Wendell Berry is a leading critic of US “Big Agri” and mechanistic farming. “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture”, his classic work, was first published in 1977 and a third edition released in 1996.
Berry’s book is a substantial critique of modernist agriculture and also the modern world which mirrors these values, or more correctly, agriculture is a social construction of the capitalist mind-set-reductionist, exploitative rather than nurturing, and managed by technocrats or ‘specialists” who see only the trees (for profit), and not the forest. The rule of “specialisation” ultimately leads to community breakdown: “though society becomes more and more intricate, it has less and less structure. It becomes more and more organised, but less and less orderly. The community disintegrates because it loses the necessary understandings, forms and enactments of the relations among materials and processes, principles and actions, ideals and realities, past and present, present and future, men and women, body and spirit, city and country, civilisation and wilderness, growth and decay, life and death – just as the individual character loses the sense of responsible involvement in these relations.
No longer does human life rise from the earth like a pyramid, broadly and considerably founded upon its resources. Now it scatters itself out in a reckless horizontal sprawl, like a disorderly city whose suburbs and pavements destroy the fields”. (p.21) That is the essence of Berry’s critique of modern agriculture, culture and society: that is has embraced a self-destructive, reductive materialist quest for domination and cancerous growth, that can only lead to short-term ill-health, and longer-term, disintegration.
The mentality of the commodification of life has spread so widely and deeply, that he notes in the 1970s some of the largest conservation organisations had stocks in environmentally destructive corporations such as Big Oil. Beyond that though, even at that time, he observed the limits of environmental movements which typically put nature at a distance an d “under glass”. Why, he asks, should people care about landscapes and wilderness if they are excluded from them?
Lacking from modern agriculture and society is “kindly use”, the wisdom of having “intimate knowledge”, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility”. Such kindly use in agriculture encompasses both farm and household as both mutually interact, and indeed the classic idea of a farm embraced the idea of a household, living off the land. Farms in America’s past (and also Australia’s) involved people living within them and living from them, obtaining their own food – vegetables, fruit, eggs and meat. There was diversified production, not a mono-crop or one type of animal. But the “monomania of bigness” became the primarily direction of American and Western agriculture after World War II with the chemical-based mechanised agriculture essentially killing off the small farms.
Largeness in agriculture, as in society, leads to a change in philosophy and values. An ethics of land husbandry is replaced by an ethics of finance and technology, by accounting rather than good farming practice: “The economy of money has infiltrated and subverted the economies of nature, energy and the human spirit”. With great insight, Berry in the 1970s saw where all of this was leading: to the “totally controlled agricultural environment” which, as an example, we have today with orthodox egg production.
The mechanisation of agriculture not merely destroys jobs but drags in a process of spiritual destruction as well, mirrored in the wider society as the life of the soil is analogous to the life of the spirit: “The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life”. As well, in the ancient past agriculture has been intimately connected with the mysteries of life: “By farming we enact our fundamental connection with energy and matter, light and darkness. In the cycles of farming, which carry the elemental energy again and again through the seasons and the bodies of living things, we recognise the only infinitude within reach of the imagination”. However, this sacred thread has been broken with Big Agri and the cult of chemicals.
Agriculture should thus be based upon a life purpose and must preserve the integrity of life conforming “to natural processes and limits rather than to mechanical and economic models”. In essence: “The appropriate agricultural technology would therefore be diverse; it would aspire to diversity; it would enable the diversification of economies, methods and species to conform to the diverse kinds of land. It would always use plants and animals together. it would be as attentive to decay as to growth, to maintenance as to production. It would return all wastes to the soil, control erosion, and conserve water. To enable care and devotion and to safeguard the local communities and cultures of agriculture, it would use the land in small holdings. It would aspire to make each farm so far as possible the source of its own operating energy, by use of human energy, work animals, methane, wind or water or solar power. The mechanical aspect of the techno logy would serve to harness or enhance the energy available on the farm. It would not be permitted to replace such energies with imported fuels, to replace people, or to replace or reduce human skills”.
Although this seems an impossible romantic dream today Berry points out near the end of his book that the Amish communities, for religious reasons have adhered to may of the “small is beautiful” ideas. They have refused to see technology as an end-in-itself and live well without many of the things we take for granted such as television and electricity. Farming is usually done using horses and without industrial chemicals. And they thrive both in agriculture and community life.
In conclusion, Wendell Berry’s “The Unsettling of America” is just as relevant, if not more so, to us today, as the trends of giantism are now compared to the 1970s. Books such as this give us hope in a world seemingly hurtling towards destruction.