Wendell Berry - always relevant and poignant

I just stumbled upon this essay, written in the aftermath of 9/11, but which has important things to say to some of the current discussions about a new economy and the role of technology. I've taken the liberty of highlighting some sections.

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

by Wendell Berry, Autumn 2001 (reprinted in 73 countries and 7 languages) 

I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day. 

II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living in a "new world order" and a "new economy" that would "grow" on and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would be "unprecedented". 

III. The dominant politicians, corporate officers, and investors who believed this proposition did not acknowledge that the prosperity was limited to a tiny percent of the world's people, and to an ever smaller number of people even in the United States; that it was founded upon the oppressive labor of poor people all over the world; and that its ecological costs increasingly threatened all life, including the lives of the supposedly prosperous.

IV. The "developed" nations had given to the "free market" the status of a god, and were sacrificing to it their farmers, farmlands, and communities, their forests, wetlands, and prairies, their ecosystems and watersheds. They had accepted universal pollution and global warming as normal costs of doing business. 

V. There was, as a consequence, a growing worldwide effort on behalf of economic decentralization, economic justice, and ecological responsibility. We must recognize that the events of September 11 make this effort more necessary than ever. We citizens of the industrial countries must continue the labor of self-criticism and self-correction. We must recognize our mistakes. 

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary, that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to the next, which would cause the economy to "grow" and make everything better and better. This of course implied at every point a hatred of the past, of all things inherited and free. All things superceded in our progress of innovations, whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no value at all. 

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened. We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind of war that would turn our previous innovations against us, discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free. 

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science that we marketed and taught to the world would become available, not just to recognized national governments, which possess so uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also to "rogue nations", dissident or fanatical groups and individuals - whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is judged by the nations to be illegitimate. 

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be used to destroy what is good, including our homelands and our lives.

X. We had accepted too the corollary belief that an economy (either as a money economy or as a life-support system) that is global in extent, technologically complex, and centralized is invulnerable to terrorism, sabotage, or war, and that it is protectable by "national defense" 

XI. We now have a clear, inescapable choice that we must make. We can continue to promote a global economic system of unlimited "free trade" among corporations, held together by long and highly vulnerable lines of communication and supply, but now recognizing that such a system will have to be protected by a hugely expensive police force that will be worldwide, whether maintained by one nation or several or all, and that such a police force will be effective precisely to the extent that it oversways the freedom and privacy of the citizens of every nation. 

XII. Or we can promote a decentralized world economy which would have the aim of assuring to every nation and region a local self-sufficiency in life-supporting goods. This would not eliminate international trade, but it would tend toward a trade in surpluses after local needs had been met. 

XIII. One of the gravest dangers to us now, second only to further terrorist attacks against our people, is that we will attempt to go on as before with the corporate program of global "free trade", whatever the cost in freedom and civil rights, without self-questioning or self-criticism or public debate. 

XIV. This is why the substitution of rhetoric for thought, always a temptation in a national crisis, must be resisted by officials and citizens alike. It is hard for ordinary citizens to know what is actually happening in Washington in a time of such great trouble; for all we know, serious and difficult thought may be taking place there. But the talk that we are hearing from politicians, bureaucrats, and commentators has so far tended to reduce the complex problems now facing us to issues of unity, security, normality, and retaliation. 

XV. National self-righteousness, like personal self-righteousness, is a mistake. It is misleading. It is a sign of weakness. Any war that we may make now against terrorism will come as a new installment in a history of war in which we have fully participated. We are not innocent of making war against civilian populations. The modern doctrine of such warfare was set forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that doctrine. 

XVI. It is a mistake also - as events since September 11 have shown - to suppose that a government can promote and participate in a global economy and at the same time act exclusively in its own interest by abrogating its international treaties and standing apart from international cooperation on moral issues. 

XVII. And surely, in our country, under our Constitution, it is a fundamental error to suppose that any crisis or emergency can justify any form of political oppression. Since September 11, far too many public voices have presumed to "speak for us" in saying that Americans will gladly accept a reduction of freedom in exchange for greater "security". Some would, maybe. But some others would accept a reduction in security (and in global trade) far more willingly than they would accept any abridgement of our Constitutional rights. 

XVIII. In a time such as this, when we have been seriously and most cruelly hurt by those who hate us, and when we must consider ourselves to be gravely threatened by those same people, it is hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary for being difficult. 

XIX. Even now we dare not forget that since the attack of Pearl Harbor - to which the present attack has been often and not usefully compared - we humans have suffered an almost uninterrupted sequence of wars, none of which has brought peace or made us more peaceable. 

XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need something new to replace our perpetual "war to end war?" 

XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active state of being. We should recognize that while we have extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example, several national military academies, but not one peace academy. We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable, whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no money. 

XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable. 

XXIII. We must not again allow public emotion or the public media to caricature our enemies. If our enemies are now to be some nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies. Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts, and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those people have for hating us. 

XXIV. Starting with the economies of food and farming, we should promote at home, and encourage abroad, the ideal of local self-sufficiency. We should recognize that this is the surest, the safest, and the cheapest way for the world to live. We should not countenance the loss or destruction of any local capacity to produce necessary goods. 

XXV. We should reconsider and renew and extend our efforts to protect the natural foundations of the human economy: soil, water, and air. We should protect every intact ecosystem and watershed that we have left, and begin restoration of those that have been damaged. 

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never before that we need to change our present concept of education. Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not to serve industries, either by job-training or by industry-subsidized research. Its proper use is to enable citizens to live lives that are economically, politically, socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" – which is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A proper education enables young people to put their lives in order, which means knowing what things are more important than other things; it means putting first things first. 

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a "new economy", but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.


Views: 170

Comment by Kevin Parcell on November 28, 2011 at 12:45am
Berry has had the strongest influence of any on the development of my own work, and these excerpts outline the project that I'm now engaged in with like thinkers around the globe, described at http://reconomy.net.

Throughout his work, Berry argues that community and economy are almost interchangeable terms. He also argues as beautifully as anything Einstein ever offered that people find their purpose in community/economy tied to the land, by illustrating the absurdity of a global economy that through increasingly efficient production moves people from the land to unemployment in cities. Imo, to move back to an economy organized around people working to produce meals we need to step up our attention to small scale sustainable practices, the discarding of which might account for Berry's unusual vehemence in this essay, such as when he writes of a hatred of the past.
Comment by David Eggleton on November 28, 2011 at 10:23am

"We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free."

To which we does Berry refer?  Ivan Illich wrote in his introduction to Tools for Conviviality (1973) that

I here submit the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man's relation to his tools.  In each of several dimensions of this balance it is possible to identify a natural scale.  When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself.  These scales must be identified and the parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored. 

Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society's members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior.

If you (anyone reading this) never read the book, now is a fine time to do so.


Comment by Robert Riversong on November 28, 2011 at 10:30am


The problem I have with your description of Reconomy is its tagline: A Strategy for Sustainable Prosperity.

It's the same issue I've had with much of the discussion on this site about a "thriveable economy" and or the oxymoronic "sustainable growth". They perpetuate the current assumption that, with appropriately clever reforms or innovations or changes, we can continue our global cultural obsession with prosperity, wealth, growth, material comfort and security - because that is what "prosperity" means to the world today.

Jimmy Carter was castigated for telling the American people a simple truth: if we want to save energy (and save the planet) we have to adjust to being a little less comfortable (turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater).

This is the message we must be propagating: that we cannot continue to assume unrealistic and unsustainable levels of material comfort and security with an exponentially-growing population on a finite planet that has already been severely diminished in its life-support capability. And that means we must stop using loaded terms like "prosperity".

If what we mean by that is a re-valuation of the relational and spiritual core of human well-being and a devaluation of material well-being, ownership and accumulation, then we must be be explicit in that. Otherwise, we're simply missionaries of a re-packaged lie.


Comment by Kevin Parcell on November 28, 2011 at 12:01pm

Robert, thank you for your comment.  I take your point and I think it might be of some value for us to discuss briefly.  However, you've committed the fallacy of ad hominem, which I believe always signifies that debate would not be profitable.  And so, if you would like us to discuss your point, then you'll need to first acknowledge this error. On the other hand, if you prefer to leave things as they are, then again I thank you for taking the time to reply to my comment.

Comment by Robert Riversong on November 28, 2011 at 12:26pm

I have committed no such logical fallacy, as I have not in any way attacked the messenger in order to undermine the message. I have challenged your message. If you take that personally, then the fault lies with you and you are merely evading answering the substantive challenge.

Comment by Kevin Parcell on November 28, 2011 at 12:30pm

"Otherwise, we're simply missionaries of a re-packaged lie."

This is clear.  I'm sorry but I'll have to decline the opportunity.


Comment by Robert Riversong on November 28, 2011 at 12:43pm


"If what we mean by that is a re-valuation of the relational and spiritual core of human well-being and a devaluation of material well-being, ownership and accumulation, then we must be be explicit in that. Otherwise, we're simply missionaries of a re-packaged lie."

That is a simple and valid syllogism that uses the generalized "we", not the focused ad hominem "you". It is a substantive critique, not a personal attack. If you choose to receive it as personal, then it is you who are conflating your statements with your character. 

You're still evading the challenge.

Comment by Kevin Parcell on November 28, 2011 at 12:47pm
No thank you.
Comment by Robert Riversong on November 28, 2011 at 6:26pm

"To which we does Berry refer?"

Clearly, the same "we" that Illich pondered: humanity.

"Society can be destroyed...when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell"

While Illich could not have imagined the WWW in 1973, he could just as well been referring to it in this comment. We pretend that the internet connects us, even though we are hardwired to truly relate to, empathize with, and feel emotions towards those with whom we share a real on-the-ground place. The Web creates the illusion of connectivity, just as Illich pointed out that automobiles create only the illusion of high speed transport.

When Berry warns us that "We never considered the possibility that we might be trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was supposed to make us free", he's mimicking Illich's earlier conclusions.

Scale is all-important. Democracy happens only on the scale of a city-state. Relationships happen only within a village scale (Dunbar's number). 

Comment by David Eggleton on November 28, 2011 at 7:03pm

I think Berry's we never really means enough of us did not, since Illich, his readers and some influenced by them did consider that technology had trapped our neighbors and ourselves.  Not enough of us got the word out.

What important messages are we failing to share and spread today?


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