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Agriculture and economics
October 23, 2011 - 10:00pm

Every year or two, I need to restore what passes for my sanity. When that need arises, I read. More specifically, I re-read. And one of the writers it does me the most good to re-read is Wendell Berry.

One of the unusual things about re-reading Berry is that I can often do it whilst holding a relatively new book. Somehow, this guy gets more reuse out of already-published material than anybody this side of the old Mad Magazine. On the other hand, his writing is of a standard that Mad (and most other periodicals) never began to approach, and his insights are far more enduring than the topical humor Mad was (might still be, for that matter) known for.

Berry writes about agriculture. But he's never writing just about agriculture. He sees agriculture as the basis of civilization, not just historically but culturally. Thus, when agriculture is ailing it bodes ill for the surrounding culture. And economy. And political system.

An example. In an essay on the subject of confined animal feeding operations (CAFO's), he states "We have animal factories ... because of a governmental addiction to short-term economics. Short-term economics is the practice of making as much money as you can by any possible means while ignoring the long-term effects. Short-term economics is the economics of self-interest and greed. People who operate on the basis of short-term economics accumulate large 'externalized' costs, which they charge to the future -- that is to the world, and to everybody's grandchildren." The reference to animal husbandry (or its opposite) aside, a pretty clear statement of the emerging platform of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement. And it was first published in 2002.

While assessing the impacts of industrial metaphors on American farming, Berry makes his point by quoting a US Secretary of Agriculture to the effect that Chinese farming practices are (or, at least, were) antiquated and labor-inefficient, yet somehow nine times as productive per acre as US methods. I quibble about the tense because the official was Bob Bergland, and Berry's article was first published in 1978. That US government and culture still evaluates farming efficiency on the basis of labor hours rather than fixed natural resources is an indication of just how addicted to short-term economics we continue to be. We can't say we didn't know.

One of the aspects of Berry's writing that helps me with that putative-sanity thing is the fine way he crafts a sentence, a paragraph, an argument. But another is that it serves to remind me of just how clearly, and how long, any logic which contravenes conventional "wisdom" must be set forth to facilitate societal change. But change is taking hold, if only slowly, unevenly, uncertainly. Berry's thinking has affected the food movements (slow, local, organic, etc.), the design world, the concept of -- and aspiration for -- a sustainable society, and now the "Occupy" movement.

I don't know whether the folks camped out on Wall Street know of their debt to Wendell Berry or not. In the final analysis, it probably doesn't matter. But his writing certainly does.


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