Writing in 1970, Wendell Berry worried that the environmental movement would be one in a series of self-indulgent grand public gestures, that it would lead to some superficial changes, some new laws, and in due course peter out. The problem, as he saw it, was deeper, cultural and materialistic, and every one of us contributes to it: “every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy—and our economy’s first principle is waste—we are causing the crisis...A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty.” As someone who has the privilege of an (admittedly small) public platform to declaim about the environment and related issues, reading this led me to reflect upon my own actions.
We meet at dawn when the air is cool and resonates with chirps and whistles, caws and clucks. A woodpecker drills down the block. The scalloped edges of clouds glow in the eastern sky.
Wendell speaks. I listen. Today he talks of man’s overriding desire.
The fullness of a cup equals
that of the sea – unless the mind
conceive of more, longing for women
in disregard of the limit
of singularity, gluttonous beyond
hunger, greedy for money in excess
of goods, lusting for Heaven
in excess, …
The lights dimmed. The introductions and announcements were said. Mr Wendell Berry walked on stage and the welcome was enthusiastic. There was no doubt that the audience in attendance was well acquainted with his writings and influence. Most of those in attendance were aged 50+ but every so often, you’d see one of us youngins sticking out among the crowd. One of the first things he said was, “With all of you here, its hard to see what you need with me!” The humility was evident and I settled into my seat to glean words from a wise old man from whom much can be learned!
He proceeded to read several of his poems and a short story. He said, “I’m gonna read a few poems… its gonna be a prose sandwich”. At several points, he paused before reading the next poem. One of those times, the audience broke out clapping. He remarked, “I wasn’t waiting for you to do that. Just interjecting a little silence.” Everyone laughed. Some of his writings were meant to evoke sadness and compassion, and other snippets brought the whole house laughing. Like our traveling companion shared, his short story (I can’t remember the titles) was about no one I knew, yet it could be anyone we know. It was a story of life, marriage, raising children, living on the farm, taking care of the land, selling the farm, grief, and letting go.
"A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales to the Future for Food Conference, Georgetown University, Washington DC"
This is the context we find ourselves in and it is set against the backdrop of a system heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and other forms of diminishing natural capital – mineral fertilizers and so on. Most forms of industrialized agriculture now have an umbilical dependency on oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources. One study I have read estimates that a person today on a typical Western diet is, in effect, consuming nearly a U.S. gallon of diesel every day! And when you consider that in the past decade the cost of artificial nitrogen fertilizers has gone up fourfold and the cost of potash three times, you start to see how uncomfortable the future could become if we do not wean ourselves off our dependency. And that’s not even counting the impact of higher fuel prices on the other costs of production – transport and processing – all of which are passed on to the consumer. It is indeed a vicious circle.
Then add the supply of land into the equation – where do we grow all of the extra plants or graze all that extra stock when urban expansion is such a pressure? Here in the United States I am told that one acre is lost to development every minute of every day – which means that since 1982 an area the size of Indiana has been built over – though that is small fry compared with what is happening in places like India where, somehow, they have to find a way of housing another three hundred million people in the next thirty years. But on top of this is the very real problem of soil erosion.
Again, in the U.S., soil is being washed away ten times faster than the Earth can replenish it, and it is happening forty times faster in China and India. Twenty-two thousand square miles of arable land is turning into desert every year and, all told, it appears a quarter of the world’s farmland, two billion acres, is degraded.
Given these pressures, it seems likely we will have to grow plants in more difficult terrain. But the only sustainable way to do that will be by increasing the long term fertility of the soil, because, as I say, achieving increased production using imported, non-renewable inputs is simply not sustainable.
Follow the link above for the complete text.
On Saturday, I had the opportunity to hear Kentucky native Wendell Berry speak on a number of issues that are affecting the way of life for folks in the Bluegrass. Barry, 76, carries a wealth of real-world experience as well as a broad and impressive job description as a poet, farmer, novelist, essayist, professor and activist. He is a staunch critic of mountaintop coal mining (mountaintop removal) and an advocate of the concept of local, agricultural economics. On this particular occasion, Berry spoke to a crowd exceeding 100 people at a street fair in Louisville.
The public is frequently inundated by the rhetoric of politicians who drop buzzwords such as “local” and “sustainable,” but hearing Wendell Berry say those words was a different experience. Berry is not a politician, or a salesman — his motives are not to win an election or to make a hard sell, which is why I trust Berry.
"And so from the time I read his great testimony, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, in the summer of 1963, Harry Caudill has spoken to me directly and personally. That book bore witness to the abuses inflicted upon his region and its people by the industrial colonialism chiefly of the coal companies." Wendell Berry, "A Man of Courage, Constant to the End." The Progressive, June 2011.
Read an excerpt HERE.
We speak with environmental activist Robert Kennedy, Jr., and filmmaker Bill Haney about the new documentary, The Last Mountain, which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The film chronicles the fight against coal mining across Appalachia and Massey Energy’s devastating practice of mountaintop removal to extract layers of coal. "They have to break the law to do this. They cannot survive in the marketplace without violating the law. They violate labor laws. They violate health and safety laws. And by their own records, they’ve had some 67,000 violations of just one of the environmental statutes," says Kennedy of the coal giant that has tremendous political influence at the state and federal level. “It’s not just about the environmental destruction, it’s also about subverting democracy.”
"I was in Washington, D.C., on May 4th and heard a speech by the Prince of Wales that impressed me very much," says Wendell Berry, the 77-year-old essayist, novelist, poet and political activist who appears Tuesday at Benaroya Hall as a guest of Seattle Arts & Lectures.
"It was a substantive, careful, constantly thoughtful speech on the industrialization of agriculture," he says. "To hear a public person speak thoughtfully at length about a complex issue is a rare thing. Politicians are under greater pressure to raise money than to make sense."
Norman Scribner, the chorus’s founder and artistic director, presumably wanted something big and meaningful for the end of his penultimate season (he’s stepping down a year from now). This piece touched all the bases. It has a contemporary theme: the environment. It uses honorable texts (four poems by Wendell Berry) and incorporates folk music (the Sami, or Lapp, tradition known as yoiking) and cute children (the Children’s Chorus of Washington). Musically, it’s approachable, meaning inoffensive to an audience that would rather be hearing another Verdi Requiem or Carmina Burana.
I have a dream; and, at its center, you stand– tall, humble, simply magnificent. Despite all my reservations about writing to you, here I am, hours before dawn, doing something that I could not even have dared to imagine only last evening.
I awoke with a dream long before the sun is scheduled to shine. In this dream, I join millions reading your open letter to the White House, courteously requesting $5 billion– a tiny pittance compared to the going rate for government bailouts– to regenerate 50 million family farms; $5 billion, in other words, that could support young people who have the gumption and a sense of adventure necessary to grow food and sequester carbon in the soil; $5 billion that would allow American women, men, and their families a chance to eat and grow clean, uncontaminated, uncancerous food.
Your moral stature and vision are such that all you would have to do is write such an open letter to the president to more fully awaken millions; to start a groundswell.