The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.
But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.
When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all. A large failure is worse than a small one, and this has the sound of an axiom, but how many believe it?
Yet another not very stretchable human limit is in our ability to tolerate or adapt to change. Change of course is a constant of earthly life. You can’t step twice into exactly the same river, nor can you live two successive moments in exactly the same place. And always in human history there have been costly or catastrophic sudden changes. But with relentless fanfare, at the cost of almost indescribable ecological and social disorder, and to the almost incalculable enrichment and empowerment of corporations, industrialists have substituted what they fairly accurately call “revolution” for the slower, kinder processes of adaptation or evolution. We have had in only about two centuries a steady and ever-quickening sequence of industrial revolutions in manufacturing, transportation, war, agriculture, education, entertainment, homemaking and family life, health care, and so-called communications.
Probably everything that can be said in favor of all this has been said, and it is true that these revolutions have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain. It is also true that the industrialization of everything has incurred liabilities and is running deficits that have not been adequately accounted. All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans. And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.
But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.
– from the National Endowment of the Humanities “Jefferson Lecture” by Wendell Berry
Dear Mr. Berry,
I don’t like your writing and I’m sure if you bothered to read my blog for more than five minutes, you wouldn’t like mine. But the last time I tried criticizing your writing I caused quite a bit of a stir, at least for this little blog, because I hadn’t familiarized myself with your work. I promised that the next time I wrote about you I would read some of your stuff. It is just over a year later and while I haven’t read any of your older work, I just had the opportunity of closely reading your recent lecture, delivered as part of the award of receiving the “Jefferson Lecture” from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The NEH says the award “recognizes an individual who has made significant scholarly contributions to the humanities and who has the ability to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities in a broadly appealing way.” It is also “the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities.” Looking over previous recipients, I don’t see too many affirmative action inclusions and in general, most folks who got the award (e.g. Saul Bellow, Leszek Kolakowski, Bernard Lewis, Don Kagan, Tom Wolfe, Leon Kass) are indeed impressive public intellectuals.
Judging you, on the other hand, from the quality of your lecture, not so much.
In fact, I’m going to break one of my newer vows to myself to try and be more civil with my erstwhile interlocutors and keep describing you as insane. How else can I describe someone who remains committed to the radical destruction of Western civilization? Make no mistake about it — I quoted big sections of your lecture for a reason — I wanted folks to read you in context. This might be my favorite part: “All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans.” All preceded by what might go down as the most famous weasel words spoken by someone who is supposed to be a public intellectual: “and it is true that these revolutions [meaning the industrial revolution and modern capitalism] have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain.” Look, I’m not even a libertarian utopian and yet the sheer numbers of people who have been healed and helped and been given hope thanks to the wonders of the industrial revolution is mind-boggling. There is probably only one graph anyone needs to see to change their mind — it is the graph that proved Malthus wrong:
I went through this ’round and ’round with your defenders the last time I posted about you, and most of them basically told me I was reading you out of context or that you just wanted Western man to appreciate “limits” and/or the costs as well as the benefits of industrialization. It turns out I was exactly right about you. You are radical down to your bones and your jeremiad given in Washington is totally fact free. Another favorite from what I quote above is this:
“At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature.”
Not a single fact to be found in all that gaseous prose. I’d like to give you (and all my readers) a homework assignment — go to this wonderful website hosted by the Pacific Research Institute and get acquainted with some of their work. Their best writer is Steven Hayward who has been preparing the Almanac of Environmental Trends for years, has this to say in their latest edition:
As Figure 1 displays, the reduction in air pollution is comparable in magnitude to the reduction in the welfare rolls, and greater than the reduction in the crime rate—both celebrated as major public-policy success stories of the last two decades. Aggregate emissions of the six “criteria” pollutants1 regulated under the Clean Air Act have fallen by 53 percent since 1970, while the proportion of the population receiving welfare assistance is down 48 percent from 1970, and the crime rate is only 6.4 percent below its 1970 level. (And as we shall see, this aggregate nationwide reduction in emissions greatly understates the actual improvement in ambient air quality in the areas with the worst levels of air pollution.) Measures for water quality, toxic-chemical exposure, soil erosion, forest growth, wetlands, and several other areas of environmental concern show similar positive trends, as this Almanac reports. To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the environment have been greatly exaggerated. Moreover, there is good reason to believe that these kinds of improvements will be experienced in the rest of the world over the course of this century. We’ll examine some of the early evidence that this is already starting to occur.
The chief drivers of environmental improvement are economic growth, constantly increasing resource efficiency, technological innovation in pollution control, and the deepening of environmental values among the American public that have translated to changed behavior and consumer preferences. Government regulation has played a vital role, to be sure, but in the grand scheme of things regulation can be understood as a lagging indicator, often achieving results at needlessly high cost, and sometimes failing completely. Were it not for rising affluence and technological innovation, regulation would have much the same effect as King Canute commanding the tides.
Good stuff and I should note that Hayward dedicates his almanac, appropriately enough, to the late, great, Julian Simon. They both understand what you do not — that just because human beings occasionally screw-up doesn’t mean we don’t also accomplish great things.
Indeed, even when it comes to farming human ingenuity has been remarkable. Tell one of your friends to Google Norman Borlaug for you and read up a bit on one of the most important men of the 20th Century. Just think of the sheer number of people whose lives have been seriously helped by Norman’s innovations (and he got his start at DuPont — the horror of it). And then when it comes to the so-called harm we might do with modern farming techniques, I read this delightful article and discover that industrial agriculture isn’t even the threat to the environment doomsayers like you say it is — and this is the one subject you are supposedly the expert on.
Quite frankly, I don’t trust you. I’d rather get my farming advice from Blake Hurst, who seems to understand modern industrial farming just fine, and loves to work his family farm with all the benefits of modern technology. God bless him.
And what the heck do you mean by “the two great aims of industrialism” are “replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy.” Says who? This is more nonsense — the great aim of industrialization was the same as the aim of all human innovation, trade and hard work: to better our lot and improve our lives. And judging by the graph above, it has done that in countless ways that only someone blinded by ideology could ignore.
Your crazed ideas about our modern economy (which is by no means perfect, but then again ever since the Fall, nothing we humans will do on Earth will be perfect, at least we can agree on that) do remind me of someone…let La Wik help you figure it out:
[the guy who reminds me of Wendell Berry and his followers] had been evacuating captured urban areas for many years, but the evacuation of [Louisville] was unique due to its scale. The first operations to evacuate urban areas occurred in 2043 in the [Jefferson County] area and were aimed at moving people deeper into [Wendell Berry] territory to better control them. From 2046–2048, the motivation changed. [Wendell Berry] and the other senior leaders were frustrated that urban Kentuckians were retaining old habits of trade and business. When all other methods had failed, evacuation to the countryside was adopted to solve the problem.
O.K., even for me that’s a low blow. You don’t believe in violence or collectivization (just the opposite I know) and you have a deep respect and love for your fellow man, unlike the mad man I’m referring to above. But don’t you have any idea that if folks start to take you seriously then there is no way to turn back the clock on industrialization without massive human suffering (partly because industrialization does so much good, which you are foolish not to understand; and partly because most people do know this and will resist those who want to destroy the real humane lives folks have built for themselves and their families in our modern industrial world)?
I can agree with you that monopolies are bad and your grandfather was treated unjustly — free-market types like me are all for vigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws. Other than that, your lecture proves once again, that when it comes to ideas about our modern world, there is no other conclusion but that you have been driven insane by your ideology and a vapid Obama bureaucrat decided to recognize your insanity. What’s this world coming to?