Ecology : Wendell Berry
IN DISTRUST OF MOVEMENTS
Traubenbrot (Swiss) photo: Pierre Ginet
The movements which deal with single issues or single solutions are bound to fail because they cannot control effects while leaving causes in place.
I HAVE HAD WITH MY friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations
about the necessity of getting out of movements even movements
that have seemed necessary and dear to us when they have lapsed
into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost
invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to others
the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily
become unable to mean their own language, as when a peace movement
becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if finally they
cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the institutional
intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing
finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues
or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be
And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements
to promote soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness
preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare
of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they cannot be
achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are
too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical
enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we
can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately,
I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused
by other people; they would like to change policy but not behaviour.
The worst danger may be that a movement will lose its language either to its own confusion about meaning and practice, or to pre-emption by its enemies. I remember, for example, my naïve confusion at learning that it was possible for advocates of organic agriculture to look upon the organic method as an end in itself. To me, organic farming was attractive both as a way of conserving nature and as a strategy of survival for small farmers.
Imagine my surprise in discovering that there could be
huge organic monocultures. And so I was not too surprised
by the recent attempt of the United States Department of Agriculture
to appropriate the organic label for food irradiation, genetic
engineering, and other desecrations of the corporate food economy. Once
we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean,
it becomes impossible to mean what we say. When homemade
ceases to mean neither more nor less than made at home,
then it means anything, which is to say that it means nothing.
AS YOU SEE, I have good reasons for declining to name
the movement I think I am a part of. I am reconciled to the likelihood
that from time to time it will name itself and have slogans, but I am
not going to use its slogans or call it by any of its names.
Let us suppose that we have a Nameless Movement for Better
Land Use and that we know we must try to keep it active, responsive
and intelligent for a long time. What must we do?
What we must do above all, I think, is try to see the
problem in its full size and difficulty. If we are concerned about land
abuse, then we must see that this is an economic problem. Every economy
is, by definition, a land-using economy. If we are using our land wrongly,
then something is wrong with our economy. This is difficult. It becomes
more difficult when we recognize that, in modern times, every one of
us is a member of the economy of everybody else.
But if we are concerned about land abuse, we have begun
a profound work of economic criticism. Study of the history of land
use (and any local history will do) informs us that we have had for
a long time an economy that thrives by undermining its own foundations.
Industrialism, which is the name of our economy, and which is now virtually
the only economy of the world, has been from its beginnings in a state
of riot. It is based squarely upon the principle of violence toward
everything on which it depends, and it has not mattered whether the
form of industrialism was communist or capitalist or whatever; the violence
toward nature, human communities, traditional agricultures and local
economies has been constant. The bad news is coming in, literally, from
all over the world. Can such an economy be fixed without being radically
changed? I dont think it can.
The Captains of Industry have always counselled the rest
of us to be realistic. Let us, therefore, be realistic.
Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine
if only it would stop poisoning the air and water, or if only it would
stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and
forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if
only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women
and favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think,
is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should
not look for bird eggs in a cuckoo clock.
OR WE CAN SHOW the hopelessness of single-issue causes and single-issue movements by following a line of thought such as this: We need a continuous supply of uncontaminated water. Therefore, we need (among other things) soil-and-water-conserving ways of agriculture and forestry that are not dependent on monoculture, toxic chemicals, or the indifference and violence that always accompany big-scale industrial enterprises on the land.
Therefore, we need diversified, small-scale land economies
that are dependent on people. Therefore, we need people with the knowledge,
skills, motives and attitudes required by diversified, small-scale land
economies. And all this is clear and comfortable enough, until we recognize
the question we have come to: Where are the people?
Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural landscapes
of the United States know that most people are available to those landscapes
only recreationally. We see them bicycling or boating or hiking or camping
or hunting or fishing or driving along and looking around. They do not,
in Mary Austins phrase, summer and winter with the land.
They are unacquainted with the lands human and natural economies.
Though people have not progressed beyond the need to eat food and drink
water and wear clothes and live in houses, most people have progressed
beyond the domestic arts the husbandry and wifery of the world
by which those needful things are produced and conserved. In
fact, the comparative few who still practise that necessary husbandry
and wifery often are inclined to apologize for doing so, having been
carefully taught in our education system that those arts are degrading
and unworthy of peoples talents. Educated minds, in the modern
era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and
shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated
mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed
in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money
brings forth food?
I AM NOT SUGGESTING, of course, that everybody ought to
be a farmer or a forester. Heaven forbid! I am suggesting that most
people now are living on the far side of a broken connection, and that
this is potentially catastrophic. Most people are now fed, clothed and
sheltered from sources toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise
no responsibility. There is no significant urban constituency, no formidable
consumer lobby, no noticeable political leadership, for good land-use
practices, for good farming and good forestry, for restoration of abused
land, or for halting the destruction of land by so-called development.
We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination.
Most of us cannot imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer
beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond
the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy
that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes,
the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and
swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they
have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their
Money does not bring forth food. Neither does the technology
of the food system. Food comes from nature and from the work of people.
If the supply of food is to be continuous for a long time, then people
must work in harmony with nature. That means that people must find the
right answers to a lot of hard practical questions. The same applies
to forestry and the possibility of a continuous supply of timber.
One way we could describe the task ahead of us is by saying
that we need to enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the
economy. Our economy needs to know and care what it is
doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolution,
but it is also a matter of common sense.
Undoubtedly some people will want to start a movement
to bring this about. They probably will call it the Movement to Teach
the Economy What It Is Doing the mtewiid. Despite my very considerable
uneasiness, I will agree to this, but on three conditions.
My first condition is that this movement should begin
by giving up all hope and belief in piecemeal, one-shot solutions. The
present scientific quest for odourless hog manure should give us sufficient
proof that the specialist is no longer with us. Even now, after centuries
of reductionist propaganda, the world is still intricate and vast, as
dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where we cannot do one thing
without doing many things, or put two things together without putting
many things together. Water quality, for example, cannot be improved
without improving farming and forestry, but farming and forestry cannot
be improved without improving the education of consumers and
The proper business of a human economy is to make one
whole thing of ourselves and this world. To make ourselves into a practical
wholeness with the land under our feet is maybe not altogether possible
how would we know? but, as a goal, it at least carries
us beyond hubris, beyond the utterly groundless assumption that we can
subdivide our present great failure into a thousand separate problems
that can be fixed by a thousand task forces of academic and bureaucratic
specialists. That programme has been given more than a fair chance to
prove itself, and we ought to know by now that it wont work.
My second condition is that the people in this movement
(the mtewiid) should take full responsibility for themselves as members
of the economy. If we are going to teach the economy what it is doing,
then we need to learn what we are doing. This is going to have to be
a private movement as well as a public one. If it is unrealistic to
expect wasteful industries to be conservers, then obviously we must
lead in part the public life of complainers, petitioners, protesters,
advocates and supporters of stricter regulations and saner policies.
But that is not enough.
If it is unreasonable to expect a bad economy to try to
become a good one, then we must go to work to build a good economy.
It is appropriate that this duty should fall to us, for good economic
behaviour is more possible for us than it is for the great corporations
with their miseducated managers and their greedy and oblivious stockholders.
Because it is possible for us, we must try in every way we can to make
good economic sense in our own lives, in our households, and in our
communities. We must do more for ourselves and our neighbours. We must
learn to spend our money with our friends and not with our enemies.
But to do this it is necessary to renew local economies and revive the
In seeking to change our economic use of the world, we
are seeking inescapably to change our lives. The outward harmony that
we desire between our economy and the world depends finally upon an
inward harmony between our own hearts and the originating spirit that
is the life of all creatures, a spirit as near us as our flesh and yet
forever beyond the measures of this obsessively measuring age. We can
grow good wheat and make good bread only if we understand that we do
not live by bread alone.
My third condition is that this movement should content
itself to be poor. We need to find cheap solutions, solutions within
the reach of everybody, and the availability of a lot of money prevents
the discovery of cheap solutions. The solutions of modern medicine and
modern agriculture are all staggeringly expensive, and this is caused
in part, and maybe altogether, because of the availability of huge sums
of money for medical and agricultural research.
NOW, HAVING COMPLETED this very formidable list of the
problems and difficulties, fears and fearful hopes that lie ahead of
us, I am relieved to see that I have been preparing myself all along
to end by saying something cheerful. What I have been talking about
is the possibility of renewing human respect for this Earth and all
the good, useful and beautiful things that come from it. I have made
it clear, I hope, that I dont think this respect can be adequately
enacted or conveyed by tipping our hats to nature or by representing
natural loveliness in art or by prayers of thanksgiving or by preserving
tracts of wilderness although I recommend all those things. The
respect I mean can be given only by using well the worlds goods
that are given to us. This good use, which renews respect which
is the only currency, so to speak, of respect also renews our
pleasure. The callings and disciplines that I have spoken of as the
domestic arts are stationed all along the way from the farm to the prepared
dinner, from the forest to the dinner table, from stewardship of the
land to hospitality to friends and strangers. These arts are as demanding
and gratifying, as instructive and as pleasing, as the so-called fine
arts. To learn them is, I believe, the work that is our profoundest
calling. Our reward is that they will enrich our lives and make us glad.