Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Lesson from Wendell Berry

I just finished reading The Memory of Old Jack, Wendell Berry’s 1974 novel that traces the experiences of an old farmer in Port William, Kentucky, the site of many Berry novels about life in an agrarian community.  At the end, he has this to say about how farming communities have changed over the past century:

Wheeler has been thinking about them and about the troubles that probably lie ahead of them:  an increasing scarcity of labor as more and more of the country people move to the cities; the  consequent necessity for further mechanization of the farms; the consequent need of the farmers for more land and more capital in order to survive; the consequent further departure of the labor force from the country; the increasing difficulty of preserving an agricultural economy favorable to small farmers as political power flows from the country to the cities. (p. 163)

            Much has happened since Berry published this in 1974, nearly half a century ago.  Many of the consequences that he identified have come to fruition as the Industrial Revolution has given way to the Information Revolution and the growth of a global information society.  In 2014, Berry observed this in an essay called “Our Deserted Country”:

By now nearly all of the land-using population have left their farms and home places to be industrially or professionally employed, or unemployed, and to be entirely dependent on the ways and the products of industrialism. Or they have remained, as “farmers,” to pilot enormous machines over thousands of acres continuously in annual row crops such as soybeans and corn. (Our Only World, p. 111)

            It is a fact of life in the Information Society that we are now globally connected.  One consequence has been to make more tenuous our ties to truly local communities.  Yes, those fields of soybeans are meant to be sold in great numbers to China and elsewhere around the world.  Yes, our industries require workers who live in or near our industrial cities.  In the process, though, we have lost that sense of identity—our intimate familiarity—with our immediate surroundings. Even those of us whose forebears were coal miners and mill workers—who have not had the multi-generational familial relationship to the land that Berry cherishes—are increasingly aware of the problem.  It is one reason why we flock to weekly farmers’ markets and to “farm to table” restaurants.  
            In Our Only World, Berry notes that “if the land and the people are ever to be saved, they will be saved by local people enacting together a proper respect for themselves and their places.  They can do this only in ways that are neighborly, convivial, and generous, but also and in the smallest details, practical and economic.”  (p.63)  He goes on to lay out a dozen “suggestions” for how to achieve this:

1.         Reject the idea that “the ultimate reality is political” and, thus, that solutions must be political.

2.         Avoid “standardized industrial solutions” unless they are based in an understanding of the uniqueness of every place.

3.         Replace ideals of competitition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, and upward mobility with reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, corporation, thrift, appropriateness, and local loyalty.

4.         Understand that the solution to big problems may best be found in individual families, and local communities.

5.         Understand the importance of subsistence economies.

6.         Rethink the structure and cost of higher education, so that debt does not take young people  away from their communities.

7.         Ensure that local communities know how much of the land is locally owned and available for local needs and uses.

8.         Understand and act on the local need for local products.

9.         Have local conversations about how best to meet local needs.

10.       Understand the implications of “labor-saving” technologies that, in fact are “people- replacing” technologies.   Ensure that land-using economies are led by skilled and careful        workers.

11.       Make sure that local people who do the actual work are supported. 

12.       Confront social prejudice against people who work the land.

            Berry makes important points about how to sustain agrarian communities.  At the same time, however, I would argue that it is important to keep in mind that we have, indeed, entered a new era.  While family farms are one key to strengthening small, rural communities, we need to acknowledge that jobs in coal mining and factories on which many small communities were built are not coming back.  Most communities need to attract new jobs.  In many cases, the supply chains for these jobs will be tied to the new global, multi-cultural society that has developed around information society.  To succeed, we need to educate our young people for the work of the future so that they can create a new sense of community—one that recognizes the importance of local culture in a context that the economy will support in the future.  The challenge is to build true and sustainable local cultures that also embrace and maintain bridges to the emerging global culture and economy.  It is a challenge for our schools and for local and state governments and for individual citizens as we live our daily lives.  

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