I’ve recently re-read Wendell Berry's 2010 collection of essays, What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (Counterpoint). Berry--a farmer, agrarian champion, societal observer, essayist, poet--is inspirational! He challenges us to think clearly and substantively about what we mean by "economy" and how we, in our “modern world,” have failed to practice an economy that accounts for our life and well-being in our homes—on our planet and in our communities. He challenges our own personal responsibilities to reform our economy and restore a healthy environment. For instance, from “Money Versus Goods” (2009):
If "economy" means "management of a household" then we have a system of national accounting that bears no resemblance to the national economy whatsoever, for it is not the record of our life at home but the fever chart of our consumption. . . . As our economy has been showing us . . . we have become a nation of fantasists. . . . We think shopping is a patriotic act and a public service. We tolerate fabulous capitalists who think a bet on a debt is an asset. . . . (We need to) remember . . . that our lives depend upon the economics of land use, and that the land-using economies depend, in turn, on the ecosphere. It is a fact that we cannot have life or health or wealth apart from the health of the natural world—of land, water, and air. A further and more demanding fact is that land, water, and air cannot be healthful apart from a healthful human economy, beginning with farming, forestry, and mining. . . .”
What do Berry's words inspire in you as you think about economy and the state of our home? Send us an email! For more excerpts from Berry's collection, click on "Read More" below. . . and be sure to check out Berry's entire book. (Patronize your favorite local, independent bookstore to purchase a copy!) We also invite you to offer inspirational and thought-provoking essays from other southern writers.
More from "Money Versus Goods" (2009), in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (2010):
“My economic point of view is from ground-level. It is a point of view sometimes described as ‘agrarian.’ That means that in ordering the economy of a household or community or nation, I would put nature first, the economies of land use second, the manufacturing economy third, and the consumer economy fourth. . . ."
The first law of such an economy would be what agriculturalist Sir Albert Howard called ‘the law of return.’ This law requires that what is taken from nature must be given back. . . . The primary value in this economy would be the capacity of the natural and cultural systems to renew themselves. An authentic economy would be based upon renewable resources: land, water, ecological health. These resources, if they are to stay renewable in human use, will depend upon resources of culture that also must be kept renewable: accurate local memory, truthful accounting, continuous maintenance, un-wastefulness, and a democratic distribution of now-rare practical arts and skills. The economic virtues thus would be honesty, thrift, care, good work, generosity, and …imagination, from which we have compassion. That primary value and these virtues are essential to what we have been calling ‘sustainability’."
A properly ordered economy, putting nature first and consumption last, would start with the subsistence of household economy and proceed from that to the economy of markets. It would be the means by which people provide to themselves and to others the things necessary to support life: goods coming from nature and human work. It would distinguish between needs and mere wants, and it would grant a firm precedence to needs."
A proper economy, moreover, would designate certain things as ‘priceless.’ This would not be, as now, the ‘pricelessness’ of things that are extremely rare or expensive, but would refer to things of absolute value, beyond and above any price that could be set upon them by any market. (T)hings of absolute value would be fertile land, clean water and air, ecological health, and the capacity of nature to renew herself in the economic landscapes. Our nearest cultural precedent for this assignment of absolute value is biblical . . . Psalm 24 . . . Leviticus 25:23 . . . The rule of pricelessness clearly imposes certain limits upon the idea of land ownership. Owners would enjoy certain customary privileges . . . (b)ut they would be expected to use the land as its servants on behalf of all the living."
The present and now-failing economy is just about exactly opposite of the economy I have just described. . . . It has inverted the economic order that puts nature first. This economy is based upon consumption, which ultimately serves . . . but a tiny class of excessively wealthy people for whose further enrichment the economy is understood (by them) to exist. For purpose of their further enrichment, these plutocrats and the great corporations that serve them have controlled the economy by the purchase of political power. The purchased governments do not act in the interest of the governed and their country; they act instead as agents for the corporations. That this economy is consumption-based is revealed by the remedies now proposed for its failure: . . . more spending . . . eager to confuse wants with needs. . . . "
As for nature herself, virtually nobody . . . regards nature as an economic resource. Nature, especially where she has troubled herself to be scenic, is understood to have a recreational and perhaps an aesthetic value that is to some extent economic. But for her accommodation of our needs to eat, drink, breathe, and be clothed and sheltered, our industrial and financial systems grant her no recognition, honor, or care."
. . . We know from much experience that everything that is priced will sooner or later be sold, and from the accumulating statistics of soil loss, land loss, deforestation, overuse of water, various sorts of pollution, etc., we have reason to fear that everything that is sold will be ruined. . . . What we have been pleased to call our economy does not acknowledge and apparently does not recognize its continuing absolute dependence on the natural world, on the land economies, and on the work for farmers, ranchers, and foresters . . . (which) would be self-renewing. . . . At the same time, with a remarkable lack of foresight or even the sight to see what is presently obvious, this economy has made itself absolutely dependent on resources that are either exhaustible by nature or have been made exhaustible by our wastefulness and our refusal to husband and reuse . . . water . . . and fossil fuels made useful only by being destroyed. . . ."
In a consciously responsible economy such abuses would be inconceivable. They would not happen. To damage or destroy an otherwise permanent resource for the sake of a temporary advantage would be readily perceived as senseless by every practical measure and, by the measure of human wholeness, as insane. . . . If we put wants first, we put needs last. If we put consumption first, we put health last. If we put money first, we put food last. If for some spurious reason such as ‘economic growth’ or ‘economic recovery,’ we put people and their comfort first, before nature and the land-based economies, then nature sooner or later will put people last."
. . . The problem with ‘the economy’ is not only that it is anti-economic, destructive of the natural and human bases of any authentic economy, but that it has been out of control for a long time. . . . Decades of cheap labor, cheap energy, and cheap food (all more expensive than has been imaged) have allowed society to incorporate itself in a material structure that will have to be seen as top-heavy. . . ."
There is no good reason, economic or otherwise, to wish for the “recovery” and continuation of the economy we have had. There is no reason, really, to expect it to recover and continue, for it has depended too much on fantasy. An economy cannot ‘grow’ forever on limited resources. . . . Delusion and the future cannot serve forever as collateral. An untrustworthy economy dependent on trust cannot beguile the people’s trust forever...."
I do know that the human economy as a whole depends, as it always has, on nature and the land economy. The economy of land use is our link with nature. . . . Before we can make authentic solutions to the problems of credit and spending, we have got to begin by treating our land with the practical and effective love that alone deserves the name of patriotism. From now on, if we would like to continue here, our use of land will have to be ruled by the principles of stewardship and thrift, using as the one indispensable measure . . . ecological health….(and) increase significantly the number of people at work in the land economy. . . . And that is the authentic test of practicality, for it makes complete economic sense.”
And . . . from Berry's “The Total Economy” (2000), also in What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth (2010):
“The ‘environmental crisis’ 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 [human economy] 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 by merely taking them. This taking, as our technical means have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less gratitude, less local knowledge, and less skill. Our methodologies of land use have strayed from our old sympathetic attempts to imitate natural processes, and have come more and more to resemble the methodology of mining, even as mining itself has become more powerful technology and more brutal."
And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive a ‘environmental’ problems without correcting the economic oversimplification that caused them. This oversimplification is now either a matter of corporate behavior or behavior under the influence of corporate behavior. This is sufficiently clear to many of us. What is not sufficiently clear, perhaps to any of us, is the extent of our complicity, as individuals and especially as individual consumers, in the behavior of the corporations. . . ."
The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution to the ‘environmental crisis’ can be merely political—that the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated by a few people to whom we will give our proxies to police the economic proxies we have already given. . . ."
The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced, not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves. A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life. The ‘environmental crisis,’ in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies. . . . We have an ‘environmental crisis’ because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, the God-given, world."
. . . And so we have before us the spectacle of unprecedented ‘prosperity’ and ‘economic growth’ in a land of degraded farms, forests, ecosystems, and watersheds, polluted air, failing families, and perishing communities. This moral and economic absurdity exists for the sake of the allegedly ‘free’ market, the single principle of which is this: Commodities will be produced wherever they can be produced at the lowest cost and consumed wherever they will bring the highest price. . . ."
The ‘right’ of a corporation to exercise its economic power without restraint is construed, by the partisans of the ‘free market,’ as a form of freedom. . . . But the ‘free market’ idea [to make too cheap and sell too high] introduces . . . a sanction of an inequality that is not implicit in any idea of democratic liberty: namely that the ‘free market’ is freest to those who have the most money, and is not free at all to those with little or no money...."
. . . The land-using economies thus spiral downward as the money economy of the exploiters spirals upward. . . . In the land-using economies, production is further cheapened by destroying, with low prices and low standards of quality, the cultural imperatives for good work and land stewardship. This sort of exploitation, long familiar in the foreign and domestic colonialism of modern nations, has now become ‘the global economy,’ which is the property of a few supranational corporations….This idea of a global ‘free market’ economy, despite its obvious moral flaws and its dangerous practical weaknesses, is now the ruling orthodoxy of the age…."
The folly at the root of this foolish economy began with the idea that a corporation should be regarded, legally, as ‘a person.’ But the limitless destructiveness of this economy comes about precisely because a corporation is not a person. A corporation, essentially, is a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance…."
Unsurprisingly, among people who wish to preserve things other than money—for instance, very region’s native capacity to produce essential goods—there is a growing perception that the global ‘free market’ economy is inherently an enemy to the natural world, to human health and freedom, to industrial workers, and to farmers and others in the land-use economies; and, furthermore, that it is inherently an enemy to good work and good economic practice. I believe that this perception is correct and can be shown to be correct…."
(P)eople are in danger of losing their economic security and their freedom, both at once….If the government does not propose to protect their lives, the livelihoods, and the freedoms of its people, then the people must think about protecting themselves….beginning with the idea of a local food economy… [and] to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature…. One begins to ask, What is here, what is in my neighborhood, what is in me, that can lead to something better?"
…. So far as I can see, the idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence….Of course, everything needed locally cannot be produced locally. But a viable neighborhood is a community, and a viable community is made up of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. This is the principle of subsistence. A viable community, like viable farm, protects its own production capacities….This principle of subsistence applies not just to localities, but to regions and nations as well."
…. The ‘free trade,’ which from the standpoint of the corporate economy brings ‘unprecedented economic growth,’ from the standpoint of the land and its local populations, and ultimately from the standpoint of the cities, is destruction and slavery. Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.”
Conservation, viewed in its entirety, is the slow and laborious unfolding of a new relationship between people and land.
There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers.
From the President
SCP President Chuck Roe looked at land conservation along the route of John Muir's "Southern Trek."
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