Friday, January 30, 2009

Tired of Stimulus Packages? Here's a Different Approach.

I have long been fascinated by the ideals, thoughts, novels and poetry of Wendell Berry. He is, as some have termed him, an agricultural prophet, connecting environmentalism and economics with revolutionary insight. He is idealistic, for sure, and yet his ideas are surprisingly sound - just challengingly uncomfortable. In a time where it could be argued that America has maxed out all of its credit cards and is applying for a new line of credit so that it can support life as we know it, Berry seemingly asks, "Why support life as we know it?" Maybe that is the problem. Maybe we are realizing that life as we know it is unsustainable. Berry proposes a progression from globalization to community-centric living: to community economics, to community trade, to community agriculture. The following interview with Wendell Berry is from the Autumn 1993 issue of Orion. In times of hardship, I tend to find most meaningful that which was not concocted during moments of desperation, but that which was formed with the tools of thoughtful reflection and scholarship over the course of a lifetime. Enjoy economics and environmentalism, minus Washington D.C, stimulus packages and summits on global warming; this is a long post, but it gives a lot of food for thought and is, I think, worth the read. The full interview is here. - Sarah

Fisher-Smith: What, in your opinion, are the most dangerous superstitions, as you refer to them, of modern industrial culture?

Berry: That industry will inevitably come up with solutions for the problems that it has created; that knowledge is neutral or value-free; that education is good; that education makes people better; that you can make people better by means of technological progress. Those are some of them.

Fisher-Smith: The superstition that knowledge is neutral reminds me of a discussion you and I had last month, about the Luddites in early nineteenth-century England, who broke up machines and burned factories when faced with new weaving machines which, they felt, would disrupt their way of life. I notice that the term "Luddite" has a kind of sting in popular usage...

Berry: Luddism has been far too simply defined. It doesn't mean just the hatred of machinery. Luddism has to do with a choice between the human community and technological innovation, and a Luddite is somebody who would not permit his or her community to be damaged or destroyed by the use of new machinery. The Amish, for instance, have succeeded simply by asking one question of any proposed innovation, namely: "What will this do to our community?"

That, to me, is an extremely wise question, and most of us have never learned to ask it. If we wanted to be truly progressive, if we were truly committed to improving ourselves as creatures and as members of communities, we would always ask it. I think some of us are beginning to ask it. The question isn't often spoken outright, but it lies behind a lot of these grassroots movements to save forests and rivers and neighborhoods and communities, and so on.

Fisher-Smith: Much of this environmental action seems to focus on legal remedies: lawmaking if there's time, or lawsuits if there's not. In the long run, the aggregate of our attempts to control the effects of economic activity on culture and on nature seems to result in a body of regulations and an expensive bureaucracy to manage them. Is there an alternative way of controlling what is done for profit?

Berry: The alternative is revival of the idea of community.

I don't think you ought ever to give up on the law, and on the public effort to improve law and to improve the effectiveness of it--to try to see that the government acts truly and effectively in the interest of the people. But that kind of effort obviously isn't enough.

The real way for these bad innovations to be prevented is for the communities to refuse them, and that's happening to some extent. Communities do refuse bad innovations. There's a lot of scorn now toward people who say, "Not in my backyard," but the "not-in-my-backyard" sentiment is one of the most valuable that we have. If enough people said, "Not in my backyard," these bad innovations wouldn't be in anybody's backyard. It's your own backyard you're required to protect. Of course, it's better if you defend your own backyard with the understanding that in doing so, you're defending everybody's backyard. Or with the understanding that you may need help in defending your backyard, or that you may need to help others defend theirs. But the "not-in-my-backyard" sentiment is an altogether healthy and salutary and useful one, and I'm for it.

However, a community has to understand that if it refuses the public proposal, then it has to come up with something better. And if the government or a corporation comes in and says, "We want you to have this obnoxious installation because it will employ your people; it will bring jobs," then the community has to have an answer to the question: "Where are we going to find jobs?" Sometimes it won't be an easy question. Sometimes it will be a devastating question, but the community nevertheless has to begin to look to itself. It has to look to itself for the answers, not to the government--and not to these corporations that come in posing as saviors of the local community, because they don't come in to save the local community.

So the communities have to begin to ask what they need that can be produced locally, by local people and from the local landscape, and how it can be produced in a way that doesn't damage the local landscape or the local community. And by local community, obviously, you can't mean just the people. You mean the people and the natural communities that are supposed to exist there--the trees, the grasses, the animals, the birds, and so on. Everything has to be included and considered.

Fisher-Smith: But I notice that there is not much of a constituency for coyotes in this part of Kentucky, especially around your sheep. The restoration of populations of wolves is not a popular idea in the cattle country of the Northern Rockies, and I've seen sea lions and otters dead from gunshot wounds along the Pacific coast fishing grounds, all the way from California to Alaska. How do you address this apparent failing, in practice, of the stewardship ethic you are proposing? Such an ethic seems to favor those things for which you have, what you call, "affection."

Berry: Well, we obviously have to enlarge affection so that it includes more than those things that are most congenial or profitable. Stewardship means simply the care of something that doesn't belong to you. Originally, it meant the care of property belonging to God. The most suggestive and comprehensive understanding of the world is that it's God's property, but of course we could understand it also as belonging to our children and their children and their children. Beyond that, we have to understand that human interest can't be the definitive interest. If we're not going to be religious about the world, we have to see that it is a property belonging to itself--a stranger and riskier proposition, it seems to me, than the theological one.

If the coyotes are getting your sheep, as experience has shown, a very impractical approach is to say, "Well, we'll just kill all the coyotes," because you're not going to kill them all. They seem to be a species that thrives on human malevolence.

A better question is how can you raise sheep in spite of the coyotes, and there are ways of doing that. Here we use donkeys and a guard dog, some electric fence, and we're saving our sheep. All kinds of questions are involved in any of these issues, but the important thing to me is to define the issue with a due regard for its real complexities.

The inherited approach to this kind of problem in America is that if you're in the sheep business and coyotes eat sheep, then you must kill coyotes. But that isn't corrected by adopting the opposite one. The opposite approach espoused by some environmentalists is that if you like coyotes and there's a conflict between coyotes and sheep, you ought to kill the sheep. The necessary, and the most interesting, question is how these two things can exist together. It may be that in some places this effort ought to be given up. I thought when the coyotes came in here that this might be one of those places.

Fisher-Smith: Thus this question of "What is possible here?"

Berry: Right. What's the nature of the place? The proper approach to any kind of land use begins with that question. What is the nature of this place? And then: What will nature permit me to do here? There was a lively interest in such questions in the poetic tradition from Virgil to Pope, and it undoubtedly goes back well beyond Virgil. That way of thinking continues in the work of some modern agriculturalists--Albert Howard and Wes Jackson, among others--whose approach is to ask what the nature of the place is, what nature would be doing here if left alone. What will nature permit me to do here without damage to herself or to me? What will nature help me to do here? And those latter questions imply another one: How can I make my work harmonize with the nature of the place? Wes Jackson and Albert Howard would argue that the farming in a place ought to be an analogue of the forest, or the prairie, or whatever naturally occupied the place before farming began.

Fisher-Smith: I want to question you a little more about this idea of identifying with and defending the specific region where one lives, as opposed to a "global" sort of environmentalism. It seems there are at least two more problems with this.

First, what about areas that are not really any particular group's domain? And second, what are we to do if we see someone else failing in their responsibility? It seems to me that if we are to take regionalism or bioregionalism seriously, we must respect other people's sovereignty. Yet if the Koreans, for example, are mining sea life with huge drift nets against international accords, or people in Southeast Alaska are removing the rain forest there at an unsustainable rate, shouldn't people in Kentucky do something about it? Do others have a greater right to destroy what is in their charge than we have to defend it?

Berry: Nobody has a right to destroy anything, and everybody has an obligation to defend as much as he or she possibly can. But sooner or later you'll have to chose. You can't defend everything, even though everybody has an obligation to be as aware as possible, and as effective as possible, in preserving the things that need to be preserved everywhere. But I've argued over and over again that the fullest responsibility has to be exercised at home, where you have some chance to come to a competent and just understanding of what's involved, and where you have some chance of being really effective.

Let's understand that a little more carefully. Another superstition of the modern era is that if you don't have it here, you can safely get it from somewhere else. A corollary superstition is that it's permissible to ruin one place for the benefit of another. So you can wreck Eastern Kentucky in order to supply coal to the industrial cities of the Northeast, or you can contaminate a nuclear waste site in order to supply power to some other place.

Those two superstitions lie behind this willingness of any community to destroy the basis of its economic life. Any fishing community that fishes destructively is undermining its own existence, obviously. But it's doing that because of these superstitions I'm talking about: "Well, if we use this up, we'll do something else. If we ruin this place, we'll go to another place."

Fisher-Smith: But that superstition you are talking about goes so far back that all of our enterprises seem to be built upon it. Take, for example, the rich tradition of pastoral writing that your work follows. The construction of the Library at Alexandria in third century B.C. Egypt, and the pastoral poetry of Theocritus, were made possible by ruinous taxation of the production of the agricultural people that pastoral writing celebrates. How do you expect to root out something so ancient and fundamental to Western culture as this superstition you are talking about?

Berry: Yes, Rome destroyed itself by undervaluing the country people, too. I guess we should leave open the possibility that we'll be too stupid to change. Other civilizations have been. But at least it's more obvious now that this superstition is a superstition, because now there's no place else to go. The "other places" are gone. If we use up the possibility of life here, there's no other place to go, and so the old notion is bankrupt, though it still underlies most destructive practice.

"Space," I guess, is the new "other place"--a place for a few privileged people to get government subsidies, take souvenir photographs, and have expensive mystical experiences. But it's important to see that all these "other places" have been bad for us. They have been the poor excuses that have allowed us to ignore the limits of nature and our own intelligence, and so avoid our responsibilities. One of the oldest American assumptions is that if you don't like where you are you can move: if you don't like Virginia, go to Kentucky; if you don't like Kentucky, go to Missouri; if you don't like Missouri, go to Texas or Oregon or California. And that assumption has done damage everywhere it has gone.

But what if people gave up that idea or began to move away from it, and began to ask, "What can we do here?" and "What that we need can we produce here?" and "What that we need can we do for each other here?" In the first place, there would be less incentive for those people to over-fish their fisheries because we'd be promoting local consumption of local food right here. I mean it's not just enough to find out which tuna fisheries are killing the dolphins. If you really want to get radical, the question is what have we got here that we can eat instead of tuna fish?

Fisher-Smith: To, as you say, shorten the lines of supply?

Berry: That's right. Shorten the supply lines. Bring your economic geography back into your own view. That's not to say that we don't need tuna fish here, but even if we were catching ocean fish in the least destructive way, it would still be wrong for us to be too dependent on tuna in Kentucky. We ought to eat more catfish.

We ought to see to it that our rivers are unpolluted here, and eat the local fish from them. And we ought to fish in a way that preserves the supply and, therefore, preserves the livelihood of fishing. What I'm trying to talk against is the idea that a so-called environmental problem can ever be satisfactorily reduced to a simple moral choice. It's always complex in its causes, and so its solutions will also have to be complex.

Fisher-Smith: It seems to me that you've turned these words "complex" and "simple" upside down, in terms of their usual positive or negative values. You've said you wish to complicate, not to simplify, every aspect of daily life.

Berry: Absolutely! Simplicity means that you have brought things to a kind of unity in yourself; you have made certain connections. That is, you have to make a just response to the real complexity of life in this world. People have tried to simplify themselves by severing the connections. That doesn't work. Severing connections makes complication. These bogus attempts at simplification ignore or despise the real complexity of the world. And ignoring complexity makes complication--in other words, a mess.

Fisher-Smith: But that complication is considered to be outside the accounting?

Berry: It's left out of the accounting. That's right. People think either that they'll die before the bill comes due or that somebody else will pay for it. But the world is complex, and if we are to make fit responses to the world, then our thinking--not our equipment, but our thoughts--will have to become complex also. Our thoughts can never become as complex as the world is--but, you see, an uncanny thing is possible. It's possible to use the world well without understanding it in all of its complexity. People have done it. They've done it not by complicated technology, but by competent local adaptation, complex thought, sympathy, affection, local loyalties and fidelities, and so on.

Fisher-Smith: I don't expect to see those words you use, "sympathy, affection, loyalty, and fidelity," appearing this week in a business or scientific journal. Our Western cultural inherence seems to have been bifurcated between the time of the scientific revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the time of romanticism in the early nineteenth century, into one side which is the manipulative and the effective, science and industry; and another side which is the feeling and affective, art, spirituality, and the emotions. How does this play out in the current trouble that we're in with nature?

Berry: It plays out in the construction of tools that can't be used sensitively. People try to conduct their lives, say, as whole human beings, and yet do their work in ways that are unfeeling and violent. And that won't work.

How can technology be sensitively and intelligently applied? How can it be used with the utmost intelligence and sensitivity? You can make your equipment so powerful and so big that it, itself, institutionalizes the impossibility of using it sensitively and intelligently.