As farms go, so go the cities

What Matters? book cover

What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth by Wendell Berry, foreword by Herman E. Daly, Counterpoint, 193 pp., $14.95

Wendell Berry is like Howard Stern — you either love him or you have no use for him. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.

Those who love Berry, from homesteaders and Greenhorns (that’s new farmers to you and me) to community gardeners, find inspiration in the plainspoken moral indignation of this latter-day Jeffersonian who won’t be budged from his conviction that the real America is farms and rural towns, not big cities and suburbs.

By contrast, eco-minded folks from New York to London and Toronto where the overwhelming majority of the industrial world’s population now resides, might be dubious. What could a curmudgeonly farmer from Kentucky have to say to an urban professional who shops at Whole Foods and supports the Sierra Club, but rides the elevator up to her condo on the 78th floor? For goshsakes, the guy refuses to type his own manuscripts into a computer. So don’t expect him to gush about ultra-light polymers for fuel-efficient hypercars run by hydrogen fuel cells or even just to let you know about the latest iPhone ap for freecycling.

As a recent Berry convert myself, I’m hoping that the economic crisis will be a hook to get a broader readership to check out Berry’s 2010 book What Matters? Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth. With the failure of the Great Recession to respond to the standard prescriptions, from High Tech Uber Alles to Green Jobs for All, Berry’s agrarian-contrarian perspective offers a provocatively old-school response to today’s worst problems.

It’s always Berry season

Though a full half of the volume’s essays appear to be reprints from previous books, there’s plenty in What Matters? to interest hardcore Berry fans who’d rather fight than switch.

Indeed, it might be a selling point for collectors that the book reruns such Berry classics as “The Work of Local Culture” and  “What Are People For?” The latter asks a question particularly relevant to today’s Great Recession, given that government policy since World War II has been to bring mechanization to agriculture because, as Berry puts it, “there are too many people on the farm”:

When the “too many” of the country arrive in the city, they are not called “too many.” In the city they are called “unemployed” or “permanently unemployable.” But what will happen if the economists ever perceive that there are too many people in the cities? There appear to be only two possibilities: Either they will have to recognize that their earlier diagnosis was a tragic error, or they will conclude that there are too many people in country and city both — and what further inhumanities will be justified by that diagnosis?

Whether economists ever come to their senses, Berry hopes that ordinary citizens will soon realize that the problem is not too many people but rather a false relationship between people and the earth, a mismatch between the little economy of getting and spending and the Great Economy of natural things like trees, fields, air, water and sunshine.

“When humans presume to originate value, they make value that is first abstract and then false, tyrannical, and destructive of real value,” Berry says with his signature lack of either ten-dollar words or any solicitude for the feelings of bankers and other masters of the universe. “Value can originate only in the Great Economy.”

Berry for the bond trader

The book’s most recent essay, “Money Versus Goods” from 2009, sounds like it came straight from the Alternative Economy working group at Zuccotti Park. “The present and now-failing economy is just about exactly opposite to the economy I have just described.  Over a long time, and by means of a set of handy prevarications, our economy has become an anti-economy, a financial system without a sound economic basis and without economic virtues.”

I cheered as Berry then went on to excoriate what the Occupy movement has taught us to refer to as the 1%:

It has inverted the economic order that puts nature first. This economy is based on consumption, which ultimately serves, not the ordinary consumers, but a tiny class of excessively wealthy people for whose further enrichment the economy is understood (by them) to exist. For the pupose of their further enrichment, these plutocrats and the great corporations that serve them have controlled the economy by the purchase of political power.

With a tone that could hardly be more Occupy-tastic, Berry concludes that “the purchased governments do not act in the interest of the governed and their country; they act as agents for the corporations.”

As to pumping more stimulus into the system to encourage spending and create jobs, Berry’s having none of it. “There is no good reason, economic or otherwise, to wish for the ‘recovery’ of the economy we have had…Our airborne economy has turned into a deadfall, and we have got to jack it down. The problem is that all of us are under it, and so we have got to jack it down with the least possible suffering to our land and people.”

Berry doesn’t claim to know how to pilot our Hindenburg economy back to the airstrip before it explodes. Yet, in the spirit of his 1970s poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” (but this time without any insanity defense as cover), Berry offers his own 16-point agenda to put the economy back into harmony with the natural economy. His ideas range from making farming equal to industry, enforcing anti-monopoly laws, helping young farmers to own their own land, ditching biofuels to encouraging small-scale forestry.

He’s a peak oiler too

In another recent essay in the collection, “Faustian Economics” (2006), Berry recognizes peak oil as a key limit on our ability to ever go back to the unlimited growth economy of the past, the end of the delusion of more, more, more and the beginning of clear limits to growth. “To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity.”

At age 77, What Matters shows that the Sage of Henry County remains as sharp a critic as ever of the runaway industrialism and urbanization that has beggared America’s family farmers and small-town dwellers for more than a century.

Now that this predatory economy has finally caught up with subway commuters and condo-dwellers, it’s clearly time for uptown girls and country boys to start singing the same song to save the 99%. And I can think of no better DJ to spin the tune than Wendell Berry.

– Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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