Wendell Berry’s Thoughts On ‘Our Only World’

It’s a shame Wendell Berry’s new book of essays, Our Only World, has received scant recognition from reviewers. Not that the media have failed to acknowledge the work, just that they have all printed the same review by Kevin Begos of the Associated Press—a good review, but sadly singular.

Spiritual kin as well as an associate of Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey through Wallace Stegner’s Stanford writing class, the Kentucky-born poet-philosofarmer deserves more attention. His informed and deftly crafted prose alone recommends him, but also in this book Berry directly takes on the greatest of civilization’s recent enemies—climate change.

Begos finds Berry’s latest effort “filled with beautiful, compassionate writing and careful, profound thinking.” I do, too. Its constituent parts:

  • Wendell Berry's Our Only WorldParagraphs from a Notebook
  • The Commerce of Violence
  • A Forest Conversation
  • Local Economies to Save the Land and the People
  • Less Energy, More Life
  • Caught In the Middle
  • On Receiving One of the Dayton Peace Prizes
  • Our Deserted Country
  • For the 50-Year Farm Bill
  • On Being Asked for “A Narrative for the Future”

Well known as a foe of thoughtless resource extraction, Berry takes on industrial farming and forestry in this latest work. He argues that the extreme technologies humans have now achieved “barter the long-term health and fertility, which is to say the long-term productivity, of local ecosystems for a short-term monetary gain.” The destruction of locally based household economies and the conversion of large numbers of small independent producers into entirely dependent consumers, for whom everything needed must be purchased (not cultivated), severs the link between people and the land.

Hear the Kentucky “mad farmer” discuss his hopes for humanity and read from his landmark book, The Unsettling of America, at a conference held at Saint Katharine’s College and rare television interview with Bill Moyers of Public Affairs Television.

Berry has the authority to make remarks like “a healthy forest contributes to the health of the soil, water, air, and all other constituents of the natural world.” He’s not only an essayist, he’s also a boots-on-the-ground expert. For example, here’s how he describes a successful forest management technique:

“Clearly, no patch of forest could have been so steadily productive for so many years if it had not been knowingly and carefully logged. And in fact this was an excellent demonstration of the results, over time, of worst-first single tree selection. The last cutting had been recent, the tops of the stumps were still bright and unweathered, and yet you could see immediately that the forest in that place was ecologically whole. There were no too-large openings in the canopy. The remaining trees were of a diversity of sizes, from large to small. None of the remaining trees had been damaged by the felling or skidding. Because the skidding had been done with horses, the ground had been only slightly scarred. The skid trails would mostly disappear by the next year.”

For Berry, as for emerging land managers, “the issue of land use, and of good land use, is not on the agenda of most conservation organizations, which have been primarily concerned throughout their history with the preservation of wilderness and wildlife habitat, even though most land is being used, and used badly, and though no wilderness or wildlife can survive the prolonged abuse of the economic landscapes.”

Ever attempting balance (sometimes too often, in my mind), Berry says in “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People” that blaming big business for climate change isn’t enough, since “many of the needed changes will have to be made in individual lives, in families and households, and in local communities.” In other words, no excuses from anyone.

Another wag of the finger occurs “On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,’” where Berry details the damage posed by global warming. He pokes at the “millions of environmentalists and wilderness preservers [who] are dependably worried about climate change. …They are not conversant with nature’s laws, they know and care nothing about land use.” He also adds that most of them do not live in the countryside.

Neither religion nor environmentally sensitivity holds an ultimate answer for climate change:

“The advice against waste, extravagance, selfishness, hubris, falsehood, and willful ignorance is old. But people of religion have generally entrusted questions about economy, about how we live, to economists and industrialists. Environmentalists seem to think that problems caused by technology can be solved, or “controlled,” by more technology or “alternative” technology. People of both kinds seem to think that big problems have big solutions. Both are mistaken.”

Berry also deplores the ignorance of the general public, “most of whom see the economic landscapes only through the windows of their speeding automobiles.”

Not only must fossil energy be replaced by “clean” energy, Berry says, but also by less energy. “If we had a limitless supply of free, nonpolluting energy, we would use the world up even faster than we are using it up now.” Berry says in his opening essay that one of the two purposes of the Industrial Revolution was “to replace human workers with machines.” That’s a bit too sinister and deliberate for this reviewer, but I can’t quarrel with Berry’s argument that another objective—to “market” products, regardless of their continued usefulness or their effects, at the highest possible profit—has caused an awful lot of harm.

“The quickest way is the best way…. Anything obstructing or reducing speed must be cleared away. To realize this highest aim of industrial agriculture, everything must give way to the rule of the widest expanse and the straightest line. Every surviving woodland, every tree, every fencerow must be removed. So must the animals, their pastures and pens. So must the surplus people and their buildings. Streams must be straightened and ponds filled. Every acre that will support a tractor must be row-cropped. Such use of the land is determined entirely by “the market,” and is limited entirely by the capabilities of the available technology. Questions relating to ecological and human health, or to the health of the local economy, are easily ignored because there are no industrial answers to such questions.”

Berry quietly offers an inevitable conclusion that this overriding emphasis on speed also tends to concentrate wealth into ever fewer hands. The author warns that in squandering finite natural resources for raw materials, industrialism has sown the seeds of its own demise. He calls climate change “nature’s correction, which in prospect grows ever harsher.” He also faults science for hiring out too readily to the military-industrial complex, which he views as “solidly founded upon the hopeless logic of revenge,” and the medical and pharmaceutical industries, who base to some degree on relief of suffering, “but also on greed, on the vicious circles of hypochondria, and on the inducible fear of suffering yet to come.”

He also brings up the 50-Year Farm Bill, published by The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, with the concurrence of other farm and conservation groups all over the country. The proposed legislation addresses soil erosion, toxicity, loss of diversity, and the destruction of rural communities. This bill would invert the current ratio of 80% annual and 20% perennial crops to 20% annual and 80% perennial crops within the next 50 years.

Berry discusses other matters along the way: contemporary outbreaks of violence (which is, he says, “immensely profitable”), the nature of spirituality, food production in cities, abortion, and social polarization. He concludes that a healthy world ultimately requires healthy local environments filled with physically and spiritually healthy people, and that responsibility belongs to everyone, starting with each individual.

“If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to,” Berry writes. His bottom line: waste and pollution are wrong. Period. There seems nothing arguable in that.







About the Author

covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm, writes two top-level blogs on Examiner.com, ranked #2 on ONPP's 2011 Top 50 blogs on Women's Health, and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."