Wendell Berry's "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age"

I want to say something about the decline, the virtual ruin, of rural life, and about the influence and effect of agricultural surpluses, which I believe are accountable for more destruction of land and people than any other economic “factor.” This is a task that ought to be taken up by an economist, which I am not. But economists, even agricultural economists, farm-raised as many of them have been, do not live in rural communities, as I do, and they appear not to care, as I do, that rural communities like mine all over the country are either dying or dead. And so, only partly qualified as I am, I will undertake this writing in the hope that I am contributing to a conversation that will attract others better qualified. 

I have at hand an article from the Wall Street Journal of February 22, 2016, entitled “The U.S. Economy Is in Good Shape.” The article is by Martin Feldstein, “chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Ronald Reagan . . . a professor at Harvard and a member of the Journal’s board of contributors.” Among economists, Prof. Feldstein appears to be somewhere near the top of the pile. And yet his economic optimism is founded entirely upon current measures of “incomes,” “unemployment,” and “industrial production,” all abstractions narrowly focused. Nowhere in his analysis does he mention the natural world, or the economies of land use by which the wealth of nature is made available to the “American economy.” Mr. Feldstein believes that “the big uncertainties that now hang over our economy are political.” 

Read "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age" at Sierra.


Q&A with Wendell Berry

Your wife says your principal asset as a writer has been your "knack for repeating yourself." Why keep repeating yourself?

Because things aren't improving out here in this newly discovered rural America. Actually, it was discovered a long time ago by the Republicans and the corporations — the Democrats had forgotten it for quite a long time, and they've just rediscovered it. Forty years ago, I wrote a book called The Unsettling of America. The tragedy of that book is that it's still pertinent. If it had gone out of print because of irrelevance, it would have been a much happier book. In 1977, I thought that the farming population was at a disastrous low. Now it's somewhere below 1%.

Your main concern with economists is that they think commodities can always come from somewhere else.

This has been a dominant idea throughout our history: if you don't have it here, you can get it from somewhere else. If you use up this commodity here, you can't produce it here anymore, you've worn out the possibility here, get it from somewhere else. Or if you're short of labor or you're too good for certain kinds of labor, go to Africa and get some slaves. That recourse has haunted us, has plagued us to death.

Read the complete interrogation by Sarah Begley at Time.


On Wendell Berry, the Church, and the economy

Wendell Berry, in his essay God and Country (in What People Are For, 1988):

Organized Christianity seems, in general, to have made peace with "the economy" by divorcing itself from economic issues, and this, I think, has proved to be a disaster, both religious and economic. The reason for this, on the side of religion, is suggested by the adjective "organized." It is clearly possible that, in the condition of the world as the world now is, organization can force upon an institution a character that is alien or even antithetical to it. The organized church comes immediately under compulsion to think of itself, and identify itself to the world, not as an institution synonymous with its truth and its membership, but as a hodgepodge of funds, properties, projects, and offices, all urgently requiring economic support. The organized church makes peace with a destructive economy and divorces itself from economic issues because it is economically compelled to do so. Like any other public institution so organized, the organized church is dependent on the "economy"; it cannot survive apart from those economic practices that its truth forbids and that its vocation is to correct. If it comes to a choice between the extermination of the fowls of the air and the lilies of the field and the extermination of a building fund, the organized church will elect - indeed, has already elected - to save the building fund. The irony is compounded and made harder to bear by the fact that the building fund can be preserved by crude applications of money, but the fowl of the air and the lilies of the field can be preserved only by true religion, by the practice of a proper love and respect for them as the creatures of God.

Read the full, brief, but provocative thoughts of Jonathan Melton on this Wendell Berry quotation at The Patience of Trees.


Quoting Wendell Berry in and out of context

But the misappropriation of the Wendell Berry quote takes the cake, which comes at the summation of Walcher’s column, in which he correctly identifies Berry as “one of conservation’s most prolific and gifted writers” and pastes:

“To put the bounty and the health of our land, our only commonwealth, into the hands of people who do not live on it and share its fate will always be an error. For whatever determines the fortune of the land determines also the fortunes of the people. If history teaches anything, it teaches that.”

The quote is a misappropriation because it ignores all context and the body of Berry’s life and work. And because the ‘absentee’ authority Berry decries that are holding rural communities back are not the environmental agencies or the pubic health officials–in Frankfort or in DC. No, Berry’s criticisms are directed at the absentee coal baron, the Texas oil man, the faraway capitalist figuring on a ledger sheet that human health and local wealth is less important than what shows up on his side of the balance sheet, that are holding rural communities, too long shackled to boom and bust volatile economies, back.

If there is to remain any hope at all for the region, strip mining will have to be stopped. Otherwise, all the federal dollars devoted to the region’s poor will have the same effect as rain pouring on an uprooted plant. To recover good hope and economic health the people need to have their land whole under their feet. And much of their land has already been destroyed.

Read the complete article by Pete Kolbenschlag at Colorado Pols.

The article by Greg Walcher to which Mr. Kolbenschlag refers can be found HERE.


Wendell Berry, the recent film, and the economy

In “Look & See,” Berry, now 83 years old, reads his essays in a Southern drawl over images of his working farm, the land he and his family have cultivated in Kentucky for five generations. He and his wife returned to this land after graduate school, in search of home and sense of place or, as William Faulkner once called it, “significant soil.”

The film tells Berry’s story without interviewing him on camera. Instead, it takes you into his world. You hear the sound of footsteps as an unseen person walks through the hills or around the farm. You get to know some of the people Berry loves: his wife and collaborator, Tanya, his daughter, Mary, and his fellow farmers, both industrial, subsistence and organic.

Berry is an advocate of small farms, rural communities and Judeo-Christian values like kindness, all of which have been harmed by “get big or get out” industrial agriculture.

His life and work bear witness to the fact that it is never Christian to say, “I can do whatever I want with my own land” or “my own body.” We are stewards, not owners. What’s more, the attitude of “I can do whatever I want” is toxic to earth and water, family and community. Berry, an early critic of mountaintop removal mining, writes, “I saw the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley.” Nature itself bears witness to the fact that it is not, in fact, all relative. Certain farming practices enrich the soil and worker’s well-being. Others deplete them. As Pope Francis reminds us in “Laudato Si’,” it is all connected.

Read the whole article by Anna Keating at America Media.


On the Work of the Berry Family and the Berry Center

Mary’s work is steeped in her family’s past in more ways than one. The Berry Center is housed in what was her grandfather’s law office beginning in 1927, an historic building in downtown New Castle. To inform her own practices and the work of the future, important archival work is happening there. Big John was a fervent documentarian. In his career, he kept records of his efforts in law and in farming, as well as proof of the progress and problems around him. His sons followed suit, both continuing to observe the agrarian world where they were immersed. Combined, the efforts of the three offer a keen insight into rural, agrarian life in Kentucky, though much of their work has been lost and scattered in trash bins and forgotten files. But through the Berry Center, their writings are being assembled and organized for pressing work. 

Using the writings of her family members and her own vast experiences, Mary is going to pilot a program she hopes will restore what was lost in her hometown. 

Applying the principles of the Burley Tobacco Program, Mary Berry hopes to make local cattle agriculture thrive. As it stands, Kentucky has the most beef cattle of any state east of the Mississippi. Still, it’s uncommon for family farms to make a living on cattle alone.

The Local Beef Initiative will begin by taking a group of up to six farmers and placing them in a co-op, similar to the one established by the Burley Tobacco Growers Cooperative. Farmers in the co-op will be required to raise the cows on grass and without antibiotics or hormones, in return for access to parity pricing — achieved by maintaining a relationship with a processor and distributor. 

In this scenario, the Berry Center would play the role that the federal government did in the Burley Tobacco Program, putting mechanisms into place, establishing parity pricing, taking the farmers involved out of competition with each other and preventing them from overproducing. 

“My hope is that once we get the Local Beef Initiative going that young farmers who are involved will say to their friends, ‘You know, I've done this with the Berry Center ... and I've made some money. You should have a look.’ You could convince farmers that way a lot faster than any of us could convince them just going and knocking on their door.” 

Read the complete article by Jodi Cash at The Bitter Southerner.


Wendell Berry and others on BBC Radio 4

On Start the Week Andrew Marr talks to the American writer, poet and farmer Wendell Berry. In his latest collection of essays, The World-Ending Fire, Berry speaks out against the degradation of the earth andthe violence and greed of unbridled consumerism, while evoking the awe he feels as he walks the land in his native Kentucky.

His challenge to the false call of progress and the American Dream is echoed in the writing of Paul Kingsnorth, whose book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist eschews the grand narrative of a global green movement to focus on what matters - the small plot of land beneath his feet.

Kate Raworth calls herself a renegade economist and, like Berry and Kingsnorth, challenges orthodox thinking, as she points to new ways to understand the global economy which take into consideration human prosperity and ecological sustainability.

Listen to the very good conversation at BBC Radio 4.


Wendell Berry delivers 17th Annual Dodge Lecture

On December 8, 2016 Mr. Berry delivered a talk entitled "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age." The event was held at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and was sponsored by The Center for a Livable Future and the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering. Introductions begin around 9:20. Mr. Berry begins at 17:50. Johns Hopkins Livestream


Wendell Berry - Wes Jackson Conversation Sold Out

The Schumacher Center has announced that the October 22 conversation between Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson (The Land Institute) has been sold out. But the event will be filmed, so watch The Schumacher Center for news of that.

The Center has described the event as follows:

On Saturday October 22nd at 7:00 pm, award winning author Wendell Berry and The Land Institute's co-founder Wes Jackson will share the stage at the historic Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in the heart of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. They will hold a conversation about the 50-Year Farm Bill, their work, and their long friendship and collaboration in support of rural communities.
 
The occasion is the 36th Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, a tradition that Mr. Berry and Mr. Jackson launched when they spoke to a full house in October of 1981 on the theme of People, Land, and Community.  Over the years the Annual Schumacher Lectures have provided a platform for some of the most powerful voices for an economics that supports both people and planet – voices that include Jane Jacobs, Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke, Van Jones, Judy Wicks, and Otto Scharmer.
 
Much has changed since the first Annual Lectures. The promise of the global economy has faded in the face of ever-greater wealth inequality and environmental degradation. There is a groundswell of interest in building a new economy that is just and recognizes planetary limits. All of us at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics are delighted that Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson have accepted our invitation to come back and share their perspectives on how far we have come, where we are, and where we believe we should go next.

For more, visit The Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

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"Eating as Discipleship"

Wendell Berry's famous statement that "eating is an agricultural act" has motivated many to reconsider the agricultural systems our eating habits promote. Yet Berry's writings also contend that eating is a spiritual act; when we eat, we enact our relationship with the rest of creation and with the Creator. Unfortunately, the social architecture of the developed world encourages us to imagine food as a fuel that we consume. We're trained to treat food as a commodity whose sole purpose is to satisfy our desires and give us energy. 

Lisa Graham McMinn's To the Table: A Spirituality of Food, Farming, and Community joins a chorus of other books that call Christians to resist this consumerist view of food. McMinn's book begins with Leslie Leyland Fields's proclamation that "food is nothing less than Sacrament." In defending this view, McMinn—a sociologist and co-owner of a CSA—adds her voice to the growing number of books and blogs celebrating farmers' markets, gardening, and home cooking.

Read all of "Eating as Discipleship" by Jeffrey Bilbro at Comment.