Monday, May 18, 2020

Home Economics (excerpts) by Wendell Berry

Source of book: I own this. 

My first real experience of Wendell Berry was five years ago during an epic starlight hike at Pinnacles National Park. The ranger leading the hike quoted “To Know the Dark,” which is just a fantastic poem. 

Recently, I bought a Library of America hardback of Berry’s selected essays. I decided to read the ones from Home Economics, published in 1987. The original collection had fourteen essays, five of which are in this book. Since the full length books aren’t easy to find (particularly at reasonable prices), I expect that the excerpted ones will be what I read. 

Wendell Berry is an intriguing character. He has been advocating for environmental and humanist causes since the early 1960s. He and his wife purchased a small farm in Kentucky and have worked it for fifty-five years, walking the talk, so to speak. 

I think Berry is an example of a less-known species here in the United States: a member of the ethical Christian left. Although “left” isn’t perhaps the best term - he is on the left in the same way I am on the left: the politics in the United States in 2020 are so far to the extreme right that those of us who would have been center-right in the 1960s through 1980s are now considered hopeless pinkos. Berry is open about his faith: he says that he “takes the gospel seriously.” And I agree. In Berry’s view, a genuine reading of the biblical tradition reveals that the Earth belongs to God and that destruction and abusive possession of the land is a violation of the biblical principle that humanity is a temporary “sojourner” on the land, which is divinely created.

He has advocated for sustainable agriculture, ethical use of technology, healthy rural communities, racial justice, frugality, interconnectedness, and holistic living. In this book, he takes aim at what he sees as the greatest threats to the wellbeing of the world and the human family: industrial farming, environmental degradation, greed, ignorance, and profit-obsessed economic policies. While I come from a more urban point of view, and see some things a bit differently, I have nothing but respect for how he came to his conclusions. In his writing and personal life, he is deeply ethical, compassionate, and as consistent in his beliefs as any human can be. 

Berry has written poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. I do want to get his poetry at some point, for sure. For now, I am planning to work through this book a bit at a time. 

One thing I really love about these essays is the way that Berry understands the inherent tension involved in being human. As rational beings, we have both the ability to shape nature and the ability to destroy it. We are part of nature, and yet separate from it. Here is the opening of the first essay, “Getting Along With Nature.” I wish I could quote the whole essay. 

The defenders of nature and wilderness--like their enemies the defenders of the industrial economy--sometimes sound as if the natural and the human were two separate estates, radically different and radically divided. The defenders of nature and wilderness seem to feel that they must oppose any human encroachment whatsoever, just as the industrialists often apparently feel that they must make the human encroachment absolute or, as they say, “complete the conquest of nature.” But there is danger in this opposition, and it can be best dealt with by realizing that these pure and separate categories are pure ideas and do not otherwise exist. 
Pure nature, anyhow, is not good for humans to live in, and humans do not want to live in it--or not for very long. Any exposure to the elements that lasts more than a few hours will remind us of the desirability of the basic human amenities: clothing, shelter, cooked food, and the company of kinfolk and friends--perhaps even of hot baths and music and books.
It is equally true that a condition that is purely human is not good for people to live in, and people do not want to live for long in it. Obviously, the more artificial a human environment becomes, the more the word “natural” becomes a term of value. It can be argued, indeed, that the conservation movement, as we know it today, is largely a product of the industrial revolution. The people who want clean air, clear streams, and wild forests, prairies, and deserts are the people who no longer have them. 

Berry goes on to point out that it is well known in nature for wild creatures to exhaust their resources - and the result is...not pleasant. Ultimately, because we are part of and dependent on nature, the inexorable laws will exact punishment on us too. 

Similarly, if humans use up too much soil--which they have often done and are doing--then they will starve down to the carrying capacity of their habitat. This is nature’s “indifferent” justice. As Spenser saw in the sixteenth century, and as we must learn to see now, there is no appeal from this justice. In the hereafter, the Lord may forgive our wrongs against nature, but on earth, so far as we know, He does not overturn her decisions. 

This has been a source of frustration for me in discussing what used to be a conservative value: conservation. It literally doesn’t matter how much MONEY (an artificial construct anyway) we “make” now if we destroy the nature which supports us. It is terrible economics to sacrifice future generations to feed the greed of the present. We will either choose to live in partnership with nature, or we will bear drastic consequences. (Of course, the Trumps and Koch Brothers of today will almost certainly be dead by that time, and I suspect they give exactly zero fucks about what happens to my children.) Berry has a better vision - a more humane one. 

If balance is the ruling principle and a stable balance the goal, then, for humans, attaining this goal requires a consciously chosen and deliberately made partnership with nature. In other words, we can be true to nature only by being true to human nature--to our animal nature as well as to cultural patterns and restraints that keep us from acting like animals. When humans act like animals, they become the most dangerous of animals to themselves and other humans, and this is because of another critical difference between humans and animals: Whereas animals are usually restrained by the limits of physical appetites, humans have mental appetites that can be more gross and capacious than physical ones. Only humans squander and hoard, murder and pillage because of notions. 

The next essay, “Two Economies,” takes this idea further. Berry notes that there are essentially two economies at work in the world. One is what we think of as “the” economy: the money economy. But this is a really small portion only of what is really going on. And this is the crux of the problem. The money economy depends right now on stealing from the greater economy, which consists of the entirety of the earth. 

By laying up “much goods” in the present--and in the process, using up such goods as topsoil, fossil fuel, and fossil water--we incur a debt to the future that we cannot repay. That is, we diminish the future by deeds that we call “use” but that the future will call “theft.” We may say, then, that we seek the Kingdom of God, in part, by our economic behavior, and we fail to find it if that behavior is wrong. 

I cannot tell you how refreshing it is to see both true Conservatism here and a religious point of view that isn’t just an attempt to justify unregulated capitalism and plunder of nature using “christian” words. Conservatism should be about conserving things. Preserving (and if necessary reforming) the institutions which benefit is all. Which is why I do not think the modern American Right is conservative at all. It is reactionary, hierarchical, and based on the desire to steal and plunder from the future - and the present. The first two essays in this collection are, hands down, some of the best I have ever read. 

The third essay is a bit different, but also fascinating. Entitled “The Loss of the University,” it addresses two related problems that trouble higher education. The first is the “specialization” of learning and knowledge, to the point that different disciplines exist separate from each other, and do not talk. Hey, that sounds a bit like a book I read recently, Range, by David Epstein

The predicament of literature within the university is not fundamentally different from the predicament of any other discipline, which is not fundamentally different from the predicament of language. That is, the various disciplines have ceased to speak to each other; they have become too specialized, and this overspecialization, this separation, of the disciplines has been enabled and enforced by the specialization of their languages. As a result, the modern university has grown, not according to any unifying principle, like an expanding universe, but according to the principle of miscellaneous accretion, like a furniture storage business.

Berry attributes this in significant part to the loss of understanding of what the purpose of universities are. Too often, these days, they are viewed (particularly by those on the hyper-capitalist right) as being job-training institutions. For Berry, job training could be handled more affordably and with better results by apprenticeships. The point of the university is this:

The thing being made in a university is humanity. Given the current influence of universities, this is merely inevitable. But what universities, at least the public-supported ones, are mandated to make or to help to make is human beings in the fullest sense of those words--not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens but responsible heirs and members of human culture...The common denominator has to be larger than either career preparation or a preparation for citizenship, Underlying the idea of the university--the bringing together, the combining into one, of all the disciplines--is the idea that good work and good citizenship are the inevitable by-products of the making of a good--that is, fully developed--human being. 

This requires that students not merely learn their chosen subject area, but a wide range of knowledge - because it is all connected. A great example of this is in the fields related to business. 

In industrial education, the thing finally made is of no concern to the makers. In some instances, this is because the specialized “fields” have grown so complicated within themselves that the curriculum leaves no time for the broad and basic studies that would inform judgment. In other instances, one feels that there is a potentially embarrassing conflict between judgment broadly informed and the specialized career for which the student is being prepared; teachers of advertising techniques, for example, could ill afford for their students to realize that they are learning the arts of lying and seduction. 

And if advertising is about lying and seduction - and it very much is - fields like finance and investment banking teach their students how to destroy their consciences and become sociopaths. To oppress and destroy less powerful human beings in search of ever greater profits. This has borne poisonous fruit over the 40+ decades of my life, from the Savings and Loan meltdown of the 1980s, to the recession of 2008. Oh, and the Great Depression too. 

As Berry points out, without the ethical framework, and the knowledge of how one’s field affects everything else, disciplines become hyper-focused on doing what they can do, rather than considering what they should do. This too tends to make “truth” into a narrow view within a specialty. (It’s also an issue for Evangelicals on many things - Berry’s indictment of academia has broad application.) 

Objectivity, in practice, means that one studies or teaches one’s subject as such, without concern for its relation to other subjects or to the world--that is, without concern for its truth. If one is concerned, if one cares, about the truth or falsity of anything, one cannot be objective: one is glad if it is true and sorry if it is false; one believes it if it is judged to be true and disbelieves it if it is judged to be false. Moreover, the truth or falsity of some things cannot be objectively demonstrated, but must be determined by feeling and appearance, intuition and experience. And this work of judgment cannot take place at all with respect to one thing or one subject alone. The issue of truth rises out of the comparison of one thing with another, out of the study of the relations and influences between one thing and another and between one thing and many others. 

This is, to put it mildly, a rebuke to the idea of an ideology, which is assumed to be true in itself, without relation to reality or the effects on other people. Intuition and experience - including empathy - are indeed crucial to ascertaining truth. 

The one slightly sour note in this essay is the part about “standards.” While I get what Berry means, he, like many of his generation, seems a bit blind to the effect that “standards” are used to exclude minorities. I am hesitant to ascribe bad faith here, because Berry has written forcefully elsewhere in favor of racial justice and the ongoing violence toward African Americans and Native Americans. And, of course, the scope of a particular essay is limited, and that is likely a factor here. 

The next essay is entitled “Preserving Wildness,” and I really loved it. The central idea is that humans need wildness, not just externally, but internally. There is a part of us that is wild, and we need to nurture that no matter where we live. In the essay, Berry lays out a series of seven assumptions which guide his views. I won’t quote them all here, but I want to mention a few ideas, such as the idea that we cannot “solve” the problems that face us with a simple answer. 

We are not going back to the Garden of Eden, nor are we going to manufacture an Industrial Paradise.

And this one:

It is not possible (at least, not for very long) for humans to intend their own good specifically or exclusively. We cannot intend our own good, in the long run, without intending the good of our place--which means, ultimately, the good of the world. 

This is something we are finding out the hard way right now with Covid-19. While many remain in denial, ultimately, the good of all is the good of any of us. Berry sees the role of “culture” as shaping humans to be able to work for the holistic good - the benefit of all of us and the nature we depend on. 

To take a creature who is biologically human and to make him or her fully human is a task that requires many years (some of us fear that it requires more than a lifetime), and this long effort of human making is necessary, I think, because of our power. In the hierarchy of power among the earth’s creatures, we are at the top, and we have been growing stronger for a long time. We are now, to ourselves, incomprehensibly powerful, capable of doing more damage than floods, storms, volcanoes, and earthquakes. And so it is more important than ever that we should have cultures capable of making us into humans--creatures capable of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and the other virtues. For our history reveals that, stripped of the restraints, disciplines, and ameliorations of culture, humans are not “natural,” not “thinking animals” or “naked apes,” but monsters--indiscriminate and insatiable killers and destroyers. We differ from other creatures, partly, in our susceptibility to monstrosity.

This is where the catastrophic failure of white conservative “culture” has been laid bare lately. In the case of Evangelicals, they have been so obsessed with regaining cultural dominance - and with the policing of sexuality (which is all tied up with the hierarchies and injustices of past culture) that they have neglected prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance altogether. That’s how you end up with all the bitching about having to wear a mask, armed dude-bros threatening healthcare workers, and a lack of general community solidarity and common sense. It is a failure of culture. It’s pretty clear now that the Culture Wars™ have been a total disaster to those persuaded to wage them. 

Berry goes on in this essay to argue for one of his pet causes: good workmanship. He correctly notes that shoddy workmanship means “planned obsolescence” - and then more has to be destroyed to make a new one. I am quite in sympathy with this, honestly. I deplore the culture of disposability. Heck, my favorite possessions are my violin and my books, which are often older than me and will last far longer than I will. Berry is a proponent of the “make local, buy local” idea - long before it became mainstream. He sees the root of the problem in the way our economy requires constant manufacture - that is, plunder of the earth - to sustain itself. 

Our present economy, by contrast, does not account for affection at all, which is to say that it does not account for value. It is simply a description of the career of money as it preys upon both nature and human society. Apparently because our age is so manifestly unconcerned for the life of the spirit, many people conclude that it places an undue value on material things. But that cannot be so, for people who valued material things would take care of them and would care for the sources of them. We could argue that an age that properly valued and cared for material things would be an age properly spiritual. 

 I think Berry is correct here. Consumerism is opposed to frugality and care for what one has. The expectation that there will always be something new doesn’t coexist well with careful use of items. I have always been temperamentally aligned with Berry here. I tend to run the wheels off my cars, keep computers until they can’t cope with new software, and use stuff until it wears out. I too find that far more compatible with spirituality than disposable culture. 

One final thing to mention about this essay is Berry’s look at the idea of disliking humans. This is something I find discomfiting about certain wings of the environmental movement. I think Berry is correct that our self-interest as a species, and a healthy self-respect are better equipped to address our challenges and stop the abuse of each other and the natural world. I appreciate his answer to the problem of “how many people is too many.” 

For these reasons, there is great danger in the perception that “there are too many people,” whatever truth may be in it, for this is a premise from which it is too likely that somebody, sooner or later, will proceed to a determination of who are the surplus. If we conclude that there are too many, it is hard to avoid the further conclusion that there are some we do not need. But how many do we need, and which ones? Which ones, now apparently unnecessary, may found out later to be indispensable? 

Berry acknowledges that we do need to address questions of population size, but asserts that other questions are more important - and will better address the problems. 

The “population problem,” initially, should be examined as a problem, not of quantity, but of pattern. Before we conclude that we have too many people, we must ask if we have people who are misused, people who are misplaced, or people who are abusing the places they have. The facts of most immediate importance may be, not how many we are, but where we are and what we are doing. At any rate, the attempt to solve our problems by reducing our numbers may be a distraction from the overriding population statistic of our time: that one human with a nuclear bomb and the will to use it is 100 percent too many. I would argue that it is not human fecundity that is overcrowding the world so much as technological multipliers of the power of individual humans...This is the ideology of the professional class of the industrial nations--a class whose allegiance to communities and places has been dissolved by their economic motives and by their educations. These are people who will go anywhere and jeopardize anything in order to assure the success of their careers. 

If we want to make the most impact toward sustainable environmental practices, the most bang for the buck isn’t eliminating the poorest 50% of the earth’s population - but by reducing the degradation caused by the billionaire class. 

The final essay in the book is “A Good Farmer of the Old School,” which is Berry’s description of Lancie Clippinger, a small farmer whose sustainable and low-impact practices served both his interests and the greater interests of the earth. It’s a good read. As one who lives in the San Joaquin Valley, an agricultural powerhouse, I see first-hand the problems and effects of large corporate monoculture. If you live in the United States, you almost certainly have eaten what we grow here. Grapes, carrots, and almonds are big here. Go to your grocery store and look at the labels. Chances are, you will see names like Paramount Farms, Grimmway Farms, Zaninovich, Sunmaid, and so on. These are some of the big players here. The issues that Berry warns about in his writing are also on display. It is a brutal economic environment for small farmers, and an escalating arms race between chemicals and undesirable parts of nature. (The fight between almond fungus and fungicides is just one of many.) I am hard pressed to think that this is going to end well. And that’s before you look at the way that climate change has already wreaked havoc on the water supply. Or at the way that our reliance on the abuse of undocumented immigrants for migrant farm labor has been coopted by the xenophobic right to put vicious racists in power. The future for here as elsewhere needs to be less monoculture, more sustainable practices, and letting the laborers rather than capitalists enjoy the rewards of our agriculture. 

The best line in the essay is this one:

The industrial farmer consumes more than he produces and is a captive consumer of the suppliers who have prospered by the ruination of such farmers. So far as the national economy is concerned, this kind of farmer exists only to provide cheap food and to enrich the agribusiness corporations, at his own expense. 

Unfortunately, not only is this true, but the small farmer folks, caught between escalating costs for fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, and even water, and cheaper food from developing countries, have turned to Trump - who has compounded the problem by starting trade wars which have destroyed the export market for many crops. I think Berry has a better solution than “tariffs ‘n’ xenophobia.” A shift to looking at agriculture - and our broader economy - in light of sustainability, frugality, and human thriving would address multiple problems at the same time. In fact, this could be considered one of Berry’s greatest strengths: he emphasises the need to look at solutions holistically rather than individually. Rather than using a “solution” which causes another problem to solve and so on down the line, Berry shows - from his own experience farming too - that often there are solutions which solve multiple problems without creating more. Unless you count the loss of corporate profits as a “problem” rather than the cause of them in the first place. 

I don’t agree with every single point Berry makes, obviously, but he supports his ideas. His writing is also outstanding. Each essay is well planned, and flows from start to finish. I particularly love how he combines environmentalism with humanism - he understands how nature and humans must either both thrive or both suffer. We are finally hearing more of this here in the United States, although proponents of these ideas are typically tarred as “Radical Communists™, despite being neither radical nor communist. At heart, these ideas represent the best of conservatism. Not the preservation of social hierarchies, but the conservation of what benefits the human race as a whole. 


  1. You are so refreshing--and help dispel my own prejudices against Christian Republicans (I assume you are Republican?). As a Jewish woman, I find great hope in your words and your obvious intelligence and respect toward women . I will be teaching Wendell Berry soon and appreciate your excerpts. How do I cite YOU?

    1. So, I am a Christian (although no longer an Evangelical.) I am not a Republican - I left the GOP in 2013 after it became apparent that their goal was to eliminate access to healthcare for most of the working class. It has been weird to be considered a flaming liberal/communist these days for taking positions like the GOP of Eisenhower had, but here we are.

      Regarding citing: the best is to include a link to my blog for any post you cite. Just hyperlink that page so readers who want to see the source can read it themselves. My identity isn't a secret or anything - we lawyers have a lot of our information already public on the State Bar website, after all.

      I appreciate you stopping by. And also, nice to hear someone is teaching Wendell Berry. :)