Wendell Berry in modern times (part 1)

The recent article by Wendell Berry in the New York Times, written with his long-time associate Wes Jackson, on the loss of Iowa’s soil under the extreme storm events increasingly generated by climate change (see my January 14 post), sent me back to his writings, and to a rediscovered pleasure, and inspiration.

There is much about Wendell Berry’s work that one can place in the unique tradition of American letters that runs from Thoreau and Emerson, to John Muir and Aldo Leopold, to Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver. It has deep connections to one taproot of American culture (barely visible now) that begins with the Quakers and rises through the Shakers, the Amish and the Mennonites, and the small holdings that formed the fabric of the American rural landscape to the onset of World War II. There are echoes of the more interesting economists, such as E.F.Schumacher and Amartya Sen. There are other echoes of those who have sought out simpler forms of living, such as George Borrow, W.H.Hudson, Rowena Farre and, more recently, the blazing Jay Griffiths. Certainly one can see in it the carry of the back-to-the-land movement that was one of the more powerful streams to emerge from the 1960’s and early 1970’s, as those flood years broke their banks. And it is developed largely in parallel with the permaculture of Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

But in the end, in the breadth of his interests and vision, the passion of his convictions, sustained across four decades, the cogency of his arguments, and the clarity and elegance of his writing Wendell Berry is, as he would wish to be, his own man. He stands, literally, on his own ground–Kentucky soil. His work has been built with the same authenticity, attention to craft and loving care as the homesteads he so admires. It is a work that is worth something. Its insights have never been more urgently needed than in these times, as humanity attempts to think its way through the overwhelming challenge of climate change. Wendell Berry may not have all the answers to our present predicaments, although he had remarkably clear presentiments of their probable onset, but he finds in the end the right kind of questions. As he probes, over decades, the inner spaces and far edges of his great subject–how to live sustainably–he assembles its terms of reference so comprehensively and persuasively that it is difficult to conceive of discussing this subject outside them.

His work, across four decades, is remarkably diverse and in the main highly original. It extends from the early book, “The Unsettling of America”, a passionate attack on the application of the interlocking paradigms of industry, business and science to agriculture, a critique which includes, as is appropriate to a young man writing in the middle 1970’s, a lacerating denunciation of modern materialism and its society; through a stream of essays, poetry and articles which encompass the conversation we have with ourselves, as a society, about the nature and purposes of our collective life. But his abiding theme is agriculture and agricultural living, and it finds, I believe, its best expression in the collection of essays entitled “The Gift of Good Land”, published in 1981. These are mature essays, with incisive analysis and insight on every page, and beautifully written. The comments that follow draw centrally on this book, and all the quotations are from it.

Although he doesn’t frame it in quite this way, the perennial question that occupies Wendell Berry is how to farm sustainably. It is characteristic of his insight that he understands this question as inseparable from the wider question of how to live sustainably; that is, the question of what makes up a fully human life, and how it is to be built into the life of farms and of farming communities. In the light of the current perception of a gathering crisis in global food security it is an analysis that could hardly be more relevant; no less relevant is his wider analysis of the nature of sustainable living to the challenge of climate change. Here then are some of the ways of thinking and guiding principles he has developed across the decades of a life’s work.

One way of approaching Wendell Berry’s thought is through his depiction of that system of farming which represents everything he is opposed to: modern agribusiness. Here, as he sees it, the products of farming are commodities which are bought and sold on the open markets, regional, national and international. The financial imperatives of those markets are therefore crucial—Wendell Berry would say, the determining—influences on farm decision-making. Farming practice becomes in fact, predominantly a business; hence ‘agribusiness’ rather than ‘farming’. Its metrics are those of business: profitability, cash flow and return on investment. Returns on the agricultural enterprise must be maximised in order to justify the investments made by owners, as against other possible investments they might make with their money. In farming terms this means the economics of efficiency: economies of scale, in bigger farms which can justify bigger machinery, and improve productivity; specialisation (a term which is anathema to Wendell Berry, in farming as in life) through monoculture or limited livestock-grain systems (hogs and corn, for example); pushing land for maximum production of these commodities; pervasive use of artificial inputs, like chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides, which can be applied over wide areas to maintain high levels of short-term outputs; and so on. Travelling through the irrigated farming operations—cotton, alfalfa, sorghum, millet, sugar beets, and the like—around Tuscon and Phoenix, he writes:

“This is modern industrial farming in its purest form: enormous, costly fields, dependent for their productivity on large machines, fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides. . .and fossil water. . .The folly of this agriculture is most plainly evident in the fields that it has already been compelled to leave behind. The reasons for this abandonment are salination, caused by the rapid evaporation of the mineral-laden groundwater, and the cost of bringing groundwater to the surface, which increases prohibitively as the aquifers are pumped lower and lower. . .After the fields are abandoned, they produce only a very sparse growth of such plans as tumbleweed, cranesbill, and mustard, which cover the ground poorly. Nevertheless, the fields are then fenced and sheep are turned in to exploit their small remaining value as pasture. They are overgrazed, further exposing the ground to the winds, and allowing the dust to blow. . .As the dust blows away, the heavier particles of sand and gravel stay in place. The rain beats these into a tight seal over the surface of the ground. This is the final product of “agriculture” here. It is called “desert pavement,” and it is aptly named. It is as sterile as a concrete road, and feels the same underfoot.”

Contrasting industrial agriculture of this kind with the local Native American (Papago) system, he concludes:

“Because this Arizona farmland is marginal, it provides an indispensable standard by which to measure the performance of industrial agriculture. We must look at the producing fields not just in the light of their annual production, but in light of the sterile, abandoned fields lying next to them, and in light of the little Papago fields that in many centuries of use have never become sterile.” (63-66)

This is an insight to which we will return, as we consider the relevance of Wendell Berry’s thought to the history of Australian agriculture and to indigenous forms of making a living on the land.

Wendell Berry bluntly describes agribusiness as ‘mining’. This is a term which brings into relief its mechanical, rather than biological, orientation: its willingness to treat land resources as an exhaustible, rather than renewable, resource; its preoccupation with volume of output and economies of scale, hence size of operation and machinery; and its disregard of the degraded land it leaves behind after those resources are exhausted and abandoned in the pursuit of a new resource to plunder.

He goes on to note, too, that the human dimensions of such a system are characterised by dislocation and separation. The consumers of farm products simply consume: they play no part in producing their food; a loss of control, as well as of the pleasures of eating what you grow. More fundamentally, however, in considering the system by which under agribusiness food is produced (the terms ‘produce’, ‘products’, production’ are emblematic of the industrial paradigm which frames agribusiness farming practice) he sees the farmer as increasingly separated from his or her land. The push for economies of scale compels the land into the particular productive form required by business imperatives, rather than supports a working relationship with the land and its organic capabilities. Farmers become consumers: their food, too, is purchased from the supermarket, not grown on their own farms. They become operators on the land, not collaborators with it. Even the knowledge they employ in agribusiness practice is largely not developed by themselves but by university, government and business researchers, in which particular factors are extracted from, and manipulated outside, the farm as it is lived and worked. Under such a system, there is little room for farmers to participate in the cumulative development of farming practice. Applying knowledge they have not been part of developing, to land they have no incentive to understand or work with, to meet demands established by markets which take no account of the way in which the commodities they trade have been produced, modern agribusiness farmers are, in Wendell Berry’s analysis, literally strangers to their own land.

(For complete essay with all parts included, please follow this link)


An historic opportunity being missed

Looking at the way in which world leaders, including Australia’s, are attempting to deal with the global economic crisis, one might be forgiven for wondering whether an outbreak of split-brain has occurred.

There seems to be no difficulty among them–or indeed among economic commentators– in separating the two global crises, economic recession and climate change, as though they operated in independent domains.  Yet it is very clear that both their causes and solutions are intimately connected.  To ignore this fact is to place the world in far greater peril than a global depression.

It’s clear, to begin with, that both crises have their roots in unrestrained consumption.  There is a worldwide preference, it seems, for characterising the economic crisis as a production of Wall Street.  So it is, in part; but the deeper roots have to do with patterns of consumption.  The US produces 25% of the world’s production, and consumes 35%.  This debt is largely funded by foreign capital.  Across the world economy as a whole, the debt:asset ratio is somewhere between20:1 and 30:1–it is impossible to be more specific than that, because of the depth of hidden leveraging.  This unsustainable debt funds unsustainable consumption.  There is something lemming-like in the world-wide panic to stimulate consumption as a means of ending the economic crisis–outdated Keynesian thinking which has little to do with the realities of the modern world economy.  There are serious structural problems in the world economy which are driving the crisis.  These will only be exacerbated by such a strategy.  Any recovery under such conditions can only be short-lived.  And no political leader seems able to recognise this relatively simple truth and act accordingly.

It is abundantly clear, too, that unsustainable consumption, both in volume and kind, is at the root of global climate change.  As argued in previous posts, the refusal to acknowledge this reality has lead to a strategy of energy supply at any cost to meet the challenge of climate change, rather than a strategy to manage demand–an approach which leads to such bizarre outcomes as the revival of nuclear energy as a ‘green’ strategy designed to provide the energy requirements of this unsustainable consumption.

It follows that stimulating consumption, even if it did reestablish the balance of the growth economy (which is highly doubtful), is a bad strategy for the global biosphere unless the energy underpinnings of the economy have been comprehensively restructured around renewables.  The current solution which seems to have been adopted by the world’s governments is a high carbon solution, which is no solution at all–more a massive compounding of the problem.

The irony is that, prior to the economic crisis, there was very little little likelihood that any government would commit to the comprehensive funding needed to move an economy from a high carbon to a low carbon state.  One of the strange outcomes of the economic crisis is that suddenly this funding is available.  Hundreds of billions of dollars have been borrowed to put into the world economy, mainly to stimulate the economic activity needed to save and perhaps generate jobs, which are at the heart of the political agenda.  This offers an historic opportunity to restructure economies to low carbon configurations, an opportunity which currently is largely, and incomprehensibly, being missed.

Most of the emergency funding is being directed to public works–here in Australia, predictably (given our obsession with cars) to roads, also to school and other building. But the emerging threats of climate change demand a fundamental principle: every policy must be viewed through the prism of climate change.  The embedded energy in road construction is very large, as are the emissions from the larger number of cars which will drive on them, with all their embedded energy.  Schools need buildings, but only if they are green buildings, constructed with a focus on materials and design that reduce energy and emissions.  It doesn’t seem, on the face, of it, that this is difficult to understand.

Let’s take this kind of thinking further.  Why not direct this windfall, generously provided by the economic crisis, to precisely the kind of economic restructuring that combating climate change requires?  Why not provide massive injections into research and development of renewable energy sources, into retrofitting houses (far beyond the subsidies for roof insulation proposed by the Australian government), into developing cheaper electric and hybrid cars, into improved and expanded public transport, into large-scale reafforestation programs, into phasing out and restructuring high emission industries, and so on?  These initiatives will still generate jobs; but in new sectors that represent the emerging low carbon economy that is so urgently required–jobs saved or created in high carbon sectors are are on borrowed time.  It’s difficult to see anything but gain all round by taking this path.

Rather paradoxically in this global recession the world has been given the opportunity to draw breath–literally, as lower levels of global economic activity also lower emissions–and to embark upon the reconstruction of national activity, at all scales, that is the only practical way of achieving the kinds and levels of emissions reductions that can have any chance of slowing dangerous climate change.  Not to take this opportunity up would represent a dereliction of intelligence and courage by this generation of leaders that the majority of the world’s population, now and in the future, will not forgive.