This week, what we are doing (instead of listening to me) is hearing and discussing quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. On these weeks of the U.S. political national conventions, I escape to Berry to find fresh air to breathe. Fitting in neither of the binary categories our system seems to want to impose upon us, Berry offers a refreshing and often convicting prophetic voice. In the context of the globalized information barrage we’re subjected to every day, here is a quiet, insistent voice of wisdom rising up from the land and local experience.
In today’s piece, Berry speaks about local communities and what they must do to fight against “the ruling ideas” of our contemporary economy. He states it like this:
The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility— and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.
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The loss of a saving connection between the land and the people begins and continues with the destruction of locally based household economies. This happens, whether in the United States after World War II or in present day China, by policies more or less forcibly moving people off the land. It happens also when the people remaining on the land are convinced by government or academic experts that they “can’t afford” to produce anything for themselves, but must employ all their land and all their effort in making money with which to buy the things they need or can be persuaded to want. Leaders of industry, industrial politics, and industrial education decide, for example, that there are “too many farmers,” and that the surplus would be “better off” working at urban “jobs.” The movement of people off the land and into industry, away from local subsistence and into the economy of jobs and consumption, was one of our national projects after World War II, and it has succeeded.
This division between the land and the people has happened in all the regions of rural Kentucky, just as it has happened or is happening in rural places all over the world. The problem, invisible equally to liberals and conservatives, is that the forces that destroy the possibility of a saving connection between the land and the people destroy at the same time essential values and practices. The conversion of an enormous number of somewhat independent producers into entirely dependent consumers is a radical change that in many ways is immediately catastrophic. Without a saving connection to the land, people become useless to themselves and to one another except by the intervention of money. Everything they need must be bought. Things they cannot buy they do not have.
From “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays