically it may also affect our feeling. Sherry Turkle [assumed spelling] is a psychologist and social researcher at MIT who has studied the relationships of humans to machines for four decades. And she has been reporting for 20 years the more sinister long term consequences of immersion in a digital world more sinister than just scattered thinking, primarily a loss of empathy. It has been shown that this plasticity can cause real pathology when people take in nothing but digital information. Thomas Friedman is called our time the age of interruption. These interruption technologies disrupt coherent thought. And technology that is always on and always on you prevents us from engaging with real people as real people. We begin to lose the ability to carry on conversation probably of greater concern is the fact that children formed in a digital world quickly learn to see other humans as a means to their own ends, not as equals with equally valid emotions. But this is the inevitable result of the device paradigm as described by Albert Boardman. Interestingly, these persons that have brains molded by a lifetime of digital exposure actively avoid face-to-face conversation. Washington State University's motto has been for some time world class face-to-face. There is perhaps more prophetic truth in this phrase than the marketers knew when they put it together. Face-to-face communication has been proven hands down the most effective means of human interaction. The Art of Range podcast relies on a recorded conversation as the primary educational tool and delivery mechanism. This is not pure face-to-face interaction, but it does allow listeners to attend to a mostly face-to-face conversation allowing for the exploration of ideas and granting mind space to work ideas over in their own minds. Conversation, like, sustainable agriculture is an art and a science that is critical to human flourishing. Conversation is also probably the best approach for directing us toward worthwhile goals. Humans are not just thinking things. Contrary to the French philosopher, Descartes, we are lovers who are motivated by passions. Those passions may be misdirected, and have been justifying all kinds of methods in pursuit of very inhuman goals. I make two points with this first that technological progress is not always forward progress. Technology may only provide evil people with increasingly deadly means to achieve evil ends. Second, scientific information does not stand alone. It does not on its own demand application toward anything virtuous. Dynamite may be used to blow up bodies or build bridges. Remember that art is the application of a science. This is why we say that somebody is practicing medicine or practicing law. The application of a science plying an art must be guided by something. Conversation steers us toward humanistic ends. In other words, those that promote human flourishing that necessarily includes the flourishing of the natural ecological processes that in turn support humans. Albert Boardman, who I mentioned before, is one of the more well-known philosophers of our time said that, "Disengagement inevitably flattens out the world and shadows a person. By contrast good conversation opens up a common world." Scientific ideas may have serious sociological implications, and philosophy has to be employed to guide us. Reason is a slave to the will, whether we are scientists or not. Conversation can steer us toward beautiful goals, and enable our remarkable brains to untangle complex socio ecological problems, and manage whole landscapes for people, cows, wildlife, and other future uses of the land. The Art of Range podcasts exists to inspire a land ethic to promote education and conservation through conversation. Education is the science of relationships. and complex relationships require complex thinking to work through and work with. I hope that the land ethic of one of Wendell Berry's fictional characters represents the future of land stewardship in the society for range management and in the range profession. In the book a middle aged farmer named Arthy Keith was, quote, Always studying his fields thinking of ways to protect them. He was improving his land intending to leave it better than he found it. His principle was always to maintain a generous margin of surplus between the fertility of his land and his demands upon it. Wherever I look he said I want to see more than I need and have more than I use, end quote. I'm thrilled that you are listening to this podcast. I intend to continue recording useful conversations that are of interest around the country and around the world. I would love to get your feedback on topics or speakers that we should feature. The grant, which is funding the project during this startup phase, has a scope and sequence of topics that have been promised. but we have some flexibility in that and I'm open to suggestions, and we're planning for the next year of episodes. I can be reached at either [Music] That's or at the podcast email, Please encourage your friends and colleagues to subscribe through ITunes or Stitcher, and thank you for listening. Thank you for listening to the Art of Range podcast. You can subscribe to and review the show through iTunes or your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. Just search for Art of Range. If you have questions or comments for us to address in a future episode, send an email to For articles and links to resources mentioned in the podcast, please see the show notes at Listener feedback is important to the success of our mission, empowering rangeland managers. Please take a moment to fill out a brief survey at This podcast is produced by Conner's Communications in the College of Agricultural Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. The project is supported by the University of Arizona and funded by the Western Center for Risk Management Education through the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. [Music]

Mentioned Resources

A Rangelands journal article on the pedagogy of agricultural podcasting was published Feb 2020:


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