[On Sundays, Career Calling looks beyond our jobs to how work impacts our lives.]
Working for the Earth and Local Economies
This Sunday feature was inspired by the Sabbath poems of Wendell Berry. Now Berry earns our respect by his effort to convince the governor of Kentucky, Steve Beshear, to end the practice of mountaintop removal. Along with 13 other protestors, Berry stayed in the Governor’s office for four days. Beshear did agree to visit some open mining sites and talk to protesters, but he also said that he sees nothing wrong with a practice that scars the earth and pollutes water.
Berry disagrees. He told interviewer Jeff Biggers of Yes! Magazine: “You can go to a little stream that’s coming down off the mountain, and you know that one day that stream ran clear and you could have knelt down and drunk from it without any hesitation—it would have been clean. And now it’s running orange or black. And what people have to understand is that there’s heartbreak in that.” Berry is not a radical or a tree hugger. Anyone who reads his essays or poems knows that he is a traditionalist who loves the land. Coal companies love only money.
Berry is also not a wide-eyed optimist. He tells Biggers that there is no guarantee that the protest will make a difference. What can be changed, he says, is minds. Berry and his fellow protesters will continue to argue and persuade. They are working to save their state and a way of life.
Berry’s current protest can be linked to his broader ideas, which he outlines in the “The Total Economy,” an essay in What Matters: Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. Rather than simply point the finger at corporations, Berry also implicates all of us as consumers who “have given proxies to the corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and shelter.”
Two conditions of the current economy are that raw materials must stay cheap and the supply of workers must exceed the demand, which will keep wages low. Berry sees this trend as a world problem in which country people (farmers) are forced into the city. This transformation, in turn, changes farming by making it a mass market enterprise in which the farmer cannot afford just to sell to (or trade with) his neighbors. Not only are price and quality lowered, but there is also no sense of “stewardship” of the land. The agribusiness farmer has the same goal as the coal company that practices strip mining: more money and more money.
Like another of my favorite writers, Thom Hartmann, Berry debunks the claim that corporations should have the rights of individuals: “A corporation is, essentially, a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance. Unlike a person, a corporation does not age. It does not arrive, as most people finally do, at a realization of the shortness and smallness of human lives; it does not come to see the future as the lifetime of the children and grandchildren of anybody in particular. . . . It goes about its business as if it were immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.” Berry clearly states that not all corporations or people running them are bad. However, their domination has hurt our economy by promoting big, cheap, and wasteful.
What is Berry’s solution? We need to go back to a local economy in which consumers know where their food and clothes are produced. We need to think about “human and ecological” costs of production. The heart of this new (old) economy would be the “neighborhood,” an area where people would know and care about each other. Berry is not so naïve to think everything can or should be made locally, but he wants people to have more power, which can only be gained from getting beyond an economy dominated by imports and exports. He concludes the essay with these words: “Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.”
Berry is not alone in this thinking. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan argues that our industrial system of food production is neither efficient nor healthy. Many critics have examined the growing power of corporations and how they influence everything from what we eat and wear to the politicians we vote for. Whether the subject is food or elections, the underlying question is one of power: Who will rule, regular people or faceless corporations?
On the surface, Berry’s Sabbath poems have no political content. However, in the light of his protest against the Governor and the “Total Economy,” we see a deeper ideological blueprint in the respect for natural processes and time, which are often the vision of his poems:
“How long does it take to make the woods.
As long as it takes to make the world.
The woods is present as the world is, the presence
of all its past, and of all of its time to come.
To come into the woods you must leave behind
the six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.