Extracts from an interview with Wendell Berry from the current issue of Humanities journal (sent to me by Richard Flatau):
“I have realized, more and more, that the impulse in my work is the impulse of local adaptation, which puts the burden squarely on my own life. It is understood that nonhuman creatures adapt to their places or they don’t live. And for some reason that I can’t figure out, even the biologists have excused our own species from that obligation. I think there’s going to be a biological penalty to be paid for that eventually.
But for humans it’s not just a biological process. It’s a process that involves us entirely: our imagination, sympathy, affection, our local culture and conversation, local memory. There isn’t anything that can be ruled out as irrelevant to that effort of local adaptation, once we decide to make it. And it’s only in your own life, in your own place, that the effort can be made.
The scientists I know who are working consciously and conscientiously on local adaptation are at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. Theirs is an interesting kind of science because it’s developed in full respect for the local context. They would not, by policy, do anything that would harm the local ecosystem or the local human community. They wouldn’t run the risk of harm, as many modern scientists will do, in order to find the “truth.”
There is a fundamental contradiction between industrial technologies and processes and the necessarily biological and ecological basis of agriculture. My friend Bill Martin who is a forest ecologist found in an engineering textbook the sentence, “Soil is that part of the earth’s surface that does not require blasting.” What we are seeing in land use everywhere now is what I take to be a military principle: maximum force relentlessly applied. This is blatantly evident in the Appalachian coal fields right now. The coal companies are destroying mountains, watersheds, and people, with a military ferocity. But the same thing is happening more slowly in the corn-and-bean fields and animal factories of industrial agriculture.
Agriculture is now almost entirely market-determined. If the price of corn and beans goes up, larger expanses of the landscape will be devoted to corn and beans, even sloping and highly erodible land. That’s being made possible by chemical fertilizer, chemical herbicides, and chemical pesticides, all of which tend to be overused and are ecologically destructive. And the chemicals, like other industrial technologies, replace human work and husbandry, and displace the rural people.
The ecological principle in agriculture, by contrast, is to consult the genius of the place, to fit the farming to the farm.
To abuse the land is to abuse the people. They are one and the same and cannot be separated. We’ve got in agriculture the three great problems that the 50-Year Farm Bill is an attempt to solve: the problem of soil erosion, toxicity, and the destruction of rural communities, the cultures of husbandry. These are problems of the land and the people. They start from our present predicament, which Wes Jackson calls “the problem of agriculture,” the problem of annual crops.
At present, as the 50-Year Farm Bill says, eight percent of farmable land in this country is in annual crops, requiring soil disturbance or herbicide or both. But only twenty percent is in perennial cover like any permanent pasture or any woodland. The 50-Year Farm Bill, then, says, ‘We’re starting with 80 percent annual, 20 percent perennial. Over the next 50 years, let’s turn that upside down to 80 percent perennial and 20 percent annual.’
Albert Howard, in the middle of the last century, said that if you want to know how to farm, you must look at the forest. Learn what nature does. You’ve got to imitate her methods. She always keeps the ground covered. She always farms with animals. She maintains the highest possible diversity of plants and animals. She wastes nothing. She maintains large reserves of fertility. She leaves, then her crops to defend themselves against pests and diseases.
Now Wes Jackson and his fellow scientists at the Land Institute are learning to imitate Nature’s farming on the prairie. They are working to develop perennial grain-producing polycultures. That work, which once seemed to many scientists to be doubtful, is now firmly established. It’s a greatly needed source of hope.
The issue of scale is paramount to me as a measure of ecological health. I think the two great modern systems of capitalism and socialism have ignored both the propriety of scale and the standard of ecological health. Both are industrial systems, and they have made the same mistakes in some ways.
It might be possible, on the contrary, to think of government as rising from the needs of land and people rather than descending upon them from some master idea of economics or politics. One of its essential purposes would be to protect the health of the land and the people. If you apply the ecological standard, you recognize as fundamentals both the dependence of people on land, water, and air, and the dependence of land, water, and air upon the people’s good stewardship.
If you apply the ecological standard, you’re going to worry, for instance, about the quality of products. The best thing that could happen to the forest would be to have long-lasting wood furniture and durable wooden buildings.
If we’re going to talk about local adaptation, we’ve got to be talking about keeping manufacturing as close to, and as kind to, its sources as possible, just as in local food economies we’ve begun to talk about neighborly relations between consumers and producers. If you want a local forest economy, then you should have a local system of supporting industries for forestry. If you had a set of value-adding industries for forest products, you’d have, almost as a matter of course, a local lobby for sustainable forestry. This would be like Amish manufacturing. They have their own factories for products that large agricultural industries no longer supply.
There are Amish factories that make farm equipment: plows, running gears for wagons, manure spreaders. A good example would be Wayne Wengerd and his family and their Pioneer Equipment company in Holmes County, Ohio. One of their rules is that the children can’t work in the factory until they’ve farmed awhile. Then they know what the customers are talking about, what their needs are.
My old friend, Gene Logsdon, who’s a fine writer on agriculture, and lately a novelist, once asked an Amish factory owner, “Do you have toxic effluent from your factory?” And the owner looked at him in horror. He said, “Our children play around this factory.”
If you had a local slaughterhouse patronized by local people, who could watch the slaughtering and butchering of their own animals, you wouldn’t need the government to inspect for sanitation. But the government shut down all the local slaughterhouses around here by applying to them the rules that it doesn’t apply to the big meat factories. Eric Schlosser tells that story in Fast Food Nation.
So, you see, what I’m getting around to is the thought that if you establish, or reestablish, local economies on the right scale and with the right standard, then politics would come right as a matter of course. I don’t know what you would call the result – probably not capitalism or socialism.”