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?

4 thoughts on “Wrong Turn

  1. This is a comment from the Weston A Price Chapter in Louisville, Kentucky:
    Wendell lives right up the road (so to speak) from me in Louisville, and we have crossed paths numerous times, including at the anti-NAIS rally we had a few years back.

    Per favorites books, his Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community is excellent, as is Unsettling, and The Art of the Commonplace, but really most any work of his is quite wonderful.

    Per his overall thought, he may be adequately described as an agrarian and a traditionalist. He thinks the world works best when populated by smaller, farm based communities, that the world should be “farm centric,” rather than manufacturing centric, or city centric, or government centric, etc. That farming is the baseline, the foundation to all civilization, and that these small farm based communities are foundational to other areas of life – art, aesthetics, morality, health…

    Second, as a traditionalist he argues for not changing things unless they truly need changed, and to better think about the ramifications and repercussions of changing things. So, he talks about the difference between using horses versus using tractors, about logging with horse teams versus destroying the woods with large machinery. He notes that too often modern people OVER play the benefits of these changes and UNDER count the drawbacks. This is somewhat similar to Joel Salatin in that he notes how integration of farming produces greater abundance on a farm, while perhaps less in any one category. Berry shows that this type of integration produces abundance in all of life and economy.

    Hope this helps a little. Berry is an expansive writer and thinker and to try and grasp the central cores of his writing and thinking is no easy task… I am still grappling with it after having read over a dozen or two dozen of his books.

  2. Harvey Ussery is the Weston A Price Leader in Fauquier, Virginia. He runs a website for homesteaders call http://www.themodernhomestead.us. He has a new book coming out in 2011 called The Modern Homestead Poultry Flock:

    My contribution to putting together some thoughts on Wendell Berry will be to pass on some quotes, from various essays. The one I quote most often is: “How we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.” There’s no end to how far that one can take you:

    “Eating with the fullest pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.”

    “The industrial mind is a mind without compunction; it simply accepts that people, ultimately, will be treated as things and that things, ultimately, will be treated as garbage.”

    “Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine — which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”

    “There is no connection between food and health. 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.”

    “We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us… We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

    “Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato.”

    “We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people, but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why else would we all — by proxies we have given to greedy corporations and corrupt politicians — be participating in its destruction? Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are wealthier than the rest of us.”

    “The industrial farm is said to have been patterned on the factory production line. In practice, it looks more like a concentration camp.”

    “Simple solutions will always lead to complex problems, surprising simple minds.”

    “The passive American consumer, sitting down to a meal of pre-prepared food, confronts inert, anonymous substances that have been processed, dyed, breaded, sauced, gravied, ground, pulped, strained, blended, prettified, and sanitized beyond resemblance to any part of any creature that ever lived.”

    “The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily forseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such “biofuels” as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that “science will find an answer.” The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves… And so, in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.” Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.”

  3. Keep in mind what Mephistopheles, the truth-telling devil told Faust about how to stay young:
    “There is a natural way to make you young…
    Go out in a field
    And start right in to work: dig, hoe,
    Keep your thoughts and yourself in that field,
    Eat the food you raise…
    Be willing to manure the field you harvest.
    And that’s the best way – take it from me! –
    to go on being young at eighty.”

    Faust, being an intellectual, was horrified to have what he perceived as such a narrow life, so Mephistopheles replies:
    “Well than, we still must have the witch.”

    Our modern life certainly has its witchcraft in our evil brew of chemicals. Maybe hand work in the field can be transformed by our minds, a supranatural ability humans have, into something wonderful. Maybe, we as a society needed to walk down this road to find out that it’s the wrong way. I know I cannot continue this way with my new consciousness.

  4. Pingback: What's a Starving Student to do About Food?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *