A Wonderfully Radical Question

“What are you doing here?” Wendell Berry asked me after I approached him the afternoon of December 8, 2016, and told him that I was born in Kentucky. The celebrated poet and author of more than 40 books was in town to deliver the 17th Annual Edward & Nancy Dodge Lecture at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2010, Berry was given the National Humanities Medal by President Obama for his achievements as a poet, novelist, farmer and conservationist. The president also told Berry that he admired his poetry.

After discovering his latest book, Our Only World, at a bookstore in January, I became fascinated with Berry and the idea that an 82-year-old farmer from Kentucky was one of the rawest and most compelling cultural critics alive. Since then, I have bought everything else of his that I could get my hands on. The Hidden Wound, Standing By Words, What Are People For and Citizenship Papers are the work of someone that takes their civic responsibility solemnly, and possesses a compact wisdom seemingly hand-pulled from the Earth that he’s turned over the past 40 years. To a full audience, Berry read a new essay, “The Thoughts of Limits in a Prodigal Age,” which focused on criticism of industrial agriculture and the “fantasies of limitlessness” and “heartless determinism” that drive our economic system in general:

My talk is centered upon the thought that a proper economy would not exploit, siphon away and finally destroy the life of the land and the people. A proper economy instead would recognize, value, cultivate and conserve, in any given place, everything in it that is good and worth conserving. To make the economies of the land, and of land use, something like sustainable, we would have to begin with attention to the difference between the industrial economy of inert materials and monetary abstractions, and an authentic land economy that must include the kindly husbanding of living creatures. This is the critical issue. If farming is no more than an industry, to be unendingly transformed by technologies, as is happening, than farmers can be replaced by engineers, and engineers finally by robots, in the progress toward our evident goal of human uselessness. If, on the contrary, because of the uniqueness and fragility of each one of the world’s myriad of small places, the land economies must involve a creaturely affection and care, then we must look back three or four generations and think again.

Based on the wisdom of economists that there were “too many farmers,” Berry pointed out that small farmers were shepherded into cities to work in factories in the mid-20th century. Not long after, machines replaced them again.

Many of these people are now what economists call the “permanently unemployed” and our jails are filled with them. Technology creates unemployment and transforms community jobs that we want, such as farming, into those we don’t, such as prisons and police. Instead of facing this reality, we have foolishly elected a strongman to fight a strawman. If we are to have a future, it will look more like the past than anyone now realizes. We must imagine the trajectory of the 20th century — the progression toward bigger and bigger — and flip it, building backwards towards a more agrarian-based society of collective ownership. This thought runs parallel to the work of University of Maryland historian Gar Alperovitz and the idea of “Evolutionary Reconstruction,” laid out in his book America Beyond Capitalism. If we are to continue to debate social issues, we must ensure panic does not ensue over survival issues, and we should also seriously ask ourselves if we want to again, as with the Native Americans, completely decimate traditional cultures and ways of living in the name of progress.

During the Q&A portion, I asked Berry if the American conception of progress, a deeply held and almost religious belief, particularly amongst the well-educated, is a backwards conception. Berry responded:

Well we’ve got to have standards. And the prevailing standard for progress now is how frequently new products are put on the market and how much money is made from them. That leaves a good deal out. It leaves out the issue of the health of the land and the health of the people. We have a society now of people who have been trained as consumers; it’s rather disheartening to see. You put a new electronic product out like this [makes hand motion like dangling a dog treat], and the whole population virtually stands on its hind legs like a bunch of trained dogs and begins to snap at it. There’s a different way to think about things. The questionis, “What’s this doing to our people? What’s this doing to our community?” The only people in the United States that routinely ask that question about progress is the Amish. The Amish — when they are confronted with an innovation and the question whether they should adopt it or not — always ask, “What will this do to our community?” It’s a wonderfully radical question, after that radical writing we call the gospels.

I approached Berry after the talk to shake his hand and thank him for sharing his thoughts. He told me that he had flown over my hometown in a plane once, writing a story for the Courier-Journal about the destructiveness of surface coal mining. He saw the ruins of the Paradise mines made famous by John Prine, and he told me that he knew the song. “There’s an old Kentucky saying,” he said. “A lot of this progress has been ass backwards.”