Wrong Turn

The Unsettling of America

This is my favorite book by Wendell Berry.

Wendell Berry is like a physician telling a patient that if he doesn’t change his ways he will die of his illness. The patient is our society.

I have been reading the collected essays of Wendell Berry. I cannot begin to summarize his work, and many people think of him as a modern day prophet. But what I take away from his essays is the feeling that we as a society have taken a very wrong turn.
1. We are externalizing the costs of production into the greater environment. We are losing our soil and its fertility. We are increasing the fertility of the soil not by using renewable resources such as manure, green cropping or rotation but by using non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels and an evil brew of chemicals. We are using vast amounts of fossil fuels to produce food. When these non-renewable resources become scarcer, we will have trouble feeding ourselves.
2. We are an incredibly wasteful society. Instead of finding ways to utilize our waste, we produce vast amounts of garbage which needs disposal. Even with all the talk about recycling and reusing, we produce mountains of garbage. We produce toxic by-products, run-off, and now pollute the genetic structure of plants and animals. These costs are externalized and are not added to the cost of the end product. In fact Wendell Barry says: “We haven’t accepted ? we can’t really believe ? that the most characteristic product of our age of scientific miracles is junk, but that is so.”
3. Our government seems more sympathetic to constructing regulations more suitable to large business than to small business. Government seems to relate better to large business than to small business. These regulations are actively destroying the family farm, small scale slaughtering, and artisan food processing. Even on the municipal level, the government constructs bylaws which restricts the property owner from producing their own food, thus promoting dependency on others to produce food.
4. When farm families leave the land and move to the cities there are extreme societal costs incurred by this migration. Our society loses the collective skills of these people and their skills are not valued in the city. These displaced people may just not “make it” and become “a problem”. Furthermore, Wendell Berry states: “The departure of so many people has seriously weakened rural communities and economies all over the country. That our farmland no longer has enough caretakers is implied by the fact that, as the farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were in the time of the Dust Bowl.”
5. We have replaced simple hand work and mechanical systems based on renewable energy with technological systems based on non-renewable energy. Old school mechanics cannot even fix computerized machinery anymore let alone the average person with a set of common tools. Soon nothing will be made that doesn’t require some sort of interface with a computer chip. We are entering a time where the masters of the “black box” will control all mechanical systems. Also, working with our hands has been transformed into miserable drudgery. Hand work has been turned into a dirty, nasty business only suitable for the “dregs” of society. Even the dregs don’t want to do it! We seem to have collective memory loss to the pleasure of completing a job well ourselves.

If you have never read any of Wendell Berry’s books I would recommend: The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture and The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural.

People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are healed by the health industry, which pays no attention to food.
What are People For? by Wendell Berry

How Wendell Berry has changed my thinking: Are you a producer or a consumer?