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Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture has been thrice published since its first release in 1977. Ironically, the Sierra Club, whose tourist-style conservation methods Berry criticizes in his opening chapters, published this latest edition in 1996, including two earlier prefaces and an afterword. The afterword hints at the reception of Berry’s work over the previous thirty plus years. While the ethics of agribusiness—emphasizing high petroleum use, large scale monocultures, big business land management, winner-takes-all competition—still figured prominently in national farm policy, and while American food consumption patterns continued to display little responsibility for these conditions, some cultural-economic-institutional ecological maturity had flourished on American soil. In the author’s own judgment, The Unsetttling of America “belong[ed] to a company of present-day works and exemplars joined by a common commitment and a common aim: books by Marty Strange, Gene Logsdon, and Wes Jackson, among others; organizations such as the Land Institute, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Land Stewardship Project, Tilth, and the E. F. Schumacher Society;…a rapidly increasing number of organizations interested in local marketing of local products; and thousands of farmers and gardeners. I am much encouraged by the knowledge that if this book (and my other books) disappeared from print and from memory, its advocacy and its hope would continue undiminished” (Berry 233). Happily, he’s probably right. Berry’s voice has been joined by many other concerned eaters and growers. During my short tenure as a community garden coordinator in Nashville, TN, I encountered a thriving subculture of religious leaders and laity, community organizers, educators, and the occasional policy maker familiar with Berry’s work. This subculture draws on a larger canon of ecological writings—wherein Berry holds a prominent place—to structure their food and environmental activism
It makes sense that Berry would judge the success of his work in terms of its ability to call up new discussion partners. Berry’s telos is cultural and moral reform, and he believes that true reform cannot be imposed from without. Rather, real reform happens when readers comprehend Berry’s critique, look at the world anew, and intentionally discern their own evaluations and responses to it (Berry 26). He does not want to offer a final, orthodox model of human land use (Berry 173-4); he wants humans to attentively observe the consequences of their decisions, to understand the full moral and biological implications of current agricultural policies and personal consumption patterns; he wants humans to seek the truth and live reverently—with restraint—in all their relations to all “Creation” (Berry 222-3).
Thus, Berry intends his cultural critique to serve as an evangelical herald whose outcome might surprise even its proclaimer (Berry 22). And yet, while Berry does not claim to have the final word on ethical land-use, he also avoids moral relativism by grounding his social vision in the physical limits and possibilities of the living biosphere (Berry 222). Berry claims that biological order holds moral order, without wholly determining it: “[t]he moral order appropriate to the use of biological energy…requires…production, consumption, and return. It is the principle of return that complicates matters, for it requires responsibility, care” (Berry 85). Humanity’s physical survival requires that they pattern their relationships with the more-than-human upon the principle of “kindly-use” (Berry 30). Thus, his land use ethics provides all the leeway of interpersonal ethics, but his model requires that all economic/ecological decisions be conditioned by interspecies compassion.
Exploitation vs. nurture (7)
Consumption vs. Production (23-5)
Use (28-30, 82)
Orthodox agribusiness (171-5)
Wheel of Life (82,9)
Human and Natural (44)
Domestic and Wilderness (29-30)
Limit and restraint (94)
Berry and de Certeau
Berry presents a rather dreary account of the everyday suburbanite whose life serves no greater purpose than the acquisition of money and consumption of goods:
“The beneficiary of this regime of specialists ought to be the happiest of mortals—or so we are expected to believe. All his vital concerns are in the hands of certified experts. He is a certified expert himself and as such he earns more money in a year than all his great-grandparents put together. Between stints at his job, he has nothing to do but mow his lawn with a sit-down lawn mower, or watch other certified experts on television. At suppertime he may eat a tray of ready-prepared food which he and his wife (also a certified expert) procures at the cost of only money, transportation, and the pushing of a button. For a few minutes between supper and sleep he may catch a glimpse of his children who since breakfast have been in the care of education experts, basketball or marching-band experts, or perhaps legal experts” (Berry 20).
Unlike de Certea, Berry’s common person is not outwardly dominated by a highly structured, bureaucratic state; Berry’s common person is internally fragmented and thus easily manipulated—but not forcibly coerced—by market forces. Advertisement “induc[es]…little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia” (Berry 24). The market giveth and the market taketh away these panics, by providing an abundance of products to be purchased with mere money.
Yet, for both Berry and de Certeau, humans find freedom by creatively engaging the economics of everyday life. In the household, especially in the kitchen, normal people transcend market forces and state bureaucracy (Berry 24, de Certea xv-xix). Berry’s “product[ion]” (Berry 24) and “critical consum[ption]” (Berry 24) sounds a good deal like de Certeau’s “tactics” (de Certeau’s 36-9). Both offer a way of interacting with the larger economic and political system without being dominated by it, either practically or morally.
Berry and Appadurai
Berry lauds African American freedmen and a segment of European immigrants who, rather than restlessly wandering the face of North America, recognized particular landscapes as good potential homes. To translate Berry into Appadurai’s terms, these colonizers found places to establish “neighborhoods” (Appadurai 183). Appadurai sees such neighborhood establishment as fundamentally violent, domineering acts of humans over eco-systems: “the production of a neighborhood is inherently an exercise of power over some sort of hostile or recalcitrant environment” (Appadurai 184) which may be “conceptualized ecologically as forest or wasteland, ocean or desert, swamp or river” (Appadurai 183).
But perhaps Appadurai’s account involves too much antagonism and too little cooperation. Berry wants a more dynamic relationship between wilderness and domestic land than Appadurai’s account seems to comprehend. No doubt humans still set the terms of the relationship; humans are the more powerful force, at this point in technological history. Yet, humans need wilderness; sustainable land use depends on the preservation of margins (Berry 178-9). These margins provide a standard for the benevolence, for the sustainability, of humanity’s domestic choices. The neighborhood Berry envisions does differentiate between wilderness and domestic/neighborhood places, but this relationship is not necessarily competitive or destructive. Rather, both kinds of place are valuable and reciprocally interpretable.
Berry and Lane
Berry clearly sees “Creation”—which encompasses at least all the biosphere—as a source of ultimate meaning and religious inspiration. This is one reason why he believes some wilderness areas should be maintained pristine, that they should be set apart from human usage. Quoting David Budbill, he argues that “[w]e need what other ages would have called sacred groves. We need groves, anyhow, that we would treat as if they were sacred—in order, perhaps, to perceive their sanctity” (Berry 30). But wilderness is not the only place of ecologically attentive ritual engagement with the sacred for Berry. Agriculture practices that return energy to the earth, that transform death into life, also evince the beneficent nature of ultimate reality (Berry 85-87).
For Berry, the practices of wilderness conservation and agricultural labor are both sacred rituals. They demonstrate what Lane, quoting Ricoeur would call an expression of second naïveté (Lane 25-37. 42). Berry wants to engage the order and mystery of the eco-system in an ongoing critical discussion that allows for the independently living, independently holy, to continually reveal new truths through attentive engagement
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. 1st ed. Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture. Revised. Sierra Club Books, 1996.
Certeau, Michel de. The Practice of Everyday Life. Reprint. University of California Press, 2011.
Lane, Belden C. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Expanded. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.