Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two sustainable agriculture pioneers who have helped inspire the movement to know more about our food system, tried to answer that question and more at two sold-out talks that drew hundreds to the Stateside at the Paramount during last month's Edible Austin Eat Drink Local Week.
The longtime friends are as much philosophers as they are advocates, and at the heart of their talk — led by Edible Austin publisher Marla Camp — was why we need to rethink everything we know about how we use natural resources.
"Agriculture is one big mistake," said Jackson, who in 1976 started a nonprofit organization and farm called the Land Institute in Salina, Kan. Because we rely on annual crops — all crops, not just the genetically modified ones — we are putting everything at risk.
What could a curmudgeonly farmer from Kentucky have to say to an urban professional who shops at Whole Foods and supports the Sierra Club, but rides the elevator up to her condo on the 78th floor? For goshsakes, the guy refuses to type his own manuscripts into a computer. So don’t expect him to gush about ultra-light polymers for fuel-efficient hypercars run by hydrogen fuel cells or even just to let you know about the latest iPhone ap for freecycling.
As a recent Berry convert myself, I’m hoping that the economic crisis will be a hook to get a broader readership to check out Berry’s 2010 book What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. With the failure of the Great Recession to respond to the standard prescriptions, from High Tech Uber Alles to Green Jobs for All, Berry’s agrarian-contrarian perspective offers a provocatively old-school response to today’s worst problems.
Hart says Berry’s harsh criticism of contemporary Christianity may have a lot to do with the fact that he’s a Southern Baptist, and mistakes a particularly Evangelical view of the connection between the soul and the body, matter and spirit, for the whole of Christian teaching. Hart — who is a historian and a Reformed Christian — calls Berry’s critique of American Evangelicalism astute, because it focuses on how the Evangelical style is so amenable to a culture of rootlessness and a disembodied spirituality.
Havel was a complicated figure; he was a playwright who, before his formal political career, had thought little of economics. It wouldn't be quite right to say he was a legatee of the old NCL—at least not in the sense of partisan affiliation. But his angular artistic sensibility; his nostalgia for the "groundedness" of agricultural community; his recoiling at every agent of human depersonalization, not merely the totalitarian state—Havel's closest American analogue is perhaps the writer Wendell Berry, who defies easy left-right pigeonholing but is assuredly not a movement conservative.
I am an environmentalist and a protester; I am a dissenter and a demander who will not be discouraged.
A small part of me stands in solidarity with the other protesters who have rightly been named Time’s Person of the Year.
I am a convenient target for reactionary politicians and know-it-all newspaper columnists who specialize in promoting business as usual.
I won’t be receiving a Christmas card from Prime Minister Stephen Harper – who thinks I’m un-Canadian and an “extremist” – or Joe Oliver, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, who thinks I’m an “unlawful” person. I’m not sure what my Alberta in-laws think of me.
Because I disapprove of the Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines, I am accused of being an anti-job-creation rebel who is trying to destroy the capitalist system.
Since I object to the mining of tar sands to extract oil, I am labelled a fossilized malcontent who has an obsolete understanding of how a modern resource economy works.
The fact that two white-haired country gentlemen who farm and write poetry can command two sold-out shows at Stateside at the Paramount in Austin says something, I think, about the hunger in our culture for earthy wisdom. On Sunday I heard Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson speak for over two gentle hours at the majestic Paramount, an event hosted and moderated by Edible Austin's Marla Camp. It had the feeling of a church event for secular folks.
Though the topic, as billed, was the sustainable food movement, Berry and Jackson took turns unspooling an almost-biblical narrative about the relationship of humans to the earth and the folly of a growth-for-growth's-sake economy, along the way quoting each other as well as name-checking Aristotle, Milton, EM Forster, and Joseph Russell Smith. Thankfully, it never felt like taking one's medicine.
In contrast to the remarkable work of the late Steve Jobs, the equally remarkable Wendell Berry, still creating as a wordsmith and as a farmer on his small farm in Henry County, Kentucky, takes a different stance on technology in general and specifically on the computer in his 1987 essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” a promise that he has kept these last 24 years.
In this essay, as in the rest of his prose, Berry does not mince words: He writes, “I do not admire the computer manufacturers a great deal more than I admire the energy industries. I have seen their advertisements, attempting to seduce failing or struggling farmers into the belief that they can solve their problems by buying yet another piece of expensive equipment.”
HERE HERE! It was one of the great joys of my life to get to meet Berry and Jackson. The Q&A following their evening show allowed for only 5 questions, fully two of which were wasted on baffoonery, making me regret not asking mine. I wanted to ask something along the lines of, “given that you ARE intellectuals, and that the majority of Americans have only disdain for those operating at this level of consciousness, how are those of us on the ground in this movement to affect systems change?” The truth is, most people outside of my organization’s circles I engage in conversation about the Problem of Agriculture, as Jackson put it, look at me blankly. There’s food in the supermarkets, isn’t there? The grain silos are stuffed to overflowing, no?
Wendell Berry is still alive. Back in June of 2009, a blogger apparently pulled a “Twain” on the former professor at University of Kentucky and ‘exaggerated’ his death. It turns out (although Thomas Berry passed away) the man who bought some land in Henry County (Wendell) has survived and continues to thrive. Here’s a Youtube clip of the poet being introduced by Bill McKibben.