The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture
San Francisco: Sierra Club Books ©1997
What is the substance and value of civilization, of limits, of restraint? Should we do something just because we can — or are some things unwise, unsafe at any speed, even if they are possible? Albert Einstein helped invent the atomic bomb and spent the rest of his life trying to put that genie back in the bottle. We can plant corn 'fencerow to fencerow' every year in the same ground and convert it into ethanol to feed motorized vehicles, but will that be good for our land, our air, our water, our lives and livelihoods in the long term? How is it that five thousand years of sustained global land use for agriculture has been virtually undone within fifty years under the system of industrialized agriculture we now know as 'agribusiness'?
In the Afterword to this third edition, Wendell Berry identifies the reason why, ten years even further on, his premise remains important: "The argument set forth in this book, though it has been much and sometimes vehemently disagreed with, has never been answered, let alone disproved. For this, surely the paramount reason is that events have continued to confirm my argument at every point. The enormous productivity of industrial agriculture cannot be denied, but neither can its enormous ecological, economic, and human costs, which are bound eventually to damage its productivity. The book's tragedy is that it is true."
Any discussion of agriculture or farming as a worthwhile vocation, a positive part of living in the world, or as a priceless element of life has long been out of favor, but champions remain. Some, like Wendell Berry, are adamant about its value and articulate in its explication. Others, like the Amish farmers he admires, live their beliefs, simply practicing the arts of husbandry and cultivation in ways that demonstrate the possibilities of spiritual, ecological, and economic balance, and the outcomes of good health for all.
For it is health — of the individual, of the community, of the soil, water, air, and of the planet — that is the true outcome of agriculture well practiced. We've seen just the opposite in too many recent encounters: E. coli outbreaks infecting fresh vegetables like spinach and lettuce, a still-possible contamination of the meat supply by the errant mad cow, cats and dogs killed by the chemical for a plastic that contaminated pet food made with wheat gluten from thousands of miles away. We may think we can fool Mother Nature, but we never succeed, at least, not for long.
Now, watch the TV series' Jericho or the sci-fi fantasy Lost and give another thought to why agricultural skills and the ability to care for the long-term health of the land are critical to everyone's survival. Whether as castaways on a South Pacific island or the remnants of a small town facing the aftermath of nuclear holocaust on the plains of Kansas, even in fictional works, survival = health = food = some form of agricultural cultivation and animal husbandry. How much more critical are such skills to those of us who live in the real world and how much more important is it for real people to use our precious natural resources wisely.
Think of The Unsettling of America as further backstory, maybe even deep background, for Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan, who referenced Berry, wanted to know where his food came from — earth to plate — and found four different paths to follow: industrial agriculture, "big" organic, sustainable organic, and hunter-gatherer. Berry's book considers the first three because he recognizes the civilizing influence on humans that results when they are attached to a particular piece of land. He "argues that good farming is a cultural development and spiritual discipline. Today's agribusiness, however, takes farming out of its cultural context and away from families, and as a nation we are thus more estranged from the land — from the intimate knowledge, love, and care of it."
But this is no esoteric or sentimental discussion for Berry, nor should it be for the rest of us. While he is a writer, poet, teacher, and author of "more than thirty notable works," including The Gift of Good Land; Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community; Fidelity; and What Are People For?, Berry actually farms with his family in Kentucky. In daily life, he does as well as any of us who try to live what we say we believe, and he is a passionate advocate for reclaiming a healthy, balanced, long-term relationship with the earth.
Berry's introductions to the book (two from earlier editions are included) state that he began this discourse in response to government policies of the late 1960s and 1970s. "When I was working on this book — from 1974 to 1977 — the long agricultural decline that it deals with was momentarily disguised as a 'boom.' The big farmers were getting bigger with the help of inflated prices and borrowed money, and the foreign demand for American farm products was strong, so from the official point of view the situation looked good. The big were supposed to get bigger. Foreigners were supposed to be in need of our products. The official point of view, foreshortened as usual by statistics, superstitious theory, and wishful prediction, was utterly complacent. Then Secretary of Agriculture Earl L. Butz issued the most optimistic, the most widely obeyed, and the worst advice ever given to farmers: that they should plant 'fencerow to fencerow.'"
"That the situation was not good — for farms or farmers or rural communities or nature or the general public — was even then evident to any experienced observer who would turn aside from the preconceptions of 'agribusiness' and look at the marks of deterioration that were plainly visible. ...It is evident to everyone that, at least for farmers and rural communities, the situation is catastrophic. ...But this is not just a financial crisis for country people. Critical questions are being asked of our whole society: Are we, or are we not, going to take care proper care of our land, our country? And do we, or do we not, believe in a democratic distribution of usable property? At present, these questions are being answered in the negative." Sadly, another thirty years has not changed the answers.
The Unsettling of America deals with serious issues that have extensive ramifications. It offers a lucid explanation of how our much-vaunted emphasis on competition as the determiner of 'right outcome' actually serves to create the opposite of whatever was intended. "If competition is the correct relation of creatures to one another and to the earth, then we must ask why exploitation is not more successful than it is. ...Why, having lived so long at the expense of other creatures and the earth, are we not healthier and happier than we are?"
Berry's view that culture and agriculture are inextricably linked provides a spiritual core to social systems that have forgotten the value of meaningful work — whether or not that's actually tilling the soil — to the well-being of individuals, communities, and the planet. Perhaps civilization's most valuable contribution is to allow humans time to mature and discover wise and measured use of resources, to understand limits, and to encourage our humility and restraint.