Oct 20, 2004
Author: Wendell Berry
WE ARE DESTROYING OUR COUNTRY -- I mean our country itself, our
land. This is a terrible thing to know, but it is not a reason
for despair unless we decide to continue the destruction. If we
decide to continue the destruction, that will not be because we
have no other choice. This destruction is not necessary. It is
not inevitable, except that by our submissiveness we make it so.
We Americans are not usually thought to be a submissive people,
but of course we are. Why else would we allow our country to be
destroyed? Why else would we be rewarding its destroyers? Why
else would we all -- by proxies we have given to greedy corporations
and corrupt politicians -- be participating in its destruction?
Most of us are still too sane to piss in our own cistern, but
we allow others to do so and we reward them for it. We reward
them so well, in fact, that those who piss in our cistern are
wealthier than the rest of us.
How do we submit? By not being radical enough. Or by not being
thorough enough, which is the same thing.
Since the beginning of the conservation effort in our country,
conservationists have too often believed that we could protect
the land without protecting the people. This has begun to change,
but for a while yet we will have to reckon with the old assumption
that we can preserve the natural world by protecting wilderness
areas while we neglect or destroy the economic landscapes -- the
farms and ranches and working forests -- and the people who use
them. That assumption is understandable in view of the worsening
threats to wilderness areas, but it is wrong. If conservationists
hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are
going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues
of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where
we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being
of the people who do the work.
If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and the
wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy.
Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that
the people can be adequately protected without protecting the
land. And here I am not talking about parties or party doctrines,
but about the dominant political assumption. Sooner or later,
governments will have to recognize that if the land does not prosper,
nothing else can prosper for very long. We can have no industry
or trade or wealth or security if we don't uphold the health of
the land and the people and the people's work.
It is merely a fact that the land, here and everywhere, is suffering.
We have the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico and undrinkable
water to attest to the toxicity of our agriculture. We know that
we are carelessly and wastefully logging our forests. We know
that soil erosion, air and water pollution, urban sprawl, the
proliferation of highways and garbage are making our lives always
less pleasant, less healthful, less sustainable, and our dwelling
places more ugly.
Nearly forty years ago my state of Kentucky, like other coal-producing
states, began an effort to regulate strip mining. While that effort
has continued, and has imposed certain requirements of "reclamation,"
strip mining has become steadily more destructive of the land
and the land's future. We are now permitting the destruction of
entire mountains and entire watersheds. No war, so far, has done
such extensive or such permanent damage. If we know that coal
is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are with
proper use inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest
virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor
at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making,
so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we
destroy it? If we believe, as so many of us profess to do, that
the Earth is God's property and is full of His glory, how can
we do harm to any part of it?
In Kentucky, as in other unfortunate states, and again at great
public cost, we have allowed -- in fact we have officially encouraged
-- the establishment of the confined animal-feeding industry,
which exploits and abuses everything involved: the land, the people,
the animals, and the consumers. If we love our country, as so
many of us profess to do, how can we so desecrate it?
But the economic damage is not confined just to our farms and
forests. For the sake of "job creation," in Kentucky,
and in other backward states, we have lavished public money on
corporations that come in and stay only so long as they can exploit
people here more cheaply than elsewhere. The general purpose of
the present economy is to exploit, not to foster or conserve.
Look carefully, if you doubt me, at the centers of the larger
towns in virtually every part of our country. You will find that
they are economically dead or dying. Good buildings that used
to house needful, useful, locally owned small businesses of all
kinds are now empty or have evolved into junk stores or antique
shops. But look at the houses, the churches, the commercial buildings,
the courthouse, and you will see that more often than not they
are comely and well made. And then go look at the corporate outskirts:
the chain stores, the fast-food joints, the food-and-fuel stores
that no longer can be called service stations, the motels. Try
to find something comely or well made there.
What is the difference? The difference is that the old town centers
were built by people who were proud of their place and who realized
a particular value in living there. The old buildings look good
because they were built by people who respected themselves and
wanted the respect of their neighbors. The corporate outskirts,
on the contrary, were built by people who manifestly take no pride
in the place, see no value in lives lived there, and recognize
no neighbors. The only value they see in the place is the money
that can be siphoned out of it to more fortunate places -- that
is, to the wealthier suburbs of the larger cities.
There are such things as economic weapons of mass destruction,
and we have allowed them to be used against us.
Can we actually suppose that we are wasting, polluting, and making
ugly this beautiful land for the sake of patriotism and the love
of God? Perhaps some of us would like to think so, but in fact
this destruction is taking place because we have allowed ourselves
to believe, and to live, a mated pair of economic lies: that nothing
has a value that is not assigned to it by the market; and that
the economic life of our communities can safely be handed over
to the great corporations.
We citizens have a large responsibility for our delusion and
our destructiveness, and I don't want to minimize that. But I
don't want to minimize, either, the large responsibility that
is borne by government.
It is commonly understood that governments are instituted to
provide certain protections that citizens individually cannot
provide for themselves. But governments have tended to assume
that this responsibility can be fulfilled mainly by the police
and the military. They have used their regulatory powers reluctantly
and often poorly. Our governments have only occasionally recognized
the need of land and people to be protected against economic violence.
It is true that economic violence is not always as swift, and
is rarely as bloody, as the violence of war, but it can be devastating
nonetheless. Acts of economic aggression can destroy a landscape
or a community or the center of a town or city, and they routinely
Such damage is justified by its corporate perpetrators and their
political abettors in the name of the "free market"
and "free enterprise," but this is a freedom that makes
greed the dominant economic virtue, and it destroys the freedom
of other people along with their communities and livelihoods.
There are such things as economic weapons of massive destruction.
We have allowed them to be used against us, not just by public
submission and regulatory malfeasance, but also by public subsidies,
incentives, and sufferances impossible to justify.
We have failed to acknowledge this threat and to act in our own
defense. As a result, our once-beautiful and bountiful countryside
has long been a colony of the coal, timber, and agribusiness corporations,
yielding an immense wealth of energy and raw materials at an immense
cost to our land and our land's people. Because of that failure
also, our towns and cities have been gutted by the likes of Wal-Mart,
which have had the permitted luxury of destroying locally owned
small businesses by means of volume discounts.
Because as individuals or even as communities we cannot protect
ourselves against these aggressions, we need our state and national
governments to protect us. As the poor deserve as much justice
from our courts as the rich, so the small farmer and the small
merchant deserve the same economic justice, the same freedom in
the market, as big farmers and chain stores. They should not suffer
ruin merely because their rich competitors can afford (for a while)
to undersell them.
Somehow we have lost or discarded any controlling sense of the
interdependence of the Earth and the human capacity to use it
Furthermore, to permit the smaller enterprises always to be ruined
by false advantages, either at home or in the global economy,
is ultimately to destroy local, regional, and even national capabilities
of producing vital supplies such as food and textiles. It is impossible
to understand, let alone justify, a government's willingness to
allow the human sources of necessary goods to be destroyed by
the "freedom" of this corporate anarchy. It is equally
impossible to understand how a government can permit, and even
subsidize, the destruction of the land and the land's productivity.
Somehow we have lost or discarded any controlling sense of the
interdependence of the Earth and the human capacity to use it
well. The governmental obligation to protect these economic resources,
inseparably human and natural, is the same as the obligation to
protect us from hunger or from foreign invaders. In result, there
is no difference between a domestic threat to the sources of our
life and a foreign one.
It appears that we have fallen into the habit of compromising
on issues that should not, and in fact cannot, be compromised.
I have an idea that a large number of us, including even a large
number of politicians, believe that it is wrong to destroy the
Earth. But we have powerful political opponents who insist that
an Earth-destroying economy is justified by freedom and profit.
And so we compromise by agreeing to permit the destruction only
of parts of the Earth, or to permit the Earth to be destroyed
a little at a time -- like the famous three-legged pig that was
too well loved to be slaughtered all at once.
The logic of this sort of compromising is clear, and it is clearly
fatal. If we continue to be economically dependent on destroying
parts of the Earth, then eventually we will destroy it all.
So long a complaint accumulates a debt to hope, and I would like
to end with hope. To do so I need only repeat something I said
at the beginning: Our destructiveness has not been, and it is
not, inevitable. People who use that excuse are morally incompetent,
they are cowardly, and they are lazy. Humans don't have to live
by destroying the sources of their life. People can change; they
can learn to do better. All of us, regardless of party, can be
moved by love of our land to rise above the greed and contempt
of our land's exploiters. This of course leads to practical problems,
and I will offer a short list of practical suggestions.
We have got to learn better to respect ourselves and our dwelling
places. We need to quit thinking of rural America as a colony.
Too much of the economic history of our land has been that of
the export of fuel, food, and raw materials that have been destructively
and too cheaply produced. We must reaffirm the economic value
of good stewardship and good work. For that we will need better
accounting than we have had so far.
We need to reconsider the idea of solving our economic problems
by "bringing in industry." Every state government appears
to be scheming to lure in a large corporation from somewhere else
by "tax incentives" and other squanderings of the people's
money. We ought to suspend that practice until we are sure that
in every state we have made the most and the best of what is already
there. We need to build the local economies of our communities
and regions by adding value to local products and marketing them
locally before we seek markets elsewhere.
We need to confront honestly the issue of scale. Bigness has
a charm and a drama that are seductive, especially to politicians
and financiers; but bigness promotes greed, indifference, and
damage, and often bigness is not necessary. You may need a large
corporation to run an airline or to manufacture cars, but you
don't need a large corporation to raise a chicken or a hog. You
don't need a large corporation to process local food or local
timber and market it locally.
And, finally, we need to give an absolute priority to caring
well for our land -- for every bit of it. There should be no compromise
with the destruction of the land or of anything else that we cannot
replace. We have been too tolerant of politicians who, entrusted
with our country's defense, become the agents of our country's
destroyers, compromising on its ruin.
And so I will end this by quoting my fellow Kentuckian, a great
patriot and an indomitable foe of strip mining, Joe Begley of
Blackey: "Compromise, hell!"
WENDELL BERRY farms in Port Royal, Kentucky, with his family.
He is the author of more than thirty books of fiction, essays,
and poetry, including Citizen Papers, The Unsettling of America,
and Another Turn of the Crank (essays); That Distant Land (stories);
and A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. His new novel,
Hannah Coulter, will be published this fall by Shoemaker &
This article originally
appeared in Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230,
888/909-6568, www.oriononline.org ($35/year for 6 issues). Printed
with permission of Shoemaker & Hoard, Publishers.
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