Wendell Berry’s weapons of mass destruction

Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry has a massively ambitious plan to save the earth with humility and simple living. Photo: Guy Mendes.

I’m pretty sure that in his now-famous press briefing of Feb. 12, 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t trying to write poetry in the vein of William Carlos Williams. Yet, how beautifully he captured the conundrum at the center of all human attempts to make sense of reality, helpfully set to verse by Slate:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

Surely, in the history of literature, never have words more filled with humble awe at the limits of human knowing issued from the lips of an admitted torturer. It’s a great irony, if you think about it in a certain way.

Tortured logic

So that’s why I like to imagine that, two years later, another poet of humility, who is also an avid student of irony, might have been inspired by the words of the Great Waterboarder.

“Except to the arrogantly ignorant, ignorance is not a simple subject,” agrarian activist Wendell Berry wrote in a 2004 essay called “The Way of Ignorance” (available in a 2006 collection, The Way of Ignorance: And Other Essays).

If Rumsfeld is a man who tormented people and words alike, Berry is a man who would set them both free.

The Way of Ignorance cover

The Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry, Counterpoint, 2006, 192 pp, paperback, $15.95.

Berry, who brings a crafted prose style to essays on farming, religion, politics and the environment, has a way of making simple subjects fascinating and complex subjects understandable. In this essay, for example, he takes on no less a target than the practice of science, whose prestige and influence over industrial society are indisputable.

With peak oil threatening to take down the global economy and climate change threatening the future of the human species, Berry’s remarks are more relevant today than ever before. Science helped cause these problems in the first place. Now, science helps us to understand each problem, yet, sound science is under constant political attack. If we can only cut through the politics and get back to the science, can it give us the solutions, if any exist?

Blinded me with science

It turns out that science has its own problems.

Berry is all for more science as long as he can frame it with intuition and traditional wisdom that he believes to be greater than science. Otherwise, science becomes just another form of “willful ignorance that refuses to honor as knowledge anything not subject to empirical proof…materialist ignorance.”

This ignorance rejects useful knowledge such as traditions of imagination and religion, and so it comes across as narrow-mindedness. We have the materialist culture that afflicts us now because a world exclusively material is the kind of world most readily used and abused by the kind of mind the materialists think they have. To this kind of mind, there is not longer a legitimate wonder. Wonder has been replaced by a research agenda, which is still a world away from demonstrating the impropriety of wonder.

To this empirical ignorance, Berry joins moral ignorance, “the invariable excuse of which is objectivity,” that refuses to make value judgments, as well as the ignorance of false confidence, which seems to be the attitude that has created a society of fools who rush in where angels fear to tread, whether with wars of choice or careless use of fossil fuels, both so beloved by Rumsfeld and his ilk.

Skeptical of large-scale solutions (Berry quotes a sarcastic Yeats: “Hurrah for revolution and more cannon shot! / A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot”), Berry’s approach is not just the opposite of Rumsfeld’s imperial overreach. Berry’s is also not the angle you’d want to make a bundle saving the world by selling a billion electric cars or putting up a million wind turbines to power them in a clean energy revolution.

There is, as maybe we all have noticed, a conspicuous shortage of large-scale corrections for problems that have large-scale causes. Our damages to watersheds and ecosystems will have to be corrected one farm, one acre at a time. The aftermath of a bombing has to be dealt with one corpse, one wound at a time…Arrogance cannot be cured by greater arrogance, or ignorance by greater ignorance.

As he rejects heroic industrial interventions as arrogance, Berry finds that we are left only with “a proper humility” that he admits even he finds to be “laughable.” How could small, local actions ever be big enough or fast enough to make a difference against the world’s biggest problems?

Seeking big solutions to big problems, the eco-conscious search for “robust” and “scalable” solutions to climate change and peak oil employing our highest of high tech: nuclear fusion, algae fuel, thin-film solar panels, even geoengineering to remake the climate that we’re now destroying. Fighting fire with fire.

Ignorance is bliss

It may be in human nature to try to help, especially if there’s money to be made, Berry thinks. “To help, or to try to help, requires only knowledge; one needs to know promising remedies and how to apply them. But to do no harm involves a whole culture, and a culture very different from industrialism. It involves, at the minimum, compassion and humility and caution.”

That may sound like too-little-too-late to those of us who’d like to see industrial society mobilized on a “war footing” to get off of fossil fuels, as green activists and peak oilers have called for in recent years. I’ve said this myself in countless conversations.

But now I’m starting to wonder if perhaps Berry has a point. Maybe we citizens of industrial nations should give up trying to help our world so much and instead learn to be satisfied with ceasing to cause so much harm. Maybe it’s less about Apollo Projects, cool new clean energy sources, hot new systems to increase efficiency or brave new ways to use nanotechnology than about living with less stuff and enjoying life more.

If we decide to follow the path of acting locally and in harmony with the natural and cultural ecosystem where each of us find ourselves, then we will be following what Berry calls, after TS Eliot, “the way of ignorance.”

Zen teachers call it “beginner’s mind,” but really it’s just the path recommended by all great spiritual teachers, a way of faith with an active humility. Berry thinks it could be just what we need to set us free from bondage to the arrogance of the corporate mind that would process all nature into products or waste products and reduce all people to mere workers or consumers.

In that case, humility and living locally would become weapons of mass destruction — weapons to destroy mass thinking — that would be sure to evade Rummy’s best efforts to hunt them down.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    Thanks, Eric. I started on a philosophical journey many years ago because of Wendell Berry( “What are people FOR?”).
    I asked the question a bit differently; Empirically, if you will.
    Many thoughtful people have contributed to my views by now, and I don’t think Wendell is wrong, but his knowledge is incomplete.
    Objective answers are available to those who open their minds. Science is definitely narrow minded, but the “heart and imagination” people open their minds too much and let their brains fall out, also (lack of rigor).
    You said, “Maybe we citizens of industrial nations should give up trying to help our world so much and instead learn to be satisfied with ceasing to cause so much harm.”
    This is a start, but it’s not enough. I repeat Raj Patel once again; “The opposite of consumption is not frugality, it is generosity.”
    Simply reducing consumption is not enough because it merely prolongs the same fate of consumption, hoping that we somehow reduce our consumption to less than nature’s overhead production. Humans must learn to contribute to their environment, not take from it. This “Net Future Usefulness” is necessary in order to make up for the random events which befall us all. When producing children, we must produce children that contribute to the future, rather than take from it. When building houses, we need to put them where they enable people to be useful to that place, rather than using that place to store their ‘stuff’ as they are wastefully transported to another place for an arbitrary ‘job’.
    This change will have to take place locally, regionally, and individually. The global picture will change when the individual humans become a different species than Homo Consumpticus Petroleamus .

    The information is out there. The tools are available. The desire to do so is all around us. Being generous instead of consumptive requires the hardest work of all human history, yet it is what humans evolved to do: cooperate for the common good. Any living thing can live competitively and be forced into cooperation through dieoff and predators, but to intentionally cooperate takes imagination and language.
    To do so and prevent an asteroid/comet/overpopulation/climate extinction event takes technology and science (if only to open up our secrets to each other and discard paranoia between cultures).
    Putting it all together without consuming more than we contribute is The Challenge for our children and our leadership.

    • Erik Curren says

      Auntiegrav, I’ve heard about Patel and would like to learn more. And I’m not an expert on Berry, but I suspect he wouldn’t disagree with Patel on the imperative to be generous, altruistic or intelligent about making our lives positive forces for good. It may just be a question of emphasis, on either energetic action to make things better or humility, actively exercised, to stop screwing things up so badly. And I think the issue becomes more important when you’re dealing with big schemes like a “clean energy revolution” or new technology like geoengineering, rather than local action for resilient living like putting in local solar panels or planting gardens, where it seems to me that you can be both humble in Berry’s sense and generous at the same time.

  2. Bloomer says

    “Don’t just do something..sit there”. Our human hyperactivity is the biggest contributor, to consumption and ecological degradation.

    • Erik Curren says

      Bloomer, thanks for reminding me of that great phrase. If we were all less busy we would certainly be using less stuff and creating less waste and pollution, which sounds to me like doing less harm. It may be a good exercise for modern people to ask ourselves if our well intentioned activity actually accomplishes more good than harm in each case. Sometimes, whether it’s spreading democracy in the Middle East at the barrel of a gun or trying to feed the world’s hungry with GMO food, the answer may be no.

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