Wendell Berry's Integrative Philosophy of Life and Energy


In these reports that I have filed about energy matters, a key notion has been the need for an integrative approach to the various factors that any examination of energy must entail. Something very different from such integration is the standard operational routine today.

For the most part, solar engineers are not conversant with micro hydro installers, for instance. Distinct categories are the rule. No particular specialty is likely to be engaging in regular conversation with the materials scientists, physicists, biologists, sociologists, or other 'anti-natural philosopers' who find themselves mixed up with their own, always decidedly defined and different, aspects of energy's socio-political-economic manifestations, let alone with nuclear engineers and coal plant operators and other erstwhile demigods of modern power.

Moreover, the business of energy and utilities is walled off in a separate compartment altogether, and although these MBA's and MPA's and marketing gurus and so forth do communicate with the academic and 'brain-trust' policy wonks and such, those who make policy often don't have much to do, at least on a day-to-day basis, with those who study and conceptualize policy potential. Enforcement, monitoring, and so on, meanwhile, is another bailiwick, often out of touch except at formal hearings or other similar processes.

Only the attorneys, among erstwhile intellectuals, willingly pull everything together. And most of the stakeholders in the 'energy game' would, with Shakespeare, murder all the lawyers first.

Heaven help a regular citizen who tries to comprehend this chaos. One view of such things is to accept them as fiat. 'They wouldn't work out in this fashion if any other way of doing business were possible,' is the simple expression of such a POV.

Obviously, and thankfully, exceptions to these patterns exist. Readers have met Don Harris in these pages; his successor, Denis Ledbetter has also shown up here, as have firms like Backwoods Solar and publications like Home Power Magazine and communities like Dorado Vista Ranch and academic enterprises like the Western North Carolina Renewable Energy Initiative at Appalachian State University. These folks, and many more, approach their vocations in a holistic and common-sensical fashion.

And, as we have seen, the grassroots has expressed some organizational forms that insist on bringing things together rather than applying ironclad rules of categorization. Both the Environmental Justice Network and Women's Action for New Directions are among the groups that readers have met in these pages.

But these exceptions to the rule, a mandate involving the hegemony of business and its attendant engineers, amount to a minute portion of the general flow. The SOP is bifurcation. Division is never enough. Subdivision follows in its lee, and then comes micro-specialization, all sections of all-that-is conveniently, for those in the positions to manage things profitably, walled off from each other.

This drive to divide has reaped a tremendous harvest of knowledge. Dissection and analysis are fundamental to the capacity to understand things scientifically, rationally--ratio itself must involve splitting the pieces apart. However, to divide is not only to 'conquer' in this positive sense of knowing, but also to subsume and rule.

In any event, despite countervailing tendencies in the academy and in public policy, calling for reintegration, the overarching paradigm of the present moment, at least in terms of the established power centers of society, continues to involve relentless compartmentalization. This tendency applies in every component of existence that touches the marketplace, especially in matters of energy and other technical areas. Equally clearly, it applies to the actions of the United States Government and to almost all State government affairs.

Hopefully, those readers who have been following these efforts here will recognize that I have a fundamentally different view. Just as a primary challenge for Unesco's Management of Social Transitions programme is to work around the inefficiencies and inequities of compartmentalized academic, intellectual, and scientific work, so too I have emphasized--and called on experts and thinkers and democrats everywhere who speak reasonably about this 'philosophy-of-internal-relations' view of the world--that all pieces of the world intersect with everything else.

One might scour the earth and dredge up philosophers from the beginning of the keeping of records, and not find an abler defender of integration than Wendell Berry. Although even the small number of readers who know him--one reviewer quipped that only three per cent of Americans had ever bought a book, and of them, only 5,000 had ever heard of Berry--might not normally associate the seemingly contrary and agrarian and small-is-beautiful writing teacher and farmer from Kentucky with energy, the intersection is as natural as the choice between plowing with horses or plowing with tractors.

Before we delve into Berry's oeuvre, however, we should listen to the thinker's deep conception of connection. In his preface to Home Economics, he writes, "(T)his book continue(s) an attempt to construct an argument that I began twenty or so years ago. The subject of the argument is the fact, and ultimately the faith, that things connect--that we are wholly dependent on a pattern, an all-inclusive form, that we partly understand. The argument, therefore, is an effort to describe responsibility."

He goes on to note the impossibility of finding a 'verdict,' even the absurdity of such a notion, yet "I keep returning to it, I think, because the study of connections is an endless fascination, and because the understanding of connections seems to me an indispensable part of humanity's self defense." In this age of so many looming 'peaks,' which might easily augur troughs from which our progeny will never emerge whole, we ought to listen to this wise man's words about survival--they speak directly to the possibility and shape of doing "Business--Better."


wberryCalling Wendell Berry a prolific producer is akin to calling the Pacific Ocean a substantial body of water. One can get a small sense of this incisive wordsmith's truly vast productivity here. Leaving aside the chilling fire of his poetry and the precision with which he yields a critical scalpel, and only touching on his substantial body of fiction, the reader can ascertain the outlines of Berry's evolving message to his cousins from his essays.

From the start, his dispatches have concerned fidelity and responsibility, especially in marriage, especially in families. He writes,

"What marriage offers - and what fidelity is meant to protect - is the possibility of moments when what we have chosen and what we desire are the same. Such a convergence obviously cannot be continuous. No relationship can continue very long at its highest emotional pitch. But fidelity prepares us for the return of these moments, which give us the highest joy we can know; that of union, communion, atonement (in the root sense of at-one-ment)..."

But this is not some isolated faithfulness, an "I got you babe!" stance over against the world. Berry's work has persistently emphasized the critical conjunction of human community and humane economy with a man's and a woman's choice of each other.

Wendell Berry's definition of community has become the standard in many contexts: "... the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature."

The impact of energy on community ought to be clear, at least to my readers. As one commentator put the matter, only a "composite of such vital local communities ... will constitute a sustainable society. ...It is at the community level (including families and individuals), and only at the community level, that the definition of sustainable society can inform appropriate actions equal to the magnitude of the problems we face. (We can) believe... that people have the capacity to believe in such a society and to choose to act for its creation."

The energy hook is even clearer in economic matters. Berry has written about this extensively. And he has made the point as clear as polished lenses with his recent withdrawal of his private papers from the University of Kentucky, despite its being his alma mater, because the University had once again deepened its ties with coal companies.

One may find Berry's provocative pointers about economics in many places in his prose, such as this one. "In a society in which nearly everybody is dominated by somebody else's mind or by a disembodied mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn the truth about the activities of governments and corporations, about the quality or value of products, or about the health of one's own place and economy.

In such a society, also, our private economies will depend less and less upon the private ownership of real, usable property, and more and more upon property that is institutional and abstract, beyond individual control, such as money, insurance policies, certificates of deposit, stocks, and shares. And as our private economies become more abstract, the mutual, free helps and pleasures of family and community life will be supplanted by a kind of displaced or placeless citizenship and by commerce with impersonal and self-interested suppliers... .Thus, although we are not slaves in name, and cannot be carried to market and sold as somebody else's legal chattels, we are free only within narrow limits. For all our talk about liberation and personal autonomy, there are few choices that we are free to make."

Thus, the productive choices that polities make today limit community which attenuates the potential for fulfilling relationship. Such a devolutionary spiral is both explicit, as in the corporate employee's 'lifestyle,' which prohibits having a home place, and implicit, as in the 'Reality TV' notion that all are at war with each and that no one will ever be trustworthy.

As important as this type of thought is in Berry's work, however, he actually starts at an even more fundamental level. The earth is our origin, our succor, and our destination, and our agricultural practices thereby underpin whatever else we propose to do. Coequal with his work as a writer and sage/teacher, perhaps precedent to it, is his nearly five decades of farming a piece of Kentucky overlooking the Ohio River.

In a recent Sun Magazine interview, Berry tied oil and farming together in one of the innumerable ways that farms and fuels conjoin.


"Cities attract food products from the countryside the same way that a major stream attracts water from the smaller streams in a watershed. A foodshed would be the tributary landscape around a city from which the city’s food would come. It goes back to the ancient concept of the city as a gathering point for the products of its landscape. And since we haven’t had cheap petroleum for a while — and we’re probably not going to have it ever again — we need to think this way once more. Sooner or later, we’re not going to be able to afford to haul food in from everywhere in the world."

And Berry's point is that sustainable agriculture is not only possible but also economically sensible, ecologically necessary, and socially benevolent. It's also democratic, of course, at the very least in a Jeffersonian sort of way and arguably at a much deeper level of how a community must operate, people alongside each other and always and obviously interdependent.

But as he and his decade's long friend from the Land Institute, Wes Jackson, make clear in a New York Times editorial eighteen months back, even a pretense of sustainability is now absent from agribusiness practices. Moreover, they point out,

"Soil that is used and abused in this way is as nonrenewable as (and far more valuable than) oil. Unlike oil, it has no technological substitute — and no powerful friends in the halls of government."

Berry amplifies his vision of agriculture under siege in talking with Jeff Fearnside.

Fearnside: If what you’re talking about is natural (good husbandry), how did we stray from it in the first place?
Berry: It’s not natural; it’s a conscious, deliberate imitation of natural processes. The farm imitates the diversity of the forest.
Fearnside: So you’re talking about farming more as an art than a science.
Berry: It’s both. Art is a way of making, and science is a way of knowing.

You’re never going to escape the need for either one; you’ve got to have a certain amount of knowledge, and you’ve got to have a certain amount of art. You’ve got to know how to make a thing — whether it’s a crop or a novel — and you’ve got to have a way of making it.

This notion of husbanding resources, or developing responsible practices of stewardship, is at the root of Berry's radical and conservative thinking, just as his beliefs about integrity and community are the source of his opinions favoring democracy. One reason that being a husband to the earth is radical is that it is almost anti-entropic. Soil gets richer. Life becomes more sustainable, which seems to violate some folks' favorite law of thermodynamics.

soil_erosion_with_roots-18Current practice notwithstanding, according to Berry. "Actually, though at present we are using topsoil as a finite quantity, as long as you keep it in place, take proper care of it, observe the law of return, and balance the forces of growth and decay, topsoil is an infinite resource. "

Integrity and fidelity, community and fellowship, democracy and potency, all depend on sustainable relationships with the earth. In Berry's view, and Wes Jackson's too, if we stray far enough and long enough from this path of wisdom, we will get what we deserve. "Thoughtful farmers and consumers everywhere are already making many necessary changes in the production and marketing of food. But we also need a national agricultural policy that is based upon ecological principles. We need a 50-year farm bill that addresses forthrightly the problems of soil loss and degradation, toxic pollution, fossil-fuel dependency and the destruction of rural communities. This is a political issue, certainly, but it far transcends the farm politics we are used to. It is an issue as close to every one of us as our own stomachs."

The subsequent portion of this essay takes a set of Wendell Berry's books and digests pieces of them for readers. Insodoing, folks perusing this material will see further development of Berry's main points and find further fodder for their own thinking about what 'business-better' has to mean in relation to energy and other policies that we mean to be truly sustainable.


Wendell Berry, one of those thinkers whose prolificity stems from a profound love of his family and farm and neighbors, could take eternities to process, in part because, as much as a man is capable, Berry parses eternity for his readers in seemingly innumerable and yet intricately interrelated ways. Here, at the heart of the current presentation, readers can discover three especially important works of a thinker who produced hardly a syllable of nonsense in a long career.

The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture-----

The central underlying premise of this volume shows up over and over in Berry's work. "Everything in the Creation is related to everything else and dependent on everything else." This critical examination of contemporary America starts with the notion of a 'false mobility.'

"It is extremely difficult to exalt the usefulness of any productive discipline as such in a society that is at once highly stratified and highly mobile. Both the stratification and the mobility are based upon notions of prestige, which are in turn based upon these reliquary social fashions." Herein lies the proximate cause of chaotic crisis just now, this 'unsettling.'

p-hilton-18"But in order to complete an understanding of the modern disconnection between work and value, it is necessary to see how certain 'aristocratic' ideas of status and leisure have been institutionalized in this system of education. This is one of the liabilities of the social and political origins not only of our own nation, but of most of the 'advanced' nations of the world." A fault-line in the bedrock of character, the valuing of labor and craft and all that goes with it, infects all and sundry.

(T)he popularization of the more superficial upper-class values: leisure, etiquette (as opposed to good manners), fashion, everyday dressing up and a kind of dietary persnicketiness" run rampant. "Among the people as a whole, the focus of interest has largely shifted from the household to the automobile; the ideals of workmanship and thrift have been replaced by the goals of leisure, comfort, and entertainment. For Henry County (his home) plays its full part in what Maurice Telleen calls 'the world's first broad- based hedonism.'"

But this 'crisis of character' cannot help but further the decimation of agriculture, which yields the farming roots of ecological meltdown. He examines his home base, but the same factors and developments are in place all across this broad and once fertile land.

"The land is falling more and more into the hands of speculators and professional people from the cities, who--in spite of all the scientific agricultural miracles--still have much more money than farmers. Because of big technology and big economics, there is more abandoned land ... than ever before. Many of the better farms are visibly deteriorating, for want of manpower and time and money to maintain them properly. ... Few of the farmers' children will be able to afford to stay on the farm-- perhaps even fewer will wish to do so, for it will cost too much, require too much work and worry, and it is hardly a fashionable ambition."

In the name of 'reform,' small holdings face one body blow after another, though the modern 'Jungle' of agribusiness hardly represents a pristine plantation, what with salmonella in eggs, e-coli and liver destroying mold in peanut butter. "And nowhere now is there a market for minor produce: a bucket of cream, a hen, a few dozen eggs. ... Those markets were done away with in the name of sanitation--but, of course, to the enrichment of the large producers. We have always had to have 'a good reason' for doing away with small operators, and in modern times the good reason has often been sanitation, for which there is apparently no small or cheap technology. Future historians will no doubt remark upon the inevitable association, with us, between sanitation and filthy lucre. And it is one of the miracles of science and hygiene that the germs that used to be in our food have been replaced by poisons."

What underpins this crisis in culture is worship of a future Valhalla, in which the 'Big Rock Candy Mountain' comes to fruition. The putrid stupidity of such fantasies, notwithstanding, its hooks are solidly implanted in many breasts. "Back to the Future" was an apt title for a film about fantastical visions of curing the present.

"But the only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present. When supposed future needs are used to justify misbehavior in the present, as is the tendency with us, then we are both perverting the present and diminishing the future. But the most prolific source of justification for exploitive behavior has been the future. The exploitive mind characteristically puts itself in charge of the future. The future is a time that cannot conceivably be reached except by industrial progress and economic growth. The future, so full of material blessings, is nevertheless threatened with dire shortages of food, energy, and security unless we exploit the earth even more 'freely,' with greater speed and less caution." This plunder extends to "anything that can be shipped home and sold."

tractor-18And of course, central to this 'future paradise,' and central to Berry's volume is "The Use of Energy." One commentator relates this portion of the book the the whole thus. "Of course his book also includes critical essays on the abuse of chemical fertilizers - their negative impact on the land, and the pollution they cause from runoff. Also included is the astronimical harm caused by leaving fields barren and the consequential erosion of top soil, and a chapter on the abuse of energy, specifically fossil fuels, but more interesting to me are how he ties together these problems with our inherant social and cultural ideals. For instance, he makes a point of critiquing the modern human concept of “the future” as a utopian fantasy brought true by the saving graces of technological advancement."Berry puts this downward spiral in an interesting psychological context. In rebellion against repressive regimes that thwarted our nature, we now cling to a new paradigm, equally barren, and, because it has so much fuel and technique behind it, incalculably more dangerous.

"We have been unable to see the difference between this kind of restraint--a cultural response to an understood practical limit--and the obscure, self-hating, self-congratulating Victorian self- restraint, of which our attitudes and technologies of sexual 'freedom' are merely the equally obscure other side. This so-called freedom fragments us and turns us more vehemently and violently than before against our own bodies and against the bodies of other people."

Thus, this volume accounts for many of the collisions of 'disaster capitalism.' And one might read the painfully accurate depictions of decline with a sense of doom. But this does not describe how Berry sees it.

In the Afterword, he writes as follows. "In The Unsettling of America I argue that industrial agriculture and the assumptions on which it rests are wrong, root and branch; I argue that this kind of agriculture grows out of the worst of human history and the worst of human nature. . . . Every good and perfect gift comes from politicians, scientists, researchers, governments, and corporations. Evils, however, are inevitable... . Thus all industrial comforts and labor- saving devices are the result only of human ingenuity and determination (not to mention the charity and altruism that have so conspicuously distinguished the industrial subspecies for the past two centuries), but the consequent pollution, land destruction, and social upheaval have been 'inevitable.' . . . That is to say that what happened happened because it had to happen. Thus the apologist for the ruin of agricultural lands, economies, and communities have shown always that they did nothing to stop it because there was nothing they could have done to stop it. . . . But if the publication of The Unsettling of America and subsequent events have shown me that throwing a rock into a frozen river does not make a ripple, they have also shown that beneath the ice the waters are strongly Dairy farmers protest, Brussels, 5th of Oct. 2009flowing and stirred up and full of nutrients. Beneath the cliches of official science and policy, our national conversation about agriculture is more vigorous and exciting now than it has been since the 1930s."

What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth-----

Here, Berry practices the art of the essay to magnificent effect. He is especially skillful in illustrating the way that, under the present regime, we choose our own chains. We have the liberty to obtain them in multiple colors; they sparkle with delightful baubles.

“The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free. The Economy does not take people’s freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom.”

One reviewer shows that Berry appeals to logic, morality, and empirical evidence to reveal the links in this modern chain dance of death. From the chapter, "Faustian Economics," this author notes that we can see that "Berry is a farmer who sees the world from a literal ground level. ...(H)e contends, 'The real names of global warming are ‘waste’ and ‘greed.'' He has no tolerance for the conspicuous consumer, accusing him of not only 'Prodigal extravagance' but also of having 'an assumed godly limitlessness.' These are accusations that would not sting so much if they weren’t true."

This kind of social compact means that as we seek ever more prodigal means of obtaining energy, we will have less and less power and integrity as individuals, in communities barren of value and joy.

"The irony bears noting, by the way, that in our energy deal with the devil – only the most recent downside of which is the horrendous catastrophe now killing the Gulf of Mexico – the dirty, pollution-prone fuels come from the depths, while the sustainable, clean fuels come from the heavens. Yet we insist upon more of everything now, guaranteeing a whirlwind harvest, a condemned future. A Faustian bargain indeed."

bad-house-18Another writer emphasizes the 'household' metaphor that Berry employs in the volume. "In What Matters? Wendell Berry gathers new essays along with writings spanning the last quarter-century. 'The 'environmental crisis,'' he writes, 'has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of 'raw materials,' and that we may safely possess those materials merely by taking them. This taking, as our technical means have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less gratitude, less knowledge, and less skill."

At a commencement speech at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, Berry delivered ten commands about 'what matters,' if we are to leave our children a viable home that fits within nature's limits.

1. Beware the justice of Nature.
2. Understand that there can be no successful human economy apart from Nature or in defiance of Nature.
3. Understand that no amount of education can overcome the innate limits of human intelligence and responsibility. We are not smart enough or conscious enough or alert enough to work responsibly on a gigantic scale.
4. In making things always bigger and more centralized, we make them both more vulnerable in themselves and more dangerous to everything else. Learn, therefore, to prefer small-scale elegance and generosity to large-scale greed, crudity, and glamour.
5. Make a home. Help to make a community. Be loyal to what you have made.
6. Put the interest of the community first.
7. Love your neighbors--not the neighbors you pick out, but the ones you have.
8. Love this miraculous world that we did not make, that is a gift to us.
9. As far as you are able make your lives dependent upon your local place, neighborhood, and household--which thrive by care and generosity--and independent of the industrial economy, which thrives by damage.
10. Find work, if you can, that does no damage. Enjoy your work. Work well.
I have said consistently in these pages that no 'simple answer' to our problems is available. But Wendell Berry's simple advice certainly bears repeating, and repeatedly posting to ourselves, and speaking to anyone whom we hold dear.

The Way of ignorance-----

Berry's has said more than once that "having hope is hard; harder as you get older." His is the humility of the farmer, whom nature has toyed with, whom governments have tried to trick, who has watched as his beloved home has diminished until it seemed as if it might wear away altogether. In such a context of hard times made harder by the natural cycles and economic cycles that attend life and choice, the 'modern' response has been 'to help.'

“The corporate approach to agriculture or manufacturing or medicine or war increasingly undertakes to help at the risk of harm, sometimes of great harm. And once the risk of harm is appraised as “acceptable,” the result often is absurdity: We destroy a village in order to save it; we destroy freedom in order to save it; we destroy the world in order to live in it."

As usual, insightful and supportive commentary rained down around the volume. One observer noted that a cataclysmic result "need not be so, of course, and it isn’t so everywhere. Berry describes many cases where a sort of smart antiquarianism has yielded impressive results, results worth replicating in the wider economy. But one of the more striking aspects of Berry’s ethic of responsibility is its generosity and openness. Even some of our notable efforts to correct for past destruction need to be challenged: reliable land-health indicators that measure viability in soil, water quality, vegetation, biodiversity, and regenerative potential often indicate that mixed-use land management strategies are more successful than the preservationist paradigm that grew out of the wild-fuzzy-18Wilderness Act of 1964. Through the mechanism of positive disturbance, responsibly logged forests and orderly ranched prairies might end up in better shape ecologically than the wilderness preserves adjacent to them. Not all environmentalists will want to hear it, to be sure, but purity is more likely than not a guilt-induced delusion, encouraging overcompensation and new extremes, whose ends are badly defined and little understood, partly because by corralling off a chunk of landscape, we perpetuate human ignorance of its internal logic and render it inaccessible."

Part of the miracle of Berry's labors is that he ends up speaking to everyone except a died-in-the-wool 'Master-of-the-Universe' corporate strategist cum gangster. Republicans and libertarians and Reds and Pinks and liberals all find his ideas shocking attractive. He provokes and probes so deeply that one cannot resist contemplation.

To read Wendell Berry is to undergo a mind-opening experience for almost everybody. As one clearly right-wing reader wrote, "I have such respect for Berry as a thinker that each time he hints at a political solution I have to put aside my gut reaction against it and think carefully about what he is saying, and why he is saying it. Over time I’ve concluded that my disagreements with him in this area are not profound; I mostly agree that the problems he names are problems, and I mostly agree that the changes he suggests are needed changes. We only disagree on the chances that politics might have a positive effect in these areas—he thinks slim, I think none. That’s hardly enough to break fellowship over."

The resonance that Berry brings to us is the resonance of a life-affirming caution, a manly humility that insists on making an attempt at redress, to each other and to the planet that is our home, and our mother.

"(D)o what we will, we are never going to be free of mortality, partiality, fallibility, and error. The extent of our knowledge will always be, at the same time, the measure of the extent of our ignorance. Because ignorance is thus a part of our creaturely definition, we need an appropriate way: a way of ignorance, which is the way of neighborly love, kindness, caution, care, appropriate scale, care, good work, right livelihood. Creatures who have armed themselves with the power of limitless destruction should not be following any way laid out by their limited knowledge and their unseemly pride in it."


This brief overview of some of Berry's work here will expand over time. His thinking arguably matters as much as anyone's does now in achieving a useful democratic and grassroots understanding of energy concerns.

Still, a measure of critical distance might cause a critical reader to discern certain areas in which this spiritually attuned philosopher of the material world might benefit from further input. In particular, the following five aspects of understanding our current pass arguably need some shoring up in relation to Berry's deep thinking and prodigious output. In all of the following cases save one, Berry's utility to thinkers about energy matters would upgrade were he to follow a course such as that here outlined.

*In relation to the general parameters of his community, and of the real value of communities that are conscious of themselves as communities, Wendell Berry is unsurpassable. But he acknowledges a hazy grasp of history, of how particular communities evolved as they did, unfolded to yield the present pass in identifiable ways that are important to consider.

zinn-18Howard Zinn and various other democratically inclined annalists--especially those interested in the history of science--would be extremely helpful in contextualizing Berry's work in terms of the past. Lacking such interweaving of present insight with bygone patterns, such difficulties as romanticization are always likely to pop up; more importantly, one may often accept weaker arguments in support of one's position than would be supportable with appropriate understanding of how interrelated pasts have manifested the rich connections of the now.

*I have read no one who more richly and powerfully defends 'traditional marriage' than does Wendell Berry. However, he often finds himself at odds with women who, by all measure of heart and mindfulness, should be his closest allies.

This difficulty with 'feminist' thinking may be a preference, though I doubt that. His responses and impassioned perorations to unnamed critics have been too heartfelt to imagine that he delights in these battles. In part another problem of inadequate historical grounding, Berry would benefit from familiarizing himself with such thinkers as Riane Eisler and Camille Paglia. As venerable and wizened as he may be, at 76 years old, he should make a network with such folks a priority of his remaining years.

*A disclaimer here is in order. I am a social democrat. That should elicit a collective 'duh' from all readers who have paid much attention. I mention this because Wendell Berry repeatedly makes a case for the necessity of social democracy but speaks as if he finds the idea of social democracy sketchy at best.

In this regard, should the estimable genius from Kentucky ever turn his mind to thoughts such as these, he might in particular pay attention to a trio of thinkers with whom he would almost certainly find himself in agreement most of the time. Michael Hardt's and Antonio Negri's Commonwealth certainly defends social democracy on the basis of community as Berry conceives it, in any event. And Benjamin Barber's Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, offers approaches that Berry would find apt in his fierce commitment to 'self-defense' at the community level, and again, this occurs in Barber's work in a way sympathetic to social democracy.

*No thinker alive now, and perhaps no thinker over the course of our collective human annals, has mounted a fiercer commitment to, and clearer conception of, community than has Wendell Berry. Paradoxically, then, the strongest admonition of his work is possible in the vicinity of how communities can defend and capacitate themselves.

Berry decries the forces that eviscerate and attenuate community power and cohesion, but so far as I can tell, his answer to this is a laissez faire sensibility, along with a powerful faith in the New Testament gospels and the attendant teachings of the revolutionary Nazarene whom most Christian churches hide shamefacedly in some sacrosanct 'sanctuary' on Sundays and otherwise.

While Berry conveys both his lamentations and his faith beautifully, they do not satisfy me. Nor, I would contend, do they offer much other than comfort in regard to transforming the patterns of plutocratic plunder that currently prevail. In this regard, I recommend that Berry, and those who find his work compelling, also familiarize themselves with two other thinkers whose ideas and methods should be entirely salubrious for those who believe in powerful communities.

pedagogy of the oppressed, fair usePaolo Freire's The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,the conceptual foundation for Community Education practices that lead to robust potential for community 'self-defense,' should be de rigeur for the likes of Berry. While Jurgen Habermas, whose Knowledge and Other Human Interests lays the basis for the use of dialogic democracy principles as one path toward community power, is more of a stretch, the social technology that flows from this fellow's thinking is of critical import in addressing the problems that Berry so lucidly identifies.

My estimation of the power of Wendell Berry influence is not diminished by these brief observations. On the other hand, if these insights have at least a tinge of accuracy, then they do proffer a plausibly useful critique of his thinking, calling for expansion, redirection, congruent development.

Nevertheless, as a launching pad for contemplating the exigencies of community in action, and as a guide to the basic necessity for transforming our relations with the world and with each other in the world, no one surpasses Wendell Berry. Thinkers and scholars and communities worldwide recognize this precious prescience.

An Australian commentator wrote, "In 'Life is a Miracle', Wendell Berry urges us to begin a 'conversation out of school.' Believing we are on a course of arrogant and dangerous behavior in science and other intellectual disciplines, this proclamation against modern superstition recommends a shift in priorities and goals. Berry observes, 'it is clearly bad for the sciences and the arts to be divided into 'two cultures.' It is bad for scientists to be working without a sense of obligation to cultural tradition. It is bad for artists and scholars in the humanities to be working without a sense of obligation to the world beyond the artifacts of culture.' They must be the subjects of one complex conversation." In other words, a continued dualism dooms us.

Berry's inclination is to continue past the always apt critique of dualism, which must ever yield a chauvinist sense of scientific supremacy over all other modes of comprehension. This elevation of science is understandable, and neither Berry nor those who consider themselves to be considering matters in like manner as he does would rid the world of scientific approaches.

no-computer-18In his famous essay, "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer", he explicitly links such choices with energy issues.

"Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work, I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with a pencil or a pen and a piece of paper."

Many people, this author included, responded sharply to the reprinting of this article in Harper's Magazine. Many labeled him a Luddite, or worse. But this is not fair, as a closer and deeper reading of his work makes clear. He is no more anti-science than he is anti knowledge.

He does insist on a scientific credo, however, as in this Sun interview excerpt, that begins with humility.

"The human definition of the natural world is always going to be too small, because the world’s more diverse and complex than we can ever know. We’re not going to comprehend it; it comprehends us. The question is whether we can use it with respect. Some people in the past who knew very little biology were able to use the land without destroying it. We, who know a great deal of biology, are destroying our land in order to use it."

In a related vein, in regard to academic work generally, Berry again and again returns to the necessity of seeing the whole as a unity, even though we are capable of breaking it into definite pieces that we can study separately. Atomism must always yield problems, not only very likely unavoidable errors, but orientations that are disruptive, if not downright destructive, of human relationships with nature.

"There’s real concern for the context of the work being done in the universities today. The assumption that professors can concern themselves only with their specialties, and that the results will somehow be used for good, is bankrupt, shot. Too many bad results have come of well-intentioned work. The old intellectual structure is breaking down. Academic life is going to have to rearrange itself so that it can deal with consequences and responsibilities. The shallow optimism of the specialist system is no longer tenable."

Finally, although Berry himself would probably wind down where he begins, with farms and farmers and farming as community activities, an attentive reader might choose an alternate way to cap Berry's world view. Wendell Berry is a proud citizen of the United States, even as he sees the way that government now participates in multitudinous assaults on community integrity, capacity, and rights.

He is not so much a Democrat as a democrat, one who believes in majority rule because it yields sustainable freedoms instead of the laying waste that accompanies egregious individualism. "The great enemy of freedom is the alignment of political power with wealth. This alignment destroys the commonwealth - that is, the natural wealth of localities and the local economies of household, neighborhood, and community - and so destroys democracy, of which the commonwealth is the foundation and practical means."


Wendell Berry combines capacious gifts with words of many sorts. Able to find the thread that an expert uses to threaten and dismiss the fabric of a community's concerns, he displays his pugilistic skills in sticking up for those who doubt the overweening all-knowing predominance of a scientistic elite.

Again, this has nothing to do with disdain for science, which he embraces repeatedly as a superior way of knowing, albeit he mistrusts anyone who would call it the superior methodology, or the only way to understand the world. He would also point out, with complete scientific veracity, that it can never be even a way to comprehend completely all that occurs around us. Whatever forms he uses to shape the words that accomplish his work, Berry evinces the soul of a poet.

Some scientists and policy wonks approach poets as they would a particularly loathsome variety of vermin, or as they might a strange, and possibly dangerous, alien life form. I would advise citizens to be very wary of such naysayers. More than ever, we need poetry and mythos in order to manage the transitions that nature is mandating that we make, for example, in regard to our methods of creating useful energy.

Berry warns us of the standard methods of the past half century or so by explicating them so clearly that we shudder in recognition.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

He parries the coal company lawyers and the nuclear bureaucrats who would preen themselves as 'authorities' on matters of environmental impacts, possible harms, and community fears. He is fully capable of empiricism, of the quick fact in retort to a dubious assertion. But his greatest strengths are conceptual. He grasps the whole of things that scientists want us to believe is merely the aggregation of its disassembled parts.

firehouse-18He compels us to listen, because the truth that he utters is the truth of doubt, which is ineluctable given that, even at the highest expression of collectivity, we do not come close to approximating whatever forces, be they conscious or not, actuate all that is. "The only science that we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is always involved with human ignorance and human error."

In illuminating these matters so tellingly, Berry does much more than propound an undeniable interrelatedness that the modern canon would have us view in truncated form and believe that we might thereby comprehend the actuality entire. He puts the notion of 'knowing' in proper relation with what we actually are.

In such a view, any claim to objectivity is, at best, a pretentious error. We must seek a stance that does not stem from prejudging or bigotry. Otherwise, intellectual honesty is nonexistent, and the long knives, or something vastly more lethal and finally dispositive, will soon decide all issues in contention. But we can never leave behind either our inclinations or the place that we inhabit to make a judgment.

In the Home Economics entry, "The Loss of the University," Berry discusses these issues--of the dangers of 'Truth,' as well as the dangers of dismissing truth-seeking, filled with a paradox that he presents with breathtaking acuity.

"(T)he fashionable lack of interest in the question among university teachers... of (what is true) frighten(s) me. ...I am more frightened when this disinterest, under the alias of 'objectivity,' is given the status of a public virtue. Objectivity...means (to) stud(y) or teach one's subject...without concern for its relation to other subjects or the world--that is, without concern for its truth."

"Thus," put another way, "if teachers aspire to the academic virtue of objectivity, they must teach as if their subject has nothing to do with anything beyond itself." The risk of such a deconstruction, in addition to occasional contextual nonsense of monumental proportion, is profound. For, "(t)he issue of truth rises out of the comparison of one thing with another, out of the study of the relations between one thing and another and between one thing and many others."

Nuclear proponents and those who tout 'objectivity' in our energy policy's 'necessitation' of centralized and highly capitalized modalities, for example, can in this way deride both the cancer concerns of communities consisting primarily of technical neophytes and the vast majority of citizens who want more funding for small scale solar technologies. They haven't the data, which can only exist in the context that the experts control, so their worries mean, at most, something psychological.

wb-miracle-18In the slender volume, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Berry develops the razor of his argument to a highly honed edge. He is addressing the ambitions that such sociobiologists as E.O. Wilson have held to manifest the human future, most recently in Wilson's volume, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.

Wendell Berry notes, without vitriol or asperity, but in a way that resonates with warning, "Mr. Wilson is perfectly frank about his territorial ambitions. He wishes to see all the disciplines linked or unified--but strictly on the basis of science. Non scientists are not invited to the negotiations, or at least they are not to participate on their own terms: 'The key to the exchange between {the sciences and the arts} is...reinvigoration of interpretation with the knowledge of science and its proprietary sense of the future.'"

Berry continues, in a way that should 'shiver the timbers' of any people who might represent 'colonial' territory for elite experts and their policy enforcement apparatus. "(I)f you have any doubts as to the political and economic implications of modern science and of Mr. Wilson's advocacy, consider the following: 'Governmental and private patrons of the brain scientists, like royal geographical commissions of past centuries, are generous. They know that history can be made by a single sighting of coastland, where inland lies virgin land and the future lineaments of empire.'"

More than ever, democracy, community, and interrelated thinking are essential components of a human future that is plausible as human.

Photo Credits:
Wendell Berry: David Marshall
Money: Tracy Olson
Paris Hilton: christopherharte
Howard Zinn poster: Poster Boy
Boone: Historic Archive
Soil Roots: Dihan
Tractor: Elliot Brown
Farm Protest: Teemu Mantynen
Wilderness: Michael McCullough
No Computer: Dean Johnson
Factory Fire: LadyDragonfly
Hydroplant, Ruined House, Plutocrat Gallery: personal collection

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