Wendell Berry, NFTs, and "an anti-economy"

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While blockchain holds unfulfilled potential and some NFTs do possess aesthetic value, their rapid ascendance reveals disturbing truths about our economy. One especially ironic NFT helps uncover the NFT craze’s downsides. Strangely, a user named “Wildsheep” is selling a pixelated portrait of Wendell Berry as an NFT, which nobody has yet bid on. Front Porch Republic readers will appreciate the irony of speculating on a virtual image of Wendell Berry, who refuses to buy a computer or smartphone and instead insists on writing by pencil. What then might the great Kentucky agrarian say about NFTs? While Berry doesn’t discuss NFTs explicitly, answers to this question can be found in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth, a 2010 collection of Berry’s economic writings.

Primarily, Wendell Berry assails the very speculative economy that NFTs represent and entrench. An economy based around reckless gambling on digital images cannot support community or respect limits, two central themes of Berry’s work. While ostensibly promising decentralization, NFTs instead further a hyper-financialized economy built on falsehoods and abstractions, one that Berry labels in “Money Versus Goods” an “anti-economy” or “a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.” He further lambastes how this economy produces goods that are destructive, fraudulent, unnecessary, useless, or any combination of the four.

Read all of "The Irony of a Wendell Berry NFT" by Andrew Figueiredo at Front Porch Republic.


Thinking About Wendell Berry's "Think Little"

In 1969 the agrarian writer, poet, and Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, published Think Little, a short essay dealing primarily with environmentalism and the principle of subsidiarity. I found it to be a well written and compelling piece. While it is brief, Berry’s essay contains striking observations that continue to be relevant in our own day.

As I began reading it, my immediate thought was how little has changed. This short essay could easily have been written yesterday. “First there was Civil Rights, and then there was the War, and now it is the Environment. The first two of this sequence of causes have already risen to the top of the nation’s consciousness and declined somewhat in a remarkably short time.” While the Civil Rights Movement itself has passed, the issue of race has again come to the forefront of the national and global stage. In 2020 the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests and riots dominated headlines, while in 2021 Critical Race Theory surfaced as a major point of contention. Then, though Berry speaks of Vietnam, one could easily replace that with the war in Afghanistan or even just the broader War on Terror. As for the Environment, there has hardly been a more prevalent and constant issue than Climate Change. The push for expanding renewable energy sources, building more electric cars, changing people’s diets, and reducing carbon emissions has been in the national and global discourse for decades now. Yet, as Berry points out, both Civil Rights (race) and the War (of your choice) have been short-lived in their prominence in the public sphere. This is not to say that racial issues have disappeared necessarily, but neither the protests of 2020 nor Critical Race Theory have actually lasted very long in terms of how important they are perceived as being and how much they dominate the political sphere. The protests came and went, and the Critical Race Theory debate has mostly given way to debates surrounding COVID-19 regulations and mandates (at least for now). Afghanistan is a similar story. While it took over headlines for a month or two, it has practically disappeared from the news and from public discourse. I doubt many people are actively thinking about our withdrawal and defeat at all, and likely will not remember it until it appears in midterm election advertisements.

Read all of "Wendell Berry’s “Think Little” Remains Relevant Today" by John Thomas at The New Utopian,.


Revisiting Wendell Berry's "Racism and the Economy" (1988)

In his 1988 essay, “Racism and the Economy,” Wendell Berry addresses these questions [of racial/economic inequality] directly with a clarity probably beyond the reach of the shared metropolitanism of Baldwin and Buckley. He begins by diagnosing the “contagion” of racism as a form of hubris or pride: “The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior – not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subjection of people – but to our condition. We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything – of ourselves, of each other, or of our country” (47). This allows Berry to set racism against people of colour in the wider context of the exploitation of cheap labour. In essence, he agrees with Baldwin that the American Dream has been too often built through the sweat of others.

One of the ways we manifest this desire for superiority is in a hierarchy of labour. Many Americans enslaved Africans to do the kind of work they refused to do themselves, “what used to be known as ‘nigger work’—work that is fundamental and inescapable” (48). Berry argues that this impulse to force others to undertake menial work infects even those who push for greater racial equality and hence taints such aspirations. Berry writes,

The “success” of the black corporate executive, in fact, only reveals the shallowness, the jeopardy, and the falseness of the “success” of the white corporate executive…. It only assumes that American blacks will be made better or more useful or more secure by becoming as greedy, selfish, wasteful, and thoughtless as affluent American whites. The aims and standards of the oppressors become the aims and standards of the oppressed, and so our ills and evils survive our successive “liberations.” (49)

In short, the socio-economic order created by European expansionism and racism not only tilts systems and structures against people of colour, it also defines the goals towards which they strive. Though Berry does not explicitly make this connection, fundamentally western economies – and especially corporations – define the beata vita, the happy life, for everyone.

Read all of "Baldwin. Buckley, and Berry on Racism and the World Order" by Mark Clavier at Front Porch Republic.


Meeting Wendell Berry

Nearly every weekday, Wendell or his wife, Tanya, will stop by his P.O. box. The retail hours of the post office are just 10:30 am to noon, but Berry, a prolific letter writer, is a frequent patron. (The mail route in Port Royal offers service on Berry’s road but, like most conveniences, he doesn’t use it. “We want to support the local post office,” Berry explains. “We need that post office.”)

Here, in Kentucky, he has seen industry — coal, for example, once one of the state’s biggest employers — fleece the land and the people, sowing resentment. “The idea that rural and urban America describe two economies, one thriving and the other failing, is preposterous,” he tells me. “We’re joined by one economy. And it’s a one-way economy — the sucking and the digging is out here. The delivery is in the city. They’re prospering because they’re plundering their own country.”

The resulting slow bleed of life and self-sufficiency from small towns alarms the author. When Berry was growing up, many people worked at local farms or businesses. Today, nearly everyone is a commuter, working under a boss, and the small farms he remembers have largely vanished. “It’s a very significant change,” Berry says, “from self-employed to employee.”

Recognizing the problem of keeping people living and working in small communities like Port Royal, Berry’s daughter, Mary, founded the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, in 2011. It is a nonprofit with the goal of strengthening the bond between small farmers and the urban communities they serve. Mary says she hoped she could help “give people who want to farm something to come home to.”

Read all of "Wendell Berry is still ahead of us" by Hope Reese at Vox.


Wendell Berry in conversation with Helena Norberg-Hodge

Wendell Berry: The issue there again, it seems to me, is the acceptance of a limit. Science that accepts limits would do no harm to an ecosystem or a human body. This is very different from the kind of science that too frequently turns out to be product development, without control of its application. The nuclear scientists who developed the atomic bomb are a very good example. But so are chemists who develop toxic substances for a limited use that they have in mind, but then turn it loose on the market and into the world. So you develop a chemical to control weeds in crops, and you ask only the question of whether or not the weeds are controlled; you don’t ask what happens when it runs off into the rivers.

Helena Norberg-Hodge: This is why there has to be the precautionary principle, as Rachel Carson reminded us. But the only entities really capable of enforcing the precautionary principle are governments—and trade treaties and the globalizing economy have given giant multinational companies more and more power over governments. We’ve seen these last thirty years the enormous damage that this power shift created. And then with the financial breakdown in 2008, it was so clear that we needed regulation; but it didn’t happen.

WB: The global economy is almost by definition not subject to regulation. And this simply means that corporations can pursue economic advantage without limit, wherever in the world those advantages are to be found. And as I’ve thought of it in the last several years, it has seemed to me that we’ve had a global economy for about five hundred years—ever since the time of Columbus. And this allowed us to think that if we don’t have some necessity of life here, we can get it from somewhere else. This is the most damaging idea that we’ve ever had. It’s still with us, still current, and it still excuses local plunder and theft and enslavement. It’s an extreme fantasy or unreality, the idea that if we don’t have it here, we can get it somewhere else—if we use it up here, we can get it somewhere else. It’s the stuff of fantasy.

Read all of "Caretaking," a conversation between Wendell Berry and Helena Norberg-Hodge at Orion.


On Wendell Berry and Limits

The idea that there’s always more deeply drives our way of life and informs the way we think of possessions, science, knowledge, and technology. To think otherwise is horrifying to many people. In his 2008 essay “Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits,” Wendell Berry mourns the effects of the “doctrine of limitlessness” on our culture and calls for “the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.” He continues, “There is now a growing perception…that we are entering a time of inescapable limits.” As the illusion of limitlessness fades, we will “come under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.”

Like Berry, we are grieved by the damaging consequences of the human race’s unrestrained actions on both personal and global levels. Becoming aware of our limits is sobering, but, in the end, results in the fulfillment of our better longings. According to Berry, there’s another way to think about constraints: “Our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements…to fullness of relationship and meaning.”

Read all of "The Quiet Work of Caring: Establishing Life-Giving Boundaries Within and Without" by Jenna Henderson and Kimberly Miller at The Englewood Review of Books.


Wendell Berry on the Farm Bill

Gracy Olmstead: The Farm Bill usually promotes short-term economic gains over long-term ecological health (something the 50-year Farm Bill seeks to fix). How do we get Washington politicians to support more sustainable forms of agriculture?

Wendell Berry: The problem here is not so much that of the shortness of the term of planning or of shortsightedness as it is of ecological and agricultural ignorance and a sort of moral blindness. The problems we ought to be dealing with are not problems because they are going to cause us trouble in the future. They are problems because they are obviously and clearly causing trouble right now. We ought to be doing our best to solve them right now.

If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into “rural America” to observe the condition of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science and agribusiness.

Alan Guebert was right when he said in one of his columns that this farm bill will be much like the last one insofar as it will not address the real problems of agriculture. Those problems, as you know, are soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.

Those problems could be summed up as the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world. The preferences and choices of industrialism do not imply a limit of any kind. They rest instead upon the premises of limitless economic growth and limitless consumption, which of course implies limitless waste, and finally exhaustion.

Nothing can take form except within limits. No cure is possible, either in policy or practice, except within understood limits, which is to say within a correct diagnosis. This requires patience. A good solution has to begin with a description of the problem that is full, clear, and reliable.

Read all of "Wendell Berry's Right Kind of Farming," an interview with Gracy Olmstead at The New York Times.


A review of "The Essential Wendell Berry"

Agrarianism is the theme he returns to with great regularity and is also the subject of his best-known book, the 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, a compressed version of which is included in this collection. A good part of Berry’s career has involved excoriating mechanized, chemicalized mega-farming as a brutal, life-threatening assault that kills the soil and sends it down the river, guts farming communities, renders moot our relationship to animals and sky and other people, and widens a dualism between us and the earth that is ruining our health, our minds, our ability to live satisfying lives, and the American (and global) culture.

These works are mostly about small-town America, and mostly set on Berry’s farm at Lane’s Landing, once a riverboat stop on the Kentucky River near Port Royal, Kentucky. But not one word stoops to smug nostalgia. He is instead trying to prove that science and economics happen in a place: he draws endlessly and non-repetitively on the deep well of the lived truth of farm life, which delivers up sweet, clear lines of poetry and local lore and a kind of immediate authenticity.

That authority is the reason we read Wendell Berry. When he tells us precisely what ails us as a nation, that a “Faustian economics” of “corporate fundamentalism” fuels a “world-ending fire” of limitless consumerism that is our ruin, we believe him. We want to scream it from the rooftops. But he goes a step further. He doesn’t leave the question begged, but answers it:

Small solutions, unrelentingly practical, that will be made by individuals in relation to small parcels of land.

Read all of "How to Fight the Fire" by Dean Kuipers at Los Angeles Review of Books.


Mary Berry on making small- and middle-scale farming viable again

Many believed that increasing sales of organic foods, once considered the backbone for building local food systems, would be a boon for farmers. And for some it has been. But the global organic industry—mimicking practices of industrial agriculture—simply bypasses most domestic farmers. Consider that the value of U.S. organic exports was $548 million in 2016, while our organic imports were at $1.65 billion. While some of the imports include high-value items that can't be grown in the U.S.—bananas, coffee, etc.—we also import many organic foods that we grow conventionally in this country. For example, we import organic corn and soy even though these are the two largest industrial crops grown in the U.S.

So how do we begin to build local, healthy farm and food models that are economically viable in the shadow of an entrenched giant, globalized ag industry? In today's political climate, this is going to have to be grassroots work. That work starts with new infrastructure systems that allow farmers to afford to keep farming.

Read all of "Renewing a Vision for Rural Prosperity" by Mary Berry and Debbie Baker at Civil Eats.


Wendell Berry in conversation about local economies

Listen to a conversation between two giants of the local economy movement in this extended episode. Helena Norberg-Hodge founded Local Futures, produced the film The Economics of Happiness, and wrote the book Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh. Wendell Berry is a poet and activist, an author of over 40 books, and a lifelong advocate for ecological health, the beauty of rural life, and small-scale farming. Their far-reaching discussion touches on human nature, technology, experiential knowledge, agriculture policy, happiness, wildness, and local food systems.

Listen to "Beautiful Places: A Conversation with Wendell Berry" at Local Futures.