Although Wendell Berry was writing here some decades ago, the central principles he establishes have continued to be his main themes in more or less unaltered form. At the time of writing global warming was just beginning to be spoken of in public scientific discourse. Wendell Berry seems to have had early intuitions of the dangers. He is deeply suspicious of fossil fuels because of the local pollution effects of power plants and because (more crucially for him) they power industrial agriculture and embed dependence. Global warming as such wasn’t, however, part of his critique. Even his recent New York Times article on the extreme storm events induced by climate change focused on a long-established concern of his–which sits, one might say, at the practical and emotional heart of his vision: the loss of soil. Nevertheless, the principles of sustainable farming and living as they have evolved in his writing over forty years can offer guidance to what is rapidly emerging, surely, as the age of climate change.
We can begin with the question of what constitutes sustainability. There is no term more widely used and less defined in modern public discourse. We have a general sense of its being connected to an open-ended future; to a dynamic stability, in which extraction and renewal, or recharge, are in balance; to the limits of natural resource use required to secure that stability; and to a wider system in which both natural and human elements are included.
But what, exactly, is to be sustained? Is it some general measure of productivity in which technology and human capital can substitute for natural capital in preserving the level of some output? Is it the preservation of natural capital alone, and if so of what is it comprised? Does it extend to social and cultural capital? And is capital the right metaphor anyway (capital for what?). Is it better defined in terms of environmental services (but again, services for what?). How far out does the analysis run?–to our children and grandchildren? To the seven generations of Native American lore? To the timeless present, embracing past and future, of the Australian Aboriginal people? Do notions of stewardship capture such visions? And what about the ethical questions in considering the rights of the present (particularly poor) generation against future generations? And so on. The questions which centre on the idea of sustainability reach to most of the questions with which we, as a world civilisation, are engaged.
Here I think Wendell Berry’s principle of ‘health’ in agriculture has much to offer. Health is not primarily a quantitative measure, although we do recognise degrees of health. Rather, it is a state, generated by a system whose parts and relationships are working to their full capability. The state of health is that whole which more than the sum of the parts , which are themselves healthy (and of which, as systems in their own right, the small parts are healthy, both individually and in their relationships to other smaller parts.) The system Wendell Berry has in mind spans land, soil, communities, knowledge, species and natural systems, in place. As he remarks, “nothing less will do”: inclusion is non-negotiable. His principle is certainly prescriptive: it goes beyond what is there (the basis of most sustainability definitions) to what should be there, if health in this sense is to be attained. And in this normative thrust it becomes a matter of “moral law”: ethical imperatives of the kind which deep ecologists argue apply both to people and their communities and to the animals, plants–Wendell Berry would add, land, landscapes and soil–with which they share the planet.
How is this ideal of health to be accomplished, as a practical matter? Clearly the system of agriculture defined by Wendell Berry is of immense scope and complexity. It consists of innumerable elements and their exponentially expanding relationships. The behaviour of these elements in those relationships is governed by the full–and ultimately unknowable–panoply of natural laws. The inclusion of farmers and their communities extends that complexity to the extraordinary richness of individual and collective human life and ways of living. It is self-evidently impossible to stand in some way outside such a system and design it to deliver the holistic outcome of what Wendell Berry defines as ‘health’. Is it, then, an intellectual indulgence incapable of implementation?
The challenge is a serious one, and, as one might expect, Wendell Berry doesn’t shy away from it. Part of the answer he finds in traditional farming practice. In the innumerable trials that constitute farming practice, over generations; in the patient gathering of information and insight across uncountable seasons; in the intimacy of these farmers with their land; in the close interdependency of social life and farming life; in the sober appreciation of risk, to self, others and their environment, and the just valuation of reward; in the codification and transmission of this accumulated knowledge and experience from one generation to the next; in all this Wendell Berry finds the practical wisdom needed to build the health of agriculture as he has defined it. It is certain not, in his view, found exclusively through ‘agriscience’, where the objects of research are isolated from the complexities that form its real-world substrate, the farm with which the farmer works every day. In traditional farming the knowledge is found and shared in the collective working enterprise of men and woman (and children) in the past, the present and the future.
Underpinning all this is a particular way of thinking about the nature and purposes of life, and about ways of making a living in farming. It values, first, quality over quantity; or, to put in reverse, will not appeal to quantity as the primary, often sole, measure of agricultural success. How produce is grown; the side-effects of that process; what it leaves behind; these are as important as the produce itself, across the whole natural and human landscape Wendell Berry has defined as agriculture. That quality is secured by specific virtues of thought and action: care; respect; prudence; thrift; diligence; intimacy; reflection; and the courage of honesty, with respect one’s own and others’ farming practice.
Fundamentally these values are connected with how one thinks about one’s life and its purposes. Valuing quality over quantity, and aware of one’s stewardship responsibilities, good farming brings satisfaction and fulfillment as an activity in its own right. It is work a man or a woman can be proud of, building health across the full span of agricultural life, and leaving it as a proper inheritance to future generations. Anything less is simply less; not enough; and will not do.
The central proposal of this essay is that the solution to climate change lies in the constellation of just such principles as these, applied across global societies and communities, and in international institutions. Climate change can only be effectively met by eliminating the annual emissions of greenhouse gases and by extracting and neutralising carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere. This cannot be achieved with our high carbon economies. Under current assumptions about the link between economic growth and the quality of life even a low carbon economy is likely to continue inflicting environmental damage; for example, from nuclear waste. Economic instruments, such as the Emissions Trading Scheme or a carbon tax, are manifestly inadequate, based on self-evidently false assumptions; and, in diverting precious resources, part of the problem, not the solution.
It is not technology or economic instruments we need but fearless thinking. As a global society we have no alternative but to change the way we think about the purposes of our life; about our responsibilities to others in this and future generations; and about the kind of knowledge we want to bring to bear on how we live. Wendell Berry, as few other writers on agriculture have done, asks the critical questions, however hard they are–he is before everything else a brave writer–and suggests at least some of the answers. It is a start.
(For complete essay with all parts included, please follow this link)