A New Agenda

For humans, local adaptation is not work for a few  financers and a few intellectual and political hotshots. It is work for everybody, requiring everybody’s intelligence. Which makes it work that is inherently democratic. This is a agenda that may be undertaken by ordinary citizens at any time.

Our fundamental problem is world destruction, caused by an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism.  This conflict between Nature and human interest may have begun with the first tools and weapons, but only with the triumph of industrialism has it become absolute.  Today the creaturely world is absolutely at the mercy of industrial processes, which are doing massive ecological damage.  How much of this damage may be repairable by combined economic and cultural changes remains to be seen.

Industrial   destructiveness,   anyhow, is our disease.  Most of our popular worries – climate change, fossil–fuel addiction, pollution, poverty, hunger and legitimated violence- are its symptoms.  If, for example, we were somehow granted a limitless supply of cheap, clean  energy, we would continue and probably even accelerate our destruction of the world by agricultural erosion, chemical poisoning, industrial war, industrial recreation and various forms of  ‘development’.

And  there is no use saying that if we can invent the nuclear bomb and fly to the moon,  then of  course  we can  solve hunger  and related problems of  land  use. Epic feats of engineering require only a few brilliant technicians and a lot of money.  But feeding a world of people year after year for a long time  requires  cultures of  husbandry fitted to the nature of millions of unique small places – precisely the kind of cultures that industrialism has purposely disvalued, uprooted and destroyed.

Hard as  it may  be  for a  dislocated,  miseducated, consumptive society to accept (and for its pet economists to believe),  the future of food is not distinguishable from the future of the land, which is indistinguishable in turn from the future of human care. It depends ultimately on the health not of the financial system, but of the ecosphere. In the interest of that health, we will have to bring all the disciplines, all the arts and sciences, into conformity with the nature of places.

Like other species, we will have to submit to the necessity of local adaptation. I am sure that somebody will wish to remind me of the migration of birds, animals and insects, and also of migrations by humans from  earliest times. Did these involve local adaptation?  Yes: except for those of industrial humans using fossil fuel, all of these migrations have been made under the rule of local adaptation. The humming bird successfully crossing the Gulf of Mexico is adapted, mile by mile, to the distance; it does not exceed its own mental and physical capacities, and it makes the trip, exactly like the pre-industrial  human migrants, on contemporary energy. For humans, local adaptation is not work for a few financiers and a few intellectual and political hotshots.  It is work for everybody, requiring everybody’s intelligence. Which makes it work that is inherently democratic.

So, what must we do?

  • First, we must not work or think on a heroic scale. In our age of global industrialism, heroes too lightly risk the lives of people, place and things they do not see. We must work on a scale proper to our limited abilities. We must not break things we cannot fix. There is no justification, ever, for permanent ecological damage. If this imposes the verdict of guilt upon us all, so be it.
  • Second, we must abandon the homeopathic delusion that the damages done by industrialisation can be corrected by yet more industrialisation.
  • Third, we must quit solving our problems by ‘moving on’. We must try to stay put, and to learn where we are geographically, historically and ecologically.
  • Fourth, we must learn, if we can, the sources and costs of our economic lives.
  • Fifth, we must give up the notion that we are too good to do our own work and clean up our own messes. It is not acceptable for this work to be done for us either by wage slavery or by enslaving Nature.
  • Sixth, by way of correction we must make local, locally adapted economies, based on local Nature, local sunlight, local intelligence and our own local work.
  • Seventh,we must understand that these measures are radical. They go to the root of our problem. They cannot be performed for us by any expert, political leader  or corporation

This is an agenda that may be undertaken by ordinary citizens at any time, on their own initiative. In fact, it describes an effort already undertaken all over the world by many people. It defines also the expectation that citizens who by their gifts are exceptional individuals still will not shirk even the most humble services.

This article is an edited version  of a talk given at the Washington Post Live Future of Food Conference held in May 2012 at Georgetown University, Washington.

Wendell Berry


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