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The Agrarian Standard
The Unsettling of America was published in 1977; it is still in print and is still being read. As its author, I am tempted to be glad of this, and yet, if I believe what I said in that book, and I still do, then I should be anything but glad. The book would have had a far happier fate if it could have been disproved or made obsolete years ago.
It remains true because the conditions it describes and opposes, the abuses of farmland and farming people, have persisted and become worse. By 2002 we had less than half the number of farmers in the U.S. that we had in 1977. Our farm communities are far worse off now than they were then. Soil erosion rates continue to be unsustainably high. We continue to pollute our soils and streams with agricultural poisons. We continue to lose farmland to urban development of the most wasteful sort. The large agribusiness corporations that were mainly national in 1977 are now global, and are replacing the world’s agricultural diversity, useful primarily to farmers and local customers, with bioengineered and patented monocultures that are merely profitable to corporations. The purpose of this new global economy, as Vandana Shiva has rightly said, is to replace “food democracy” with a worldwide “food dictatorship.”
To be an agrarian writer in such a time is an odd experience. I have never doubted for a minute the importance of the hope I have tried to serve: the hope that we might become a healthy people in a healthy land.
We agrarians are involved in a hard, long momentous contest, in which we are so far, by a considerable margin, the losers. What we have undertaken to defend is the complex accomplishment of knowledge, cultural memory, skill, self-mastery, good sense and fundamental decency – the high and indispensable art, for which we probably can find no better name than “good farming.” I mean farming as defined by agrarianism as opposed to farming as defined by industrialism: farming as the proper use and care of an immeasurable gift.
I believe that this contest between industrialism and agrarianism now defines the most fundamental human difference, for it divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding ourselves, our fellow creatures and our world.
Industrialism begins with technological invention. But agrarianism begins with givens: land, plants, animals, weather, hunger and the birthright knowledge of agriculture. Industrialists are always ready to ignore, sell, or destroy the past in order to gain the entirely unprecedented wealth, comfort and happiness supposedly to be found in the future. Agrarian farmers know that their very identity depends on their willingness to receive gratefully, use responsibly and hand down intact an inheritance, both natural and cultural, from the past. Agrarians understand themselves as the users and caretakers of some things they did not make, and of some things that they cannot make.
If we believe that the existence of the world is rooted in mystery and in sanctity, then we would have a different economy. It would still be an economy of use, but it would be an economy also of return. The economy would have to accommodate the need to be worthy of the gifts we receive and use, and this would involve a return of propitiation, praise, gratitude, responsibility, good use, good care and a proper regard for future generations. What is most conspicuously absent from the industrial economy and industrial culture is this idea of return. Industrial humans relate themselves to the world and its creatures by fairly direct acts of violence. Mostly we take without asking, use without respect or gratitude, and give nothing in return. Our economy’s most voluminous product is waste – valuable materials irrecoverably misplaced, or randomly discharged as poisons.
To perceive the world and our life in it as gifts originating in sanctity is to see our human economy as a continuing moral crisis. Our life of need and work forces us inescapably to use in time things belonging to eternity, and to assign finite values to things already recognized as infinitely valuable. This is a fearful predicament. It calls for prudence, humility, good work, propriety of scale. It calls for the complex responsibilities of caretaking and giving back that we mean by “stewardship.” To all of this the idea of the immeasurable value of the resource is central.
There is an agrarian theme that has been carried from earliest times until now mostly in family or folk tradition. Such people can also be found in books. They don’t have or require a lot of land, and the land they have is often marginal. They practice subsistence agriculture, which has been much derided by agricultural economists and other learned people of the industrial age, and they always associate frugality with abundance.
In my various travels, I have seen a number of small homesteads situated on “land that no one wanted” and yet abundantly productive of food, pleasure and other goods. And especially in my younger days, I was used to hearing farmers of a certain kind say, “They may run me out, but they won’t starve me out” or “I may get shot, but I’m not going to starve.” Even now, if they cared, I think agricultural economists could find small farmers who have prospered, not by “getting big,” but by practicing the ancient rules of thrift and subsistence, by accepting the limits of their small farms, and by knowing well the value of having a little land.
In any consideration of agrarianism, this issue of limitation is critical. Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more.” Everything that happens on an agrarian farm is determined or conditioned by the understanding that there is only so much land, so much water in the cistern, so much hay in the barn, so much corn in the crib, so much firewood in the shed, so much food in the cellar or freezer, so much strength in the back or arms – and no more. This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies. Within accepted limits, these virtues become necessities. The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits.
This is exactly opposite to the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport and scientific or technological breakthroughs. If we use up the good possibilities in this place, we will import goods from some other place, or we will go to some other place. If nature releases her wealth too slowly, we will take it by force. If we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some compound brain, Monsanto perhaps, will invent tiny robots that will fly about, pollinating flowers and making honey.
To be landless in an industrial society obviously is not at all times to be jobless and homeless. But the ability of the industrial economy to provide jobs and homes depends on prosperity, and on a very shaky kind of prosperity too. It depends on “growth” of the wrong things, such as roads and dumps and poisons – on what Edward Abbey called “the ideology of the cancer cell” – and on greed with purchasing power. In the absence of growth, greed and affluence, the dependents of an industrial economy too easily suffer the consequences of having no land: joblessness, homelessness and want. This is not a theory. We have seen it happen.
In our time it is useless and probably wrong to suppose that a great many urban people ought to go out into the countryside and become homesteaders or farmers. But it is not useless or wrong to suppose that urban people have agricultural responsibilities that they should try to meet. And in fact this is happening. The agrarian population among us is growing, and by no means is it made up merely of some farmers and some country people. It includes urban gardeners, urban consumers who are buying food from local farmers, organizers of local food economies, consumers who have grown doubtful of the healthfulness, the trustworthiness and the dependability of the corporate food system – people, in other words, who understand what it means to be landless.
Apologists for industrial agriculture rely on two arguments. In one of them, they say that the industrialization of agriculture, and its dominance by corporations, has been “inevitable.” It has come about and it continues by the agency of economic and technological determinism. There has been simply nothing that anybody could do about it.
The other argument is that industrial agriculture has come about by choice, inspired by compassion and generosity. Seeing the shadow of mass starvation looming over the world, the food conglomerates, the machinery companies, the chemical companies, the seed companies and the other suppliers of “purchased inputs” have done all that they have done in order to solve “the problem of hunger” and to “feed the world.”
The primary question for the corporations, and so necessarily for us, is not how the world will be fed, but who will control the land, and therefore the wealth, of the world. If the world’s people accept the industrial premises that favor bigness, centralization and (for a few people) high profitability, then the corporations will control all of the world’s land and all of its wealth. If, on the contrary, the world’s people might again see the advantages of local economies, in which people live, so far as they are able to do so, from their home landscapes, and work patiently toward that end, eliminating waste and the cruelties of landlessness and homelessness, then I think they might reasonably hope to solve “the problem of hunger,” and several other problems as well.
But do the people of the world, allured by TV, supermarkets and big cars, or by dreams thereof, want to live from their home landscapes? Could they do so, if they wanted to? Those are hard questions, not readily answerable by anybody. Throughout the industrial decades, people have become increasingly and more numerously ignorant of the issues of land use, of food, clothing and shelter. What would they do, and what could they do, if they were forced by war or some other calamity to live from their home landscapes?
It is a fact, well attested but little noticed, that our extensive, mobile, highly centralized system of industrial agriculture is extremely vulnerable to acts of terrorism. It will be hard to protect an agriculture of genetically impoverished monocultures that is entirely dependent on cheap petroleum and long-distance transportation. We know too that the great corporations, which now grow and act so far beyond the restraint of “the natural affections of the human mind,” are vulnerable to the natural depravities of the human mind, such as greed, arrogance and fraud.
The agricultural industrialists like to say that their agrarian opponents are merely sentimental defenders of ways of farming that are hopelessly old-fashioned, justly dying out. Or they say that their opponents are the victims, as Richard Lewontin put it, of “a false nostalgia for a way of life that never existed.” But these are not criticisms. They are insults.
For agrarians, the correct response is to stand confidently on our fundamental premise, which is both democratic and ecological: The land is a gift of immeasurable wealth. If it is a gift, then it is a gift to all the living in all time. To withhold it from some is finally to destroy it for all. For a few powerful people to own or control it all, or decide its fate, is wrong.
From that premise we go directly to the question that begins the agrarian agenda and is the discipline of all agrarian practice: What is the best way to use land? Agrarians know that this question necessarily has many answers, not just one. We are not asking what is the best way to farm everywhere in the world, or everywhere in the U.S., or everywhere in Kentucky or Iowa. We are asking what is the best way to farm in each one of the world’s numberless places, as defined by topography, soil type, climate, ecology, history, culture and local need. And we know that the standard cannot be determined only by market demand or productivity or profitability or technological capability, or by any other single measure, however important it may be. The agrarian standard, inescapably, is local adaptation, which requires bringing local nature, local people, local economy and local culture into a practical and enduring harmony.
Farmer and author, Wendell Berry has published numerous novels, collections of poetry, and essays. He lives in Port Royal, Kentucky with his wife Tanya.
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