Thinking About Wendell Berry's "In Distrust of Movements"

I’m just reading a Wendell Berry essay from 2000, entitled In Distrust of Movements, reprinted on a blog with the inspired name The Irresistible Fleet of Bicycles. I was going to just tweet the link, but realized that more people need to read this, and I ought to quote more extensively. (I hope that fans of Michael Pollan‘s books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food will rediscover his great predecessor in thinking about food and its proper role in human society.)

The essence of Berry’s argument is that we as a culture need to get away from single-issue movements to fix this or that, and instead embrace holistic thinking about how society as a whole should be organized to achieve our goals. As a farmer, essayist and poet, Berry’s focus, is, of course, not on political organization, or industry, but on the more fundamental issue of where our food comes from and how best to produce it. In this time when the broader public is becoming aware, through a variety of economic shocks, that “the way we live now” is unsustainable, Berry’s thinking, once perhaps regarded as a relic of the idealistic back-to-the-land movement of the seventies, is finding new relevance in an era in which comparisons between the collapse of the Soviet economy in the 80’s and today’s collapse in the American economy become a topic of discussion on high tech mailing lists. (I take particular note of the fact that Dmitri Orlov’s piece, which provoked that discussion, makes the case that Russia’s economy was in many respects more resilient than ours, with one callout being that most Russians still had some ability to grow their own food.) Even the BBC is noting that Food needs ‘fundamental rethink’.

What I like best about Berry is his insistence on a holistic approach. He writes:

…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 don’t 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.

I love his insight that “environmentalism” as it is so often conceived, preserving wildness for itself, misses the point. The issue is how properly to situate humans in their landscape:

…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 Austin’s phrase, “summer and winter with the land”. They are unacquainted with the land’s 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 people’s 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 obligations.

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.

While it is almost certainly true that the sustainable landscape of small farms that Berry treasures is a difficult fit with the scale of modern society, it’s also true that we are teetering on a precipice, that just maybe, we are getting the first signs that our society as a whole (and not just our financial system) is a kind of gigantic Ponzi scheme that will one day run out of room for growth, with disastrous consequences.

I know that there are those who will counter that with the right technology we can grow our way out of anything. I used to believe that, but I’m not sure I do any more. I don’t know that Berry has the right answer to the challenge we are facing, but he definitely has the right framing for the questions we need to be asking ourselves:

The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves and this world.

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