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The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture Paperback – September 15, 2015
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His basic premise is to decry modern technology’s inexorable lurch towards ‘efficiency’, what Spike South and I used to speak of as ‘the spirit of the hound’, the tendency of the technocracy to go after the jugular of an issue with fangs bared and no holds barred; no complex human dimensions need be considered. The growing efficiency is manifested in the legions of ‘experts and specialists’. Berry points out the modern person has become merely a ‘consumer’, who lives in a house built by a specialist, drives a car built by another specialist, eats food grown and processed by other specialists, and, after a day of work at his own specialty, comes home to be entertained by entertainment specialists on television. The consumer may live an entire life without eating any food he has produced or using a single item he has crafted.
Berry focuses on the effects of specialization on U.S. agriculture, how its growth into ‘Agribusiness’, controlled by large corporations and, abetted by the Dept. of Agriculture and the land grant colleges, has virtually destroyed the equilibrium of traditional farming. Agribusiness is a sprawling industrial complex that includes the petrochemical industry for fertilizer and fuel, heavy equipment manufacturers of tractors and other machinery, processing, packaging, and transportation networks, and wealthy financial organizations that drive farmers into debt as they are forced to acquire the new technology or perish. At one point he calls modern farmers colonies of the petrochemical industry. He calls this technologically based agriculture ‘orthodox agriculture’. He bears especial animus towards former Sectretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who he sees as having set the tone and propagandized for Agribusiness, ‘weaponizing food’, modulating international food supplies, and depopulating the agricultural population, driving those folks off their ancestral lands and into alienation and despair in the cities.
He sees traditional farming, with a healthy dose of modern enlightenment, as the ideal; a farm that uses natural energy, that of the sun, of draft animals, of the earth, water, and of the farmers themselves, instead of full dependence on fossil fuel and heavy machinery. This farm has a multitude of crops and animals- not the unnatural monoculture touted by modern orthodoxy- uses crop rotation, animal manure as fertilizer, and other natural resources for buildings and farm operations. The orthodox, chemical farm treats animal manure as ‘toxic waste’ and so creates itself the problem of disposing of the waste instead of usefully composting it. By studying the few old fashioned remaining farms, with a special reverence for the Amish and their simple yet highly sophisticated and intelligent agricultural methods, Berry shows that productivity per acre on these traditional, manured farms, even using draft animals largely in place of tractors and other heavy machinery, is on a par with chemical farms. Furthermore, they are sustainable for generations, whereas chemical farms are not. What he doesn’t emphasize, however, is that the number of acres that can be managed per person by the traditional farm is far less than for the chemical farm. But from his perspective this is just as well, since he worries for all the rural people displaced to the cities; many could come back to the agricultural life if government land and agricultural policy were not so tilted against them. He invokes Thomas Jefferson’s idea of the U.S. populace as a multitude of small land freeholders, each with enough land to support a family and some modicum of commercial activity. Berry points out that there are many implicit assumptions in current policy, such as that, given the choice to work or not work, most people would rather not work at all. That education is only possible in schools, and not by experience, that thinking should be done in laboratories and offices, not by farmers themselves. That plants and animals, including humans, are machines, so that machine based agricultural is the most natural and desirable direction.
In short, Berry sees an Amish lifestyle as the closest to a sustainable, community-oriented, organic healthiness for a society. He is imbued of the Judeo-Christian tradition so imputes morality to all our actions and activities, and believes in an absolute good, not moral relativism; absolute good is what produces sustainable, balanced health, in its broadest sense. This is both wonderful and unattainably quixotic. I have always appreciated the Amish for their values; hard, devout work, natural integration into Earth’s ecology, and let one not grow prosperous by one’s work, rather yet more devout.
In much earlier years I had conspired with Spike South along such lines, albeit with not nearly the depth of thought or experience of Berry, that we should seek acreage, perhaps a hundred or so, possibly in the North Carolina or other mid-Atlantic state, and betake ourselves yonder, most likely with wives, to do exactly that. Begin self-sufficiency agriculture and building, creating a sustainable lifestyle, later with children to come. Instead of working out at the gym or jogging, the work itself would be the purposeful exercise for existence.
Through the years, while still in the throes of ‘being a specialist’ (scientist, whatever), this yearning never ceased, while its realization remained impractical, what with the demands of orthodox specialization and family. But lo, after several decades the stars aligned such that it became possible to purchase a modest free holding in a rural area; we acquired thirty eight beautiful acres of Mississippi hardwood hills at a low cost. While un-natural – it is the product of urban wealth earned through specialization, and exported to the country- it is exhilarating. There is every opportunity to experiment with nature, with agriculture, with forestry, with watersheds, with building, with weather, the opportunity to learn and both succeed and fail. For me it is a joy to exert the body, sweat, pant, and groan at these labors, and fall delightfully weary into slumber at night. The artificiality, of course, is that it is all done as a homesteading hobby, yet with an economic anchor in specialty, in the city of New Orleans, so failures don’t lead to ruin.
There are many, many movements and sub-currents throughout the U.S. trying to go against the monoculture, chemical farm. Farm to table, the locavore movement, school garden plots, and the like, all contest the hegemony of General Mills, Wendy’s, factory farms and the like. The locus of arguments against this is that, to sustain seven billion people on the planet the chemical farm is a necessity, and so it is actually selfish to think of re-personalizing agriculture, as billions could starve. Berry’s counter argument is that, no, productivity of sustainable, organic farming is on a par with chemical/heavy machinery farming so this dire outlook is untrue. However, for the organic, sustainable approach to work, a large part of the populace would have to become rural again. In Physics, the principle of least action, of a system falling into the lowest energy state available seems to apply well to humans. To demand that they endothermically trudge back up hill and work their bodies hard to feed themselves is like commanding water to flow upwards. Aint’ gonna happen. But gotta love Berry’s unbridled idealism.
I was blown away by how much we think alike about our current state of agriculture and our disposable society! The seeds of this current unsustainable life style really go deep and wide, far deeper and wider than I had realized, and I've been seeing most of these problems and working to change them in my own life for over 50 years.
On the other hand, gratefully, this book also showed me a few areas where I need to make some improvements in my level of sustainability - and I had thought I was doing very well all of the way around on my little homestead.
Deeply insightful about why some old fashioned stuff actually matters like topos and relationships and restraint.
At the same time the book comes back to very practical discussion of ag and ed policy and why those have failed us.