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Wendell Berry on the Value of Local Economies

As often before, my thoughts begin with the modern history of rural Kentucky, which in all of its regions has been deplorable. In my county, Henry County, for example, as recently as the middle of the last century, every town was a thriving economic and social center. Now all of them are either dying or dead. If there is any concern about this in any of the state’s institutions, I have yet to hear about it. The people in these towns and their tributary landscapes once were supported by their usefulness to one another. Now that mutual usefulness has been removed, and the people relate to one another increasingly as random particles.

To help in understanding this, I want to quote a few sentences of a letter written on June 22, 2013, by Anne Caudill. Anne is the widow of Harry Caudill. For many years she was involved in Harry’s study of conditions in Eastern Kentucky and in his advocacy for that region. Since Harry’s death, she has maintained on her own the long interest and devotion she once shared with Harry, and she is always worth listening to. She wrote:

The Lexington Herald Leader last Sunday ... published a major piece on the effects of the current downturn in the coal industry ... Perhaps the most telling statement quoted came from Karin Slone of Knott County whose husband lost his job in the mines ... finally found a job in Alabama and the family had to leave their home. Karin said, “There should have been greater efforts to diversify the economy earlier.” [Fifty] years ago and more Harry tried ... everything he could think of to encourage diversity. My heart goes out to those families who yet again are being battered by a major slump in available jobs. ... Again they are not being exploited, but discarded.

This is a concise and useful description of what Anne rightly calls a tragedy, and “tragedy” rightly applies, not just to the present condition of Eastern Kentucky, but to the present condition of just about every part of rural Kentucky. The tragedy of Eastern Kentucky is the most dramatic and obvious because that region was so extensively and rapidly industrialized so early. The industrialization of other regions (mine, for example) began with the accelerated industrialization of agriculture after World War II, and it has accelerated increasingly ever since. The story of industrialization is the same story everywhere, and everywhere the result is ruin. Though it has developed at different rates of speed in different areas, that story is now pretty fully developed in all parts of our state.

To know clearly what industrialization is and means, we need to consider carefully some of the language of Anne Caudill’s letter. We see first of all that she is speaking of a region whose economy is dependent upon “jobs.” This word, as we now use it in political clichés such as “job creation,” entirely dissociates the idea of work from any idea of calling or vocation or vocational choice. A “job” exists without reference to anybody in particular or any place in particular. If a person loses a “job” in Eastern Kentucky and finds a “job” in Alabama, then he has ceased to be “unemployed” and has become “employed,” it does not matter who the person is or what or where the “job” is. “Employment” in a “job” completely satisfies the social aim of the industrial economy and its industrial government.

 Read more by Wendell Berry at In These Times


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