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January 30, 2008

Wendell Berry On The "Environmental Crisis" Activism  Environment

Had some time on my hands today as I spent the day hooked up to an IV, which gave me the opportunity to do something that's been on my to-do list for a while — type in a passage I love from Wendell Berry's essay "The Idea of a Local Economy":

The "environmental crisis" has happened because the human household or economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a supply of "raw materials," and that we may safely possess those materials merely by taking them. This taking, as our technical means have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less gratitude, less local knowledge, and less skill. Our methodologies of land use have strayed from our old sympathetic attempts to imitate natural processes, and have come more and more to resemble the methodology of mining, even as mining itself has become more technologically powerful and more brutal.

And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive as "environmental" problems without correcting the economic oversimplification that caused them. This oversimplification is now either a matter of corporate behavior or of behavior under the influence of corporate behavior. This is sufficiently clear to many of us. What is not sufficiently clear, perhaps to any of us, is the extent of our complicity, as individuals and especially as individual consumers, in the behavior of corporations.

What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently most people in the "developed" world, have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter. Moreover, they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of "service" that once were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or households or communities. Our major economic practice, in short, is to delegate the practice to others.

The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the solution to the "environmental crisis" can be merely political — that the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated by a few people to whom we will give our proxies to police the economic proxies that we have already given. The danger, in other words, is that people will think they have made a sufficient change if they have altered their "values," or had a "change of heart," or experienced a "spiritual awakening," and that such a change in passive consumers will cause appropriate changes in the public experts, politicians, and corporate executives to whom they have granted their political and economic proxies.

The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use of nature must be practiced not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves. A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life. The "environmental crisis," in fact, can be solved only if people, individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their thoughtlessly given proxies. If people begin the effort to take back into their own power a significant portion of their economic responsibility, then their inevitable first discovery is that the "environmental crisis" is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals, as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an "environmental crisis" because we have consented to an economy in which by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying ourselves we are destroying the natural, god-given world.

I usually highlight the important bits in bold, but in this case that would mean highlighting the whole thing. It's a deeply considered and beautifully expressed set of ideas. Each sentence, each thought, is well worth savoring and reflecting on. That's what I think, anyway. I love it.

I don't take it to mean we shouldn't be acting politically to rein in the corporations, rather that just reining them in (or getting some leader to rein them in) isn't enough. We need to replace them with something better, something more on a human scale, something sustainable that nourishes us in the deepest sense of the word and that truly belongs in the "natural, god-given world."

There's a lot more that could be said — about the bizarre legal doctrine that grants corporations the same legal rights as persons, for example; or that they, unlike persons, can live forever, amassing enormous wealth and political power; that they don't need clean air to breath or clean water to drink, they're just machines programmed to maximize profit, and they behave accordingly; that they have almost limitless powers of persuasion via advertising and media generally, so the struggle of persons versus corporations long ago stopped being anything resembling a fair fight. Those are important issues. But for now, let's just read Berry's words and take them in. We'll come back to them.

Posted by Jonathan at January 30, 2008 10:08 PM  del.icio.us digg NewsVine Reddit YahooMyWeb