Wendell Berry: Forget about big solutions to ecological emergency

Berry and Moyers

Wendell Berry does few TV interviews, so fans have welcomed his recent appearance with Bill Moyers. Photo: Vimeo.

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we’re going to succeed or not,” Wendell Berry told Bill Moyers in a rare TV interview aired earlier this month. “The only question we have a right to ask is what’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?”

It’s easy to get discouraged once you recognize the threat that climate change and the destruction of land and water pose to civilization and life on earth. To problems this big, responses equally big seem to be called for. Yet, those solutions are unlikely to come out of the seemingly unshakable plutocracy that reigns in world capitals from Washington and Brussels to Beijing and New Delhi.

Berry counsels hope. Yet, he’s not naive about the challenge of protecting everything valuable from destruction at the hands of greed.

No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it … can for long disguise its failure [to conserve the wealth and health of nature]. Eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of biodiversity, species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up … 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.

So, given that industrial capitalism is driving us all over the cliff, what’s there to be hopeful about?

First, it really doesn’t matter that the rich and their lackey governments will block big solutions because big projects don’t provide the real answer. Instead, the answer will come from millions of people in thousands of places around the world learning to love and then starting to defend those local places — both their nature and their culture.

Second, we need to accept that lots of little solutions may solve big problems well but, like all high quality work, it won’t happen quickly.

“This is the dreadful situation that young people are in. I think of them and I say well, the situation you’re in now is a situation that’s going to call for a lot of patience. And to be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial,” Berry says.

I say to the young people, don’t get into this with the idea that you’re going to save it and solve all the problems even in your lifetime. The important thing to do is to learn all you can about where you are and if you’re going to work there it becomes even more important to learn everything you can about that place to make common cause with that place and then resigning yourself, becoming patient enough to work with it over a long time. And then what you do is increase the possibility that you will make a good example and what we’re looking for in this is good examples.

Watch Berry’s interview with Moyers and then spread it around the Web as an antidote to both complacency and cynicism.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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