Thursday, April 06, 2006

Unsettling Thoughts

I finished reading The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry (one of my favorite authors, if you haven't been paying attention) earlier this week, but I haven't been able to sit down and fully digest it until now.

Some of my Dear Readers might think that a book on agriculture sounds colossally boring, though perhaps worth reading if you're actually a farmer. Truth be told, a couple of years ago, I felt the same way -- until my readings on various environmental issues made me realize the central importance of agriculture in our lives and in the environmental debate.

We depend on food to live, right? And if we depend on food, we depend on farmers, and we depend on agriculture. As Berry puts it beautifully:

...we come from the earth and return to it, and so we live in agriculture as we live in flesh. While we live our bodies are moving particles of the earth, joined inextricably both to the soil and to the bodies of other living creatures. It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be some profound resemblance between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of the earth (p.97).

One of the key recurrent themes in Berry's writings derives from this simple reconnection of humanity to the whole of Creation. When we view and treat the earth with disdain or greed, as mere resources to be plundered and consumed as efficiently as possible, we damage Creation, including ourselves. When we view and treat the earth kindly, giving back as much as we take for our sustenance, we heal Creation -- including ourselves.

That may sound simplistic, but it really is that simple:

In an energy economy appropriate to the use of biological [as opposed to machine-derived] energy, all bodies, plant and animal and human, are joined in a kind of energy community. ... They die into each other's life, live into each other's death. They do not consume in the sense of using up. They do not produce waste. What they take in they change, but they change it always into a form necessary for its use by a living body of another kind. And this exchange goes on and on, round and round, the Wheel of Life rising out of the soil, descending into it, through the bodies of creatures (pp 85-86).

Given this perspective on life and our connection to the earth, it's no surprise that Berry is a strong, articulate, vocal opponent of industrial agriculture or "agribusiness" -- huge farms engaged in chemical- and fossil-fuel-dependent monoculture, using and abusing as much land and water as possible to turn a profit, and leaving the land and local communities drained of life. (And if you think my summary of his views is blunt, read him yourself -- he pulls no punches.)

Our system of agriculture, by modeling itself on economics rather than biology, thus removes food from the cycle of its production and puts it into a finite, linear process that in effect destroys it by transforming it into waste. That is, it transforms food into fuel, a form of energy that is usable only once, and in doing so it transforms the body into a consumptive machine (p.137).

Berry cites Department of Agriculture reports and statements as well as research on "modern" agriculture, and he methodically refutes every overblown statement about how modern industrial agriculture will feed the world and expand the economy.

Being a longtime farmer as well as a writer, he offers an alternative vision: return to the past practice of small farms owned by the farmers who actually worked the land and participated in the community -- small farms that exemplified good stewardship by leaving some areas fallow, some in pasture, and some completely untouched; diversification of crops and animal husbandry; and a more complete economy in which those who produced the food also preserved and consumed it and returned the remains to the land in compost and manure. He admits that there were problems in this practice, of course, but holds it up as a far better starting place than what we have dominating our agriculture now.

There's so much more to Berry's book and to his thought overall that I feel I barely do him justice, so I highly recommend his work to you. And when you realize that this particular book of his was originally published in 1977 and reissued in two subsequent editions (1986 and 1996) -- and that nearly thirty years later we are still in thrall to industrial agriculture, at the risk of our personal, national, and global security -- I hope you realize that this is a book well worth reading. In his afterword to the third edition, Berry notes:

This book has not had the happy fate of being proved wrong, but it has had the next happiest fate of belonging to a growing effort to think again about the issues of American land use and to start the changes that are needed (p.232).

You know what those changes are, and you can help: supporting and promoting sustainable, diversified, local, organic agriculture -- which in turn supports our local economies and promotes the health of our world.

Our future depends on it.

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