Getting out of Movements
I have had with my friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about the
necessity of getting out of movements even movements that have seemed necessary and
dear to us when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as
movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements too readily learn to deny to
others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves, They too easily become unable
to mean their own language, as when a peace movement becomes violent. They often
become too specialised, as if finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision
of the institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing
finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal in single issues or single solutions,
as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough.
When Movements become too
And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or
clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustainable agriculture or
community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they
cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too
specialised, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they
virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects
while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere, they; they propose
that the trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but
When a Movement loses its language
The worst danger may be that a movement will lose its language either to its own
confusion about meaning and practice, or to pre-emption by its enemies. I remember for
example, my na´ve confusion at learning that it was possible for advocates of organic
agriculture to look upon the organic method as an end in itself. To me, organic
farming was attractive both as a way of conserving nature and as a strategy of survival
for small farmers. Imagine my surprise in discovering that there could be huge organic
mono-cultures. And so I was not too surprised by the recent attempts of the United States
Department of Agriculture to appropriate the organic label for food irradiation,
genetic engineering, and other desecrations of the corporate food economy.
Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes
impossible to mean what we say. When home-made ceases to mean neither more nor less
than made at home, then it means anything, which is to say that it means nothing.
the Nameless Movement active, responsive and intelligent for a long time
As you see, I have good reasons for declining to name the movement I think I am part
of. I am reconciled to the likelihood that from time to time it will name itself and have
slogans, but I am not going to use its slogans or call it by any of its names.
Let us suppose that we have a Nameless Movement for Better Land Use and that we know we
must try to keep it active, responsive and intelligent for a long time. What must we do?
We must see the
problem in its full complexity
What we must do above all, I think, is try to see the problem in its full size and
difficulty. If we are concerned about land abuse, then we must see that this is an
economic problem. Every economy is, by definition, a land using economy. If we are using
our land wrongly, then something is wrong with our economy. This is difficult. It becomes
more difficult when we recognise that, in modern times, every one of us is a member of the
economy of everybody else.
An economy in a state of riot
But if we are concerned about land abuse, we have begun a profound work on economic
criticism. Study of the history of land use (and any local history will do) informs us
that we have had for a long time an economy that thrives by undermining its own
Industrialism, which is the name of our economy, and which is now virtually the only
economy in the world, has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based
squarely upon the principle of violence toward everything on which it depends, and it has
not mattered whether the form of industrialism was communist or capitalist or whatever;
the violence toward nature, human communities, traditional agricultures and local
economies has been constant.
The bad news is coming in, literally, from all over the world. Can such an economy be
fixed without being radically changed? I dont think it can.
Let us, therefore be realistic
The Captains of Industry have always counselled the rest of us to be realistic.
Let us, therefore be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would
be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air and water, or if only it would stop
soil erosion, or if only stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it
would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it
would give women and favoured minorities a stake in the loot?
Realism, I think is a very limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should
not look for birds eggs in a cuckoo clock.
The hopelessness of
Or we can show the hopelessness of single-issue movements by following a line of
thought such as this. We need a continuous supply of uncontaminated water. Therefore, we
need (among other things) soil-and-water conserving ways of agriculture and forestry that
are not dependent on monoculture, toxic chemicals, or the indifference and violence that
always accompany big-scale industrial enterprises on the land. Therefore, we need
diversified small-scale land economies that are dependent on people. Therefore, we need
people with the knowledge, skills, motives and attitudes required by diversified,
small-scale land economies. And all this is clear and comfortable enough, until we
recognise the question we have come to: Where are all the people?
Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural landscapes of the United States know
that most people are available to those landscapes only recreationally. We see them
bicycling or boating or hiking or camping or hunting or fishing or driving along and
looking around. They do not in Mary Austins phrase, summer and winter with the
land. They are unacquainted with the lands human and natural economies.
Though people have not progressed beyond the need to eat food and drink water and wear
clothes and live in houses, most people have progressed beyond the domestic arts
the husbandry and wifery of the world by which those needful things are produced
and conserved. In fact, the comparative few who still practice that necessary husbandry
and wifery often are inclined to apologise for doing so, having been carefully taught in
our education system that those arts are degrading and unworthy of peoples talent.
Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink,
clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind
reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What
could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?
people now are living on the far side of a broken connection
I am not suggesting, of course that everyone ought to be a farmer or a forester. Heaven
forbid! I am suggesting that most people now are living on the far side of a broken
connection, and that this is potentially catastrophic. Most people are now fed, clothed
and sheltered from sources toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no
responsibility. There is no significant urban constituency, no formidable consumer lobby,
no noticeable political leadership, for good land-use practices, for good farming and good
forestry, for restoration of abused land, by so-called development.
imagination and meeting their obligations
We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot imagine the
wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or
the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine the forest and the forest economy
that produced their houses and furniture and paper, or the landscapes, the streams and the
weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people
appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely
met their obligations.
People must work in harmony
Money does not bring forth food. Neither does the technology of the food system. Food
comes from nature and from the work of people. If the supply of food is to be continuous
for a long time, then people must work in harmony with nature. That means that people must
find the right answers to a lot of hard practical questions. The same applies to forestry
and the possibility of a continuous supply of timber.
Our economy needs to know and care
One way we could describe the task ahead of us is by saying that we need to enlarge the
consciousness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs to know and care
what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for
revolution, but it is also a matter of common sense.
The Movement to
Teach the Economy What It Is Doing
Undoubtedly some people will want to start a movement to bring this about. They will
call it the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing the MTEWIID. Despite my
very considerable uneasiness, I will agree to this, but on three conditions.
Give up hope
and belief in piecemeal one-shot solutions
My first condition is that the movement should begin by giving up all hope
and belief in piecemeal, one-shot solutions. The present scientific quest for odourless
hog manure should give us sufficient proof that the specialist is no longer with us.
Even now, after centuries of reductionist propaganda, the world is still intricate and
vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where we cannot do one thing without
doing many thinks, or put two things together without putting many things together. Water
quality, for example, cannot be improved without improving farming and forestry, but
farming and forestry cannot be improved without improving the education of consumers
and so on.
Make one whole thing
of ourselves and this world
The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves and this
world. To make ourselves into a practical wholeness with the land under our feet is maybe
not altogether possible how would we know? but, as a goal, it at
least carries us beyond hubris, beyond the utterly groundless assumption that we
can subdivide our present great failures into a thousand separate problems that can be
fixed by a thousand task forces of academic and bureaucratic specialists. That programme
has been given more than a fair chance to prove itself, and we ought to know by now that
it wont work.
We need to learn what we are doing
My second condition is that the people in this movement (the MTEWIID)
should take full responsibility for themselves as members of the economy. If we are going
to teach the economy what it is doing, then we need to learn what we are doing.
This is going to have to be a private movement as well as a public one. If it is
unrealistic to expect wasteful industries to be conservers, then obviously we must lead in
part the public life of complainers, petitioners, protesters, advocates and supporters of
stricter regulations and saner policies. But that is not enough.
We must go to work to
build a good economy
It is unreasonable to expect a bad economy to try to become a good one, then we must
go to work to build a good economy. It is appropriate that this duty should fall to us,
for good economic behaviour is more possible for us than it is for the great corporations
with their mis-educated managers and their greedy stockholders. Because it is possible for
us, we must try in every way we can to make good economic sense in our own lives, in our
households, and in our communities. We must do more for ourselves and our neighbours. We
must learn to spend our money with our friends and not with our enemies. But to do this it
is necessary to renew local economies and revive the domestic arts.
We are seeking
inescapably to change our lives
In seeking to change our economic use of the world, we are seeking inescapably to
change our lives. The outward harmony that we desire between our economy and the world
depends finally upon an inward harmony between our own hearts and the originating spirit
that is the life of all creatures, a spirit as near us as our flesh and yet forever beyond
the measures of this obsessively measuring age. We can grow good wheat and make good bread
only if we understand that we do not live by bread alone.
The Movement should
content itself to be poor
My third condition is that this movement should content itself to be poor.
We need to find cheap solutions, solutions within the reach of everybody, and the
availability of a lot of money prevents the discovery of cheap solutions. The solutions of
modern medicine and modern agriculture are staggeringly expensive, and this is caused in
part, and maybe altogether, because of huge sums of money for medical and agricultural
want a Movement advanced by all its members in their daily lives
Too much money, moreover, attracts administrators and experts as sugar attracts ants
look at what is happening in our universities. We should not envy rich movements
that are organised and led by an alternative bureaucracy living on the problems it is
supposed to solve. We want a movement that is a movement because it is advanced by all its
members in their daily lives.
Now, having completed this very formidable list of problems and difficulties, fears and
fearful hopes that lie ahead of us, I am relieved to see that I have been preparing myself
all along to end by saying something cheerful.
What I have been talking about is the possibility of renewing human respect for this
Earth and all the good, useful and beautiful things that come from it. I have made it
clear, I hope that I dont think this respect can be adequately enacted or conveyed
by tipping our hats to nature or by representing natural loveliness in art or by prayers
of thanksgiving or by preserving tracks of wilderness although I recommend all
those things. The respect I mean can be given only by using well the worlds goods
that are given to us. This good use, which renews respect which is the only
currency, so to speak, of respect also renews our pleasure.
The callings and disciplines that I have spoken of as the domestic arts are stationed
all along the way from the farm to the prepared dinner table, from stewardship of the land
to hospitality to friends and strangers. These arts are as demanding and gratifying, as
instructive and as pleasing, as the so-called fine arts. To learn them is, I
believe, the work that is our proudest calling. Our reward is that they will enrich our
lives and make us glad.
Wendell Berry is a farmer, a poet and writer. He lives in the United States and is the
author of more than thirty books.