Wendell Berry in modern times

Wendell Berry is a native of Kentucky who has written, elegantly and powerfully, for more than four decades on themes relating to sustainable agriculture.  He is, as a commentator recently said, the most passionate advocate for the family farm and homestead.  The principles he developed, however, go beyond agriculture: they bear on the whole question of sustainable living and sustainable societies.  In previous posts I’ve argued that an effective approach to climate change is not primarily a matter of technology, but of changing ways of thinking about life and living across all all cultures and societies.  Wendell Berry has much to teach the present generation about these things, and this essay on his work has been written in that spirit of appreciation.

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3 thoughts on “Wendell Berry in modern times

    • Yes, sorry, I wanted to post the essay as one document, now that it’s finished, but had some trouble uploading it–should get that taken care of shortly. Glad you’re enjoying it.

  1. The following comment on this essay was sent to me by a friend:

    “One question: how would a Berry model work in a society when few people have the means or opportunity to grow their own food? In order to feed a growing world population, surely some farms have to be larger and generate profit rather than serve only the needs of the farmer and family? Can they still be run on purely sustainable principles? Does he address this issue?”

    It’s an excellent question, and I’m not sure I have a complete answer to it, but, with my friend’s permission, here are some thoughts.

    To begin with, it’s probably worth noting that Wendell Berry’s starting and finishing point is the nature of good farming and the conditions that make it possible. That analysis begins with the farmer and the land, and the heart of his work resides there: it’s as he watches what good farmers do, and talks with them, and experiments with their approaches on his own land, and reflects on this practice that the principles of sustainability, if you like, emerge. As this picture is assembled it becomes less and less negotiable: this is what good farming is, and anything less is not good farming and will degrade the land and its capabilities. Whatever structure of society is proposed, it will have to be built on these principles, if its productive base is to be preserved.

    At the same time, as I noted in the essay, as he follows these principles through the analysis is drawn into wider arenas. It’s one of the unique achievements of Wendell Berry’s thought to have achieved this breadth. He recognises clearly that the domain of sustainable farming extends to “all the farmland, plus all the farmers, plus all the farming communities, plus all the knowledge and the technical means of agriculture, plus all the available species of domestic plants and animals, plus the natural systems that surround farming and support it, plus the knowledge, taste, judgment, kitchen skills, etc. of all the people who buy the food.” In other words, the farm itself is placed in a natural and social complex which has to be approached as a whole, in order to secure the health of any part. This extends to the wider society through the consumers of the food with the farm grows.

    Thirdly, although I didn’t pursue this in the essay, there is a sense in which Wendell Berry sees the urbanisation of modern society, with all its ills, as caused by the move away from sustainable farming through agribusiness. Once agriculture is conceived of primarily in economic terms, the economies of scale inevitably result in the decline in rural communities, the depopulation of the rural landscape and the swelling of urban populations. There is clearly much historical support for this idea in the developed societies of North America and Europe, and (to a lesser extent, because the historical period is shorter) in Australia.

    So putting these ideas together, perhaps we can take a Wendell Berry-ish approach to the question. A first direction indicated is the localisation and decentralisation of modern society. That is, there is a great deal to be said for allowing people to live in communities, rather than in urban agglomerations. Here the productive base in farming has a chance to be more practised more sustainably, the primary social relationships which are so important for the richness of human lives can be strengthened, and the health of the broad complex (natural and social) that constitutes the farming ecosystem can be properly attended to. Thinking this way would materially change, for example, the way the countryside (in UK terms) is viewed; it would be more populated, but better looked after–which is not, under Wendell Berry’s principles, a contradiction in terms.

    The local food movement is closely connected to this view of things: you can start from the idea that food should be locally produced and consumed and work outwards, so to speak, to the kind of economic and social relationships it implies, and I think you end up with a localised community structure of some kind.

    A second direction indicated is the greening of cities. The UK tradition of allotments, which have recently been expanded along the canals, is a good historical example of this. There is a great deal that can be done to grow food on relatively small areas for home consumption; even city roof-top gardens can do well. The traditional Australian backyard vegetable garden is along similar lines. Even in cities people seem to value the opportunity to develop the kinds of intimate relationship with the land that Wendell Berry places at the heart of good farming. This is not sustainable farming, perhaps, in the classic sense, but it draws on his principles of keeping together the growing of food and its consumption and is in sympathy with the wider view. It also connects, possibly, to the idea of neighbourhoods as potentially vital centres of community, if allowed. Modern eco-city experiments may offer other ways forward.

    The idea of growing food for profit, and the whole value chain of production, distribution, trade and sale, is a vast subject. Wendell Berry’s main point is that once the produce of the farm becomes commoditised, farming inevitably becomes something entirely different from traditional farming, and enormously degrading of the land. Following that line of thought, we can wonder whether such commodisation can be avoided. Putting aside such disastrous experiments as the collectivisation of agriculture in Soviet Russia, it may still be reasonable to ask the question: should the productive capacity of the land be regarded as part of the commons–part of the national estate, like water and biodiversity and air quality, owned by the nation as a whole and not to be opened to trading relationships? And if so, how should it be managed? Again I would urge a local model, following the work of such people as Elinor Ostrom, who showed how the commons can be managed sustainably if the people who are directly interacting with them–intimately linked to them–at the local level are given the opportunity to work out the best ways of looking after them, in partnership with–but not directed by–local and provincial governments.

    Clearly directions such as these imply social changes of a considerable order. Wendell Berry’s point–and it is a crucial one, I think–is that they can only be accomplished on the foundation of a transformation in values: it is only as such fundamentals as the nature and purposes of one’s life, the nature of the good life, and the classical question “How shall we live?” are brought into focus that the possibility of sustainable living emerges. Just what that would look like, as a living structure, may be largely a matter for the people who are doing it, as they take control of their own lives in these fundamental ways, and may differ from place to place, region to region, country to country. Whatever form it takes, however, it will only be truly sustainable, Wendell Berry suggests, if the health of the parts and the whole are attended to; without any compromise.

    A few ideas to go on with, anyway.

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