Resettling America – and the rest of the world as well (Part Two)

Posted April 15th, 2013 in Blog, Featured 1 Comment »

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish
[Okay, time constraints being what they are in reality, I’m only getting to Part Two of this essay today. Apologies to anyone waiting last week for the rest of this summary of the conference honoring Wendell Berry’s seminal work, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture.]

“It’s mighty hard to think of anything precious that is not in danger.” – Wendell Berry

So that first day of the 2013 Berry Conference focused on the theme, Resettling of America: Creating Cultural ChangeThat’s the day we wrote about in our last post. Day two focused on Resettling America: Coming Home. We pick up on that theme here.

In setting out the challenge on day one – the necessity of creating cultural change in order to stave off disaster – the prognosis for the planet and for our “way of life” laid out by virtually every presenter was pretty grim. Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council, picking up on comments made by other speakers, reminded us that we are coming to “the end of our fossil fuel binge.” As we approach this cliff unprepared, in our continued state of denial, the fears of where this will leave us were also expressed.

“I fear that we are approaching an ecological deficit from which we may never recover,” said FitzGerald.

Per person US eco demand and resource supply. These lines should not be going away from each other. Source: Global Footprint Network

Per person US eco demand and resource supply. Source: Global Footprint Network

Once this was considered to be needlessly shocking and scary language. Now most of us tuned in to these things nod our heads in a resigned assent – this is, for sure, the likelihood we confront now – because we are not yet prepared to end the binge. To end it by precipitous decline does not foretell a good future for humans and a lot of other species with which we share this planet.

He spoke of one of the underlying absurdities of our corporate, capitalist economies – that we allow the toxic waste of industrial civilization to be disposed of in our collective waterways, our waterways, not theirs. Presumed in this behavior, he said, is that “there is some inherent right to degrade the environment.”

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Photo: Margaret Swedish

I thought of this when reading this article from the NY Times Sunday Review section. Among the things we have “allowed” is the dumping of more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals into our environment, including our bodies, without being tested for safety. Now they are ubiquitous, present even in the bodies of babies as they are born into this world.

Why is this allowed? When did these corporations obtain the right to pollute and contaminate our water, soil, air, food, and even our very own bodies, without our permission, without any responsibility for the consequences? And why do the laws of capitalist economies trump our right not to be contaminated? When did we give away our waterways, our mountains and valleys, to industries that are destroying the natural world on which we depend for our existence?

So on Day Two we looked at what it would mean to “come home” again, to resettle in the places where we live. One of the necessary requirements is for us to end our restless consumer ways that have alienated us from “place,” and rediscover “home” as the space where we live, within the community of life right in the place where we are.

We have to learn to love these places again.

Bill Moyers and Wendell Berry - bob shiels

Photo: Robert Shiel

The heart of this day was a Bill Moyers interview with Berry, which will be aired at some point in the future. Moyers delved deeply into Berry’s philosophy of agrarianism and social change, and the result was an extraordinary exchange.

We settled this land, or unsettled it, with great savagery and violence, Berry reminded us. We tore into it with increasingly powerful tools and machines. “Our earth-wasting machines came faster than our love for the land.

“It’s not tolerable.” No, nor is it sustainable any longer. We are destroying the land, the soil and water, on which our lives depend. We are replacing them with chemicals and engineered systems that only exacerbate the long-term problem of the utter non-sustainability of the economy itself.

Economy and ecology are in gross conflict, and the one is destroying the other. Berry said to Moyers, the logic of capitalism is “you get as much of whatever it is you want by whatever means are available.” Now we see the result. The drivers of this economic system are leading us headlong at a rapidly accelerating rate to a terrible future.


Photo: Margaret Swedish

It was a privilege to witness this remarkable exchange between two of our cultural icons. As Moyers pointed out at the beginning, the two of them were born in 1934 just two months apart.  What they witnessed over these past 80 years, the history and how they have chosen to live within it, has made each of them a deep well full of wisdom and insight. Together, they practically glowed on the stage. The interview will be aired eventually, so watch for it on your local PBS stations.

“Life and our life within in it are conditional gifts,” said Berry. “We have to take care of it.”  But by any account, we have done a poor job of it. Berry would like to see more people able to return to the land, to replace the machines with real farmers, that once farmers were forced off the land and into the cities by the emergence of subsidized industrial agriculture, we lost touch with something essential to preserving land and ecosystems, along with our health and the health of our communities.

An example he used about waterways could be metaphor for every other economic activity in which we are engaged: “Do to those who live downstream from you what you would want someone living upstream to do to you.” If you applied a principle like this to our air, water, food, and soils, how differently would our human economy look right now?

“The problems are big,” he said, “but there are no big solutions.” In fact, most efforts to come up with big solutions, or to use engineering to solve the problems created by engineering, end up creating a whole host of new problems.  Instead, we have to look at multiple “small” solutions, like solving land abuse issues through small farmers working small parcels of land (rather then, for example, more industrial farming and genetically modifying crops).

Getting to know the creatures with whom I share my place. One of my neighbors.

Getting to know the creatures with whom I share my place. One of my neighbors.

We need to make common cause with the “place” where we are, learn it, and work with it over a long period of time, something we U.S. Americans have long forgotten how to do – to live anywhere for a long enough period of time to know it, which takes more than a lifetime, more than a single generation. When we uprooted indigenous cultures, we also uprooted memory about how to live in these places.

Moyers challenged Berry on the urgency of our predicament and how long it will take to make such a transformation: “But do we have the time?” he asked.  To which Berry responded, “We don’t have the right to ask that question.” The real question is, “What is the right thing to do? What is necessary?”

So then, what is the meaning of the phrase, “Resettling America,” the theme of this conference? Berry says it means putting enough people on the land to take proper care of it, and then to pay them decently for doing it.” People left the land because they couldn’t make a living – “an indictment of our land policy.”  This, he said, is the result of a wrong idea of what it means to “make a living.”

And here is where Berry says what for me is the essential, radical, and profound challenge to the culture of capitalist economies in which we are so sadly embedded:

“To make a living means to have enough.”

When we fully internalize this, when we understand this deeply, not just in our rational brains but in the heart, in community, in friendship and solidarity with all that is, everything will change. Everything.

In challenging Berry on this business of hope – because for all the effort so many put into change, the failures still mount, the drivers toward ecological disaster remain in place, and the temptation to despair can be so great – Moyers posed this question. “What do you get out of it?” To which Berry replied:

“The great payoff is not in knowing you’re going to succeed but in the great companionship of people you admire and love.”

What did we accomplish?

“We accomplished friendship.”

So, to the quote with which we began this second essay:

“It’s mighty hard to think of anything precious that is not in danger…Maybe that danger reveals the preciousness of it and shows us our duty.”

Yes. Our sense of vocation now for the human, of mission and reason to get out of bed in the morning, to find meaning and real significance for our lives, may well be in what the danger reveals to us – and then finding our duty, our responsibility, our motivation, our “cause,” in what it reveals to us.

Wes Jackson of The Land Institute chimed in again in a panel that followed the interview. To resettle America, he said, “will take more intimacy, sharing labor with one another, a kind of engagement we once had” on the land before we contracted out to the “hired person” and to the corporate owners of the land and agri-industry. And “it will take knowing where you are.”

“Resettling means dropping our monoculture mind.” It will take “people who know the ecological mosaic, the relationships, and people who know again how to do it,” to farm and care for the land, to live simply within our appropriate place within the eco-communities in which we live.

Finally, this last word from Wendell Berry:

“We take care of the future by doing the right thing today. It spares us worry.”

Today, I am committing to that – to learning more and more how to spare myself worry by doing the right thing this very day.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

One Response

  1. Luane Todd

    Thank you for a very good recap of the Berry Conference.