Publication: “Sustainability in Australian business: fundamental principles and practice”

Here is a little book I recently wrote for Wiley, on Sustainable Business, published in 2010.  The idea was to ‘map’ the emerging sustainable business space, and to connect it where possible to Australian business practice.  Wiley is distributing it in the Australasian market alongside its academic business textbooks.

Here is the back cover summary:

“Sustainability is moving from the margins of business to the centre. Key factors and major global events transforming the business environment include climate change, renewable energy, oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Timor Sea, Asian sweatshops, patterns of global poverty, and indigenous rights. A new paradigm of business – sustainable business – is emerging: firms are accepting a wider responsibility for environmental and social wellbeing. At the same time, sustainable business offers enhanced business value: better management of risk and new market opportunities. Firms that actively engage with it are positioning themselves for globalmarket leadership.

This work presents a map of the new principles of business and a guide to their application in core disciplines: accounting, finance, marketing, operations and organisation. It presents a challenging and stimulating view of contemporary business for undergraduate university studies. It is a guide to business in the sustainability age.”

Ian Lowe’s “A Big Fix”


One of the more unexpected legacies of the Howard era has been the emergence of a coterie of genuine public intellectuals; or rather, people who think for a living and have decided, because of the urgency of the times, to enter the more open eras of public discourse. They have, in fact, created a level of sophistication and interest in public discourse that hasn’t been seen in this country for decades. Clive Hamilton, David Marr, Robert Manne, Stuart Macintyre, Tim Flannery and Ian Lowe come to mind.

In this group the last two are distinguished by their scientific credentials and their ability to write. There are precedents for such commentators in Australia: Francis Ratcliffe’s ‘Flying Fox and Drifing Sand’ and Jock Marshall’s ‘The Great Extermination’ are two of the best of them. Both those books were concerned with environmental problems in Australia, rabbit and flying fox plagues in the first, and Australia’s lamentable record of conservation in the second.

Flannery and Lowe are leaders of the succeeding generation of accomplished Australian writing scientists. It is particularly important that they are writing now, when the greatest problems looming for the international community are, in their impact if not their roots, environmental: climate change, biodiversity loss and peak water. In a recent radio interview, a distinguished water scientist expressed the view that although a wide and authoritative scientific research programme had been carried out on the biophysical foundations of the Murray-Darling Basin, the scientific community had been for less successful at gathering and summarising the research, and communicating it to the Australian public and policy makers. Flannery and Lowe are clearly determined to ensure that that outcomes, so disastrous for our inland rivers, should not be repeated for other environmental policy issues, particularly the last and greatest of them, climate change. As the Australian community engaged in public discourse about these great matters we should all be particularly grateful that they have pursued their course so resolutely and with such academic and intellectual distinction.

Ian Lowe’s monograph, A Big Fix, is the most recent offering in what is becoming a distinguished line of Australian thinking and writing. I have written elsewhere of his fine 2008 essay, Reaction Time: Climate Change and the Nuclear Option. The 2009 monograph is even wider in scope, if that were possible, although it is still centred on the earlier themes. The subtitle of the work is ‘Radical Solutions for Australia’s Environmental Crisis’, but it doesn’t do justice to the scale of the analysis. Lowe’s theme is the global environmental crisis, illustrated by Australian examples. It is a brave, uncompromising and, against all odds, optimistic account of the world crisis. Since this crisis clearly has no precedent in human history, we desperately need informed, principled and integrated accounts of it, including an analysis of its causes and considered, innovative ideas about possible solutions to it. A Big Fix is just such an account.

It could be said that the monograph is a modern attempt to answer the ancient question, “How shall we live?” On one side, Ian Lowe’s message is a clear though not simple: “We are not living sustainably and fundamental change is needed. . .The road we are travelling on now can only end in disaster” (3, 20) . On the other side, “I am incurably optimistic about the future. I don’t discount the difficulty of change, but history shows that human societies can shift radically when we realise the need” (18). It is indeed rare among modern commentators on the global condition to find both propositions argued together, particularly with such lucidity and professional authority. The outlines of this argument are worth sketching.


Lowe begins with a brief history of the science of sustainability, from Carson and Erlich, to the oil shock of the 70’s, to the Limits to Growth reports and some of its key predictions, in peak oil and climate change; and to important international reports, including the Millenium Assessment Report and the UNEP Global Outlook Series. The picture of the planet presented over decades by the successive research reports is remarkably consistent, and arresting:

“We now have the capacity to reconfigure the natural environment so that it is much less likely to support human life. Successive warnings from such scientific bodies have gone unheeded. Responding is now a matter of urgency: nothing less than the survival of civilisation is at stake.” (16)

These are, to say the least of it, large claims. Lowe brings to them his own authority, as a scientist, and the authority of the scientific community that underpins these reports. His plain speaking is in consequence sobering.

In supporting and exploring these claims. Lowe begins with the elusive notion of sustainability. It is remarkable that a concept which has such currency in modern discourse is so undefined; or, perhaps, defined too much, in too many ways. There is the Brundtland definition, of course, which is relatively straightforward; but definitions since that time have multiplied. Lowe, characteristically, cuts through the competing formulations: “The meaning of ‘sustainable’ is clear: able to be sustained, ideally forever, but certainly at least for the foreseeable future.” This literal conception is then applied to six dimensions—resources; natural systems; society; economy; and cultural and spiritual foundations—to form what Lowe calls ‘criteria’; that is, tests or standards of sustainability. This set of criteria captures at one stroke most of the sustainability schemas previously advanced, such as the triple bottom line. It doesn’t resolve all the conceptual difficulties: what it means to say that an economy is sustained for the foreseeable future, or a society, or a culture, is far less intuitively clear than it is for resources and natural systems (although these applications, too, as will be seen, are far from simple). It is less a definition than a methodological framework, or a plan of attack.

Lowe lays out some of the implications of thinking this way across the five dimensions:

  • Under resources and natural systems attention is given to peak oil and renewable energy (mainly solar); water (both fresh water, as in the Murray-Darling Basin, and groundwater, as in the Great Artesian Basin); natural capital and ecological footprint; and uranium and nuclear power.
  • Under society, the emphasis s on social equity and its implications for education, health and security.
  • Under economy, attention is given to its basis in environmental services; the economics of mining those resources as against other forms of use (such as tourism); science and innovation; economic planning and the free market; and the steady-state economics of Herman Daly. From Daly comes a sustainable decision-making algorithm (34): “Ensure that the total scale of human activity is ecologically sustainable; distribute resources and property rights fairly, both within this generation and between generations; allocate resources as efficiently as possible within these constraints. Free-market economics, of course, navigates solely by the third of these principles, in the belief that the conditions expressed by the other two principles will somehow be simultaneously optimised; a view characterised by Lowe as “a naïve faith in the magic of the market” (33). Naive is, perhaps, a tolerant description; I would be inclined to replace it with ‘illogical’, ‘intellectually incoherent’, ‘damaging’, or all of these.
  • Under cultural and spiritual foundations, Lowe emphasises local rather than imported elements; the central place occupied by consumption; and the decline of the moral underpinnings of modern society.

The discussion makes a first case for the theoretical and applied power of this formulation of sustainability, together with a first exploration of the implications of these principles for the way we are to live. The documented view of the world through the prism of this framework, Lowe asserts, is deeply troubling: “The evidence is clear. The way we are currently living is not sustainable; in fact I believe it does not satisfy any of the main criteria” (14).

For more detailed evidence Lowe turns to Australia’s environmental crisis. Again he draws on the high-level reports, compiled mainly by national government departments or agencies, particularly by successive State of the Environment reports, and the Australian Bureau of Statistics Measures of Australia’s Progress. Five major (not to say iconic) arenas of environmental policy and debate are discussed: the Great Barrier Reef; the Murray-Darling Basin; salinity and land degradation; the biodiversity crisis; and global climate change. The evidence cited is unambiguous: with the exception of urban air quality (which has been improved by motor vehicle exhaust regulation) all the environmental measures show rapid declines: “more threatened species, more degraded land, declining river health and increasing greenhouse gas emission” (40). The policy paralysis induced by free-market ideology is again noted. The active resistance to urgently required action, or a grudging low-level responses, of successive Federal governments is exposed and contrasted with some more useful State initiatives. Even the current Federal government, which came to office on a strong environmental program, is not spared:

“On the whole, the Commonwealth government’s approach to the environment continues to be a disappointment. There is no strategic vision, no sense of urgency and no indication that the government understands the scale of the problems” (57).


With evidence for serious decline across the Australian environment established, Lowe turns to an analysis of causes—a demanding task, as the variables that might be considered are literally numberless. However, he moves sure-footedly among the most important and most widely accepted of them, and begins to sketch the response to them that the sustainability criteria might require.

These are factors that have long occupied sustainability thinking and writing: population; consumption; life-style choices; technology; and the economic system. To each, however, Lowe brings new insights, linked to emerging evidence. On population, he is firm:“. . .there is no prospect, even in principle, of a sustainable society unless we stabilise the population at a level that can be supported at acceptable social and environmental standards” (61). At the same time, he explicitly requires of an Australian population policy that it include provision for refugees, family reunions, and the immigration of skilled people where there are shortages—all issues of strong debate in recent years.

On consumption, by way of example Lowe provides an analysis of Sydney’s consumption between 1970 and 1990: while the city’s population grew 30% over that period, its total consumption rose 70%. The significance of such increases for a sustainable society lies in the combined effect of population and consumption: “The impact on our environment is determined by how many of us there are and how we choose to live”—a typically blunt but precise formulation.

‘Choose’ is a critical notion. It emphasises that, for wealthy countries such as Australia the answer to the question “How are we to live?” carries dimensions of choice that are denied to poorer countries. Lowe notes the array of sustainable technologies now emerging: solar hot water, rainwater and grey-water use, green buildings, fuel-efficient cars, and so on. And if the choices are there, given the urgency, the question is why more choices for sustainable living are not being taken up?

Part of the answer, Lowe argues, lies in perverse economic incentives. Economic policy should encourage environmentally responsible behaviour: for example, power purchased from renewable sources should cost less, not (as it does at present) more. The general economic principle is that prices should incorporate all the costs to society of the environmental and social impacts any economic activity creates. In theory the revenue that accrues should then be used to remedy those impacts or (less usefully) to compensate those affected by them. Hence electricity sourced from coal-fired stations should be made more expensive than if sourced from wind-farms; the use of carbon, which leads to higher greenhouse emissions, should be taxed; so should land-clearing; the prince of electronic devices should include the cost of their disposal; the cost of motor vehicles should include the cost of the damage they do to community health; and so on. The principle is one of internalising social costs so that price signals and incentives operate to improve environmental outcomes.

All this is well-established in the theory of environmental and natural resource economics. Lowe adopts these principles, along with the challenge of these disciplines to high discount rates in discussing the costs and benefits of development proposals, since such rates favour the present generation over future generations.

Finally, in the analysis of economic causes, Lowe deals with the idea of growth. He aligns his argument with Clive Hamilton’s vigorous challenge to prevailing orthodoxy, Growth Fetish. Interestingly, Lowe draws on a future studies framework called, forbiddingly, Causal Layered Analysis (CLA). CLA identifies three levels in most public policy debates: superficial ‘litany’ discussion; an attempt, at a deeper level, to identify ‘social causes’; and, at the deepest levels, ‘myths and metaphors’ which are largely unrecognised and unexamined. The idea of growth as a fundamental social and economic good, Lowe argues, falls into the third of these categories, and is in consequence enduring, powerful and pernicious. The steady state economics of Daly, in contrast, is based on constant physical wealth (implying comprehensive re-use and recycling), and is opposed to the neo-classical economics based on growth. Lowe concludes:

“The survival of human civilisation depends on us developing beyond the primitive notion that bigger is always better and that faster growth is always better than slower growth. These ideas were not a problem when our numbers were small and our demands limited. The growth of the past means that future growth is now threatening the viability of civilised society. It is impossible to overstate the urgency of our situation (77).”


What, then, is to be placed against this apparently relentless pattern of decline? There is a sense in which through the preceding analysis this question has already been answered. What is required is simply the opposite of the factors which Lowe has identified as lying at the root of the crisis. Thus population must be stabilised, with human flexibilities. Consumption must be held in total to the level that ecosystem services can support. A new sustainability science must be developed to establish these critical thresholds. Waste must be brought to zero through industrial ecology. The loss of natural habitats and the invasion of exotic species must be reversed. A low carbon society based on renewable energy must be created. Global poverty must be addressed and equity in the standard of living across the world’s populations secured. Resource decision-making must be based on a participative political process, informed by professional analysis. In a sense, stated like that, the conclusions of Lowe’s essay are unexceptional: it is difficult to think that any reasonably intelligent person would dispute them. Or is it? Perhaps, in fact, stating such conclusions unambiguously is truly radical, if one takes them seriously, as guides to action. That is particularly true when these conclusions are taken together, as a set of principles and actions: their implications are, as it were, synthetically enhanced.

But in the end action is the crucial issue, and it must be admitted that to a large extent Lowe evades—or at least, doesn’t attempt to take on—the question of how all this is to be done. It is certainly an achievement to identify what has to be done; but simply identifying it doesn’t make it so. If any reader needs evidence for this observation, he or she can simply refer to the outcomes of the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change. Despite the agitation of marginal climate sceptics there was no real disagreement on what needed to be done. Remarkably little, however, in the way of committed action came out of the summit. More conspicuous was the absence of the kinds of international institutions, and, more significantly, the ways in which the international consensus required to underpin that institution, might be developed. Behind the biophysical analyses and derived initiatives is, in the end, the human dimension of human kind. Handling that requires an entirely different framework of reference. Lowe doesn’t attempt to locate or delineate it; but, to do him justice, there’s no reason why he should feel it is his job to do so. It’s not his expertise, as he is the first to accept. Within the range of his expertise, however, his analysis is forthright, timely, and powerful. We would do well to use it as a foundation for principled, practical action in favour of the world.

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.

Please click below to open the complete essay in your preferred format:

Wendell Berry in modern times (Adobe .pdf)

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Wendell Berry in modern times (part 3)

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)

Wendell Berry in modern times (part 2)

The system of agriculture–Wendell Berry would say, pattern–proposed as the alternative to agribusiness is idiosyncratic, but persuasively argued. It is built on fundamental principles, so that the recommendations derived from them are inter-dependent and consistent. And not simply argued, but documented. Wendell Berry is at his best when he is reporting on the various agricultures he so admires: from Andean hill-farmers, to Native American farmers of the Sonoran desert, to commercial farmers re-thinking their farming practice, to the Amish of the heartland, all feeding into his own developing farming practice on 40 acres of Kentucky soil. From the interweaving of principles and practice comes, over time, practical wisdom on which alone, in his view, sustainable agriculture can be based.

A natural entry point is the question: What is the purpose of agriculture? Certainly it is not, for Wendell Berry, to make money, to generate a return for owners and investors on a land asset. At a first level, he holds, the purpose of agriculture is to grow food that is intended for eating by the people who grow it: a subsistence view. This, he argues, shifts the focus from quantity to quality. To quantity are applied the metrics of economic efficiency: to quality, the measure of good living:

“If you sell all you grow, you will want to sell as much as possible; your interest, then, is in quantity. If, on the other hand, you intend to eat at least a part of what you grow, you naturally want it to be as good as possible; your are interested, first of all, in quality; quantity, important as it is, is of secondary importance.

“Might it not be, I thought, that subsistence farming is the very definition of good farming–not at all the anachronism that the “agribusinessmen” and “agriscientists” would have us believe? Might it not be that eating and farming are inseparable concepts that belong together on the farm, not two distinct economic activities as we have now made them in the United States? Is not “agribusiness” the name of farming divorced from eating?” (10)

Yet Wendell Berry is acutely aware that agriculture of this kind is an indissoluble part of the wider fabric, which embraces both the natural and the human worlds. Its responsibilities follow those links, and cannot be set aside in the name of commercial profit:

“Taking our bearings from traditional wisdom and the insights of ecologists–which, so far as I can see, confirm traditional wisdom–we realise that in a country the size of the United States, and economically uniform, the smallest possible ‘unit of production’ is very large indeed. It consists of 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. A proper solution to an agricultural problem must preserve and promote the good health of this ‘unit’. Nothing less will do.” (116)

The word ‘health’ is central. It is characteristic of Wendell Berry’s view not only of agriculture but of life, of living. Health goes with satisfaction and happiness, with the full expression of human qualities and achievement; no less tan with the intrinsic life expressed by animals and plants. Health is promoted by the interdependence of biological relationships, of people, plans, animals and soils. It is no accident that the etymological root of the word ‘health’ is the same as that of ‘whole’. It is the health of the whole system that Wendell Berry seeks: the health of each element and the health of the whole.

For this reason Wendell Berry is respectful of the science of ecology, which he sees as underpinning the biophysical foundations of agriculture. Thinking like an ecologist he develops a wider ethos of agriculture. He takes from traditional communities the model of a natural, or sustainable agriculture, whose parts and workings cohere:

“The farmer has put plants and animals into a relationship of mutual dependence, and must perforce be concerned for balance or symmetry, a reciprocating connection in the pattern of the farm that is biological, not industrial, and that involves solutions to problems of fertility, soil husbandry, economics, sanitation–the whole complex of problems whose proper solutions add up to health: the health of the soil, of plants and animals, of farm and farmer, of farm family and farm community, all involved in the same internested, interlocking pattern–or pattern of patterns.” (137)

“Once the farmer’s mind, his body, and his farm are understood as a single organism, and once it is understood that the question of the endurance of this organism is a question about the sufficiency and integrity of a pattern, then the word organic can be usefully admitted into this series of standards. . .An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system; it has the integrity, the independence, and the benign dependence of an organism.”(143-144)

In such a system, for example, waste products are never simply waste, but part of the natural cycles by which fertility is maintained:

“In natural or biological systems, waste does not occur. . .But waste–so far, at least–has always been intrinsic to industrial production. There have always been unusable ‘by-products’. Because industrial cycles are never complete–because there is no return–there are two characteristic results of industrial enterprise: exhaustion and contamination.” (116-117)

Diversity is critical in these agricultures. It is in the cash-driven monocultures of modern industrial agriculture that the roots of biological ill-health lie. Good farmers have always used diversifying techniques, such as rotation, interplanting and multiple forms of farm enterprise. Balance is a word often used by Wendell Berry to describe be these intra-farm relationships. Another is propriety, word which applies the principle of balance to the quantities of farming: to the size of its fields, to the density of plants and animals they are required to support, and to the energy used to elicit their growth. These are the terms in which he describes the agriculture of the Andean hill farmers, who have survived for many centuries in that immense, harsh landscape by just such principles:

“What I was thinking, then, looking down on the little fields of the Andes, was that the most interesting, crucial, difficult questions of agriculture are questions of propriety. What is the proper size for a farm for one family in a given place? What is the proper size for a field, given a particular slope, climate, soil type, and drainage? What is the appropriate crop for this field? What is the appropriate kind and scale of technology?. . .We farm, generally, on flatter land, and for us the questions have not been so obvious, so far. We have had the luxury of pretending that the questions do not exist, that there are no problems of propriety, proportion and no limits to scale.” (43)

The contrast with modern industrial farming, viewed in purely agricultural terms, could not, in his view, be more striking:

“The themes of our agriculture are volume, speed, man-hour efficiency. The themes of Andean agriculture are frugality, care, security in diversity, ecological sensitivity, correctness of scale.” (41)

In these traditional forms of agriculture Wendell Berry identifies a link between scale and human capabilities which he finds repeated all over the Americas, in every culture, indigenous or traditional, wherever good farming is found–the virtue of smallness, of intimate connection:

“. . .people working at least a mile away in fields the size of kitchen gardens, known with the intimacy of the lifetimes not just of individuals but of families–a knowledge centuries old. . .one begins to understand how farming and farmland have survived in the Andes for so long. For those fields hold their soil on those slopes, first of all, by being little. By being little they protect themselves against erosion, but their smallness also permits attention to be focused accurately and competently on details. This is a way of farming that has obviously had to proceed by small considerations. It has to consider dirt by the handful. Every seed and stem and stone has been subjected to the consideration of touch–picked up, weighed in the hand, and laid down.” (26)

All the farmers Wendell Berry respects, and whose work he describes, farm this way. They pay close attention–to all the parts of their farms and to the way in which these parts fit together. They see no only with their eyes but with their hands, with all senses, close up. Embedded in this kind of intimacy is a deeply held attitude of care, and of respect, for all the living and non-living parts of the farm. For the native Americans farming in the austere conditions of the Sonoran desert, these attitudes are the conditions of their survival:

“In response to their meager land, the Papago developed a culture that was one of the grand human achievements. It was intricately respectful of the means of life, surpassingly careful of all the possibilities of survival. . .The Papago communities were at once austere and generous; giving and sharing were necessarily their first principles.” (51)

Central to this kind of agriculture–not only in indigenous practice but in the traditional farms of rural America–is the knowledge on which it is based. It is not the knowledge of what Wendell Berry calls the ‘agrispecialists’: the government and university research scientists who publish and present, he notes, not to practising farmers but to their peers; and it relates not to the intricate, seamless whole that he is attempting to understand but to “the efficacy of new techniques, varieties or methods” considered each on its own. In contrast, the knowledge that underpins good farming is accumulated by human experience, over time. Its vehicle is tradition, the continuity of farming practice over centuries which achieves small improvements through trial-and-error, tethers them into the collectively held stock of knowledge and transmits them within communities and families across generations–the true reach of craft:

“They do as they have done, as their ancestors did before them. The methods and reasons are assuredly complex–this is an agriculture of extraordinary craftsmanship and ecological intelligence–but they were worked out over a long time, long ago; learned so well, one might say, that they are forgotten. It seems to me this is probably the only kind of culture that works: thought sufficiently complex, but submerged or embodies in traditional acts.” (27)

Because such an agriculture is built upon subsistence principles, it is required to be sustainable. A technique which achieves benefits for one generation at the expense of the next is inherently unacceptable. This is an agriculture of stewardship, whose success is measured by the condition of the stock of natural capital it passes on:

“This ancient way of farming is, above all, durable. Within the terms of the land and climate and of the Papago culture, it has no foreseeable end. It is an agriculture extremely conservative of its own means and possibilities. It preserves and increases the land’s productivity. Fertility is built up locally, not imported. Only the annual surplus of water is used. There is little or no salination–an extremely serious problem in fields irrigated by groundwater. Pests and diseases are kept in check by the aridity of the climate, by the wide dispersal of fields within the region and of plants within the fields. . .There is good evidence that the traditional Indian agricultures of the Southwest increase, rather than diminish, the biological productivity and the diversity of plant and animal species.” (55-56)

Wendell Berry observes that the history of settlement in the United States (and, we might add, Australia) reveals an altogether different attitude, born of a perception was formed elsewhere, in Europe. Yet the standards by which that use of the land is to be judged are the same as for indigenous and traditional farming, and are framed in terms of sustainability and stewardship:

“The condition of the land as it was when we came to it is the only possible measure of our history. . .As we felled and burned the forests, so we burned, plowed, and overgrazed the prairies. We came with visions, but not with sight. We did not see or understand where we were or what was there, but destroyed what was there for the sake of what we desired. And the desire was always native to the place we left behind. . .

“The forest could not survive because we did not see it; we saw cleared fields. The prairies could not survive because in their place we saw cornfields and pastures sowed to the cool-season grasses of he Old World. . .

“To see and respect what is there is the first duty of stewardship.” (82-83)

In the end, Wendell Berry affirms, it is a matter of what kind of life you want to live, individually and collectively: what desires need to be fulfilled in order to deliver real satisfaction, and what do not–where the limits are; whtehr you apply the notions of growth and conspicuous consumption, or those of thrift, care, respect, industry (all favourite Wendell Berry words); whether you hold yourself, as a farmer, to be beholden to international markets, or to the local, human scale of your own community:

“I am worried about the decline of farming communities of all kinds, because I think that among the practical consequences of that decline will be hunger. . .The values of our present economy do indeed suggest that it is better to perish with some ostentation of fashion and expense than to survive by modest competence, thrift and industry. . .The economy of extravagance has overthrown the economies of thrift. Local cultures and agricultures such as those of the Hopi and the Papago do not deserve to survive for their picturesque trappings or their interest as artefacts; they deserve to survive–and to be emulated–because they embody the principles of thrift and care that are indispensable to the survival of human beings.” (74)

Speaking as a practical farmer, who uses ploughs and shovels and mowers and tractors and (in his case) horses, farming emerges not as a physical, or even a biological, but a moral profession:

“We are talking about organic artifacts, organic only by imitation or analogy. Our ability to make such artifacts depends on virtues that are specifically human: accurate memory, observation, insight, imagination, inventiveness, reverence, devotion, fidelity, restraint. Restraint–for us, now–above all: the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to “solve” problems by ignoring them, accepting them as “trade-offs,” or bequeathing them to posterity. A good solution then, must be in harmony with good character, cultural value, and moral law.” (145)

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