The Unsettling of America by Wendell Berry

The Unsettling of America is still, despite being quite dated, an important call to practice an ethic of kindly care in our interaction with the earth. Yet, as Berry argues, this ethic is profoundly difficult to realise because of the fractured quality of our identity and also our relationships with each other and the environment.

While earlier chapters work to layout the assumptions that drive the analysis in the latter parts of the book, I found these the most engaging and persuasive components. He seems at his most forceful when he allows the self-evident nature of the conclusions to stand on their own. However, his incisive critique of agribusiness and the agricultural policy of the United States still resonates, even if matters have changed somewhat.

Both our exploitative heritage and also the rapidity with which the industrial revolution brought change to our society are disconcerting for Berry. Although efficiency has always been the standard of the exploiter, the extent of this efficiency-driven organization of social life has been expanding greatly during the last century. The nurturer, those with an ethic of care and a goal of health, find their world is increasingly diminished by the encroachment of institutions and organizations. Households, place, and community are slowly eroded in an effort to serve corporations. It is at this interface that we observe the ethic of exploitation most starkly, where the contest between community and organization is fought out. One of the hallmarks of this exploitative efficiency is a lack of awareness of the uses of energy. We are unable to restrain ourselves and this lack of restraint draws into itself an insatiable desire to consume greater and greater quantities. This lack of restraint is predicated on an increasingly distant relationship from the land and from each other. Because there is no common bond which ties us to each other and to particular place we allow our desires to use up with little thought and we fail to exercise an ethic of care.

And yet, Berry recognises that to live undestructively in our current economy requires more than one person can do because the system itself is radically opposed to this ethic of care. One of the symptoms of this opposition is a reliance on specialists. This reliance disintegrates and fragments the various functions of our character and facilitates the sequestration of the land. Because we can rely on others we are able to have our attention constantly diverted toward money-mkaing and entertaining ourselves. At the same time, this specialization allows us to view the world as surrounding us, as external or other to us, rather than understanding our mutual interdependence. In this environment Berry advocates responsible consumption which would refuse to purchase poor products, things we do not need and would try to reduce our wants. In this regard his call is similar to one of Lowell Bennion’s maxims. “Learn to keep your wants simple and refuse to be controlled by the likes and dislikes of others.” For Berry, organizations will never be an effective corrective. They may promote a kind of forbearance toward the land but only a rigorous and sustained mutuality will foster this ethic of care.

One of the most memorable lines from Berry’s book comes from a letter he received. The author observes that he comes from a community where “The sin is not trespassing on anothers land but letting the apples go to waste.”. The issue here, according to Berry, is not whether we use but rather how we use.  In short, I see this as one the most profound components of Berry’s argument.  He wants to propose ways in which we can rethink our consumption because it is intimately tied to our use of the land.  If we fail to check our consumption then we not only provide the conditions for the exploitation of other human beings but also for the ravishing of the earth.

He is aware of and willing to affirm the pristine condition of the Christian creation and suggest that this vision should pull on us. That it should be a call to care for the earth in order to restore the condition that was once lost. This pristine earth is not wholly cultivated and trimmed but it also contains wilderness: areas of land left to grow as they please. For Berry this disposition toward the land cultivates humility. By allowing it to grow we relinquish or at least recognise that ours is not to determine or control the life of all things. By contrast, agribusiness seeks to produce and consume as much as possible from the land. Usually this is most concerned with the production of profit and this impulse, coupled with specialization, undermine the principles of humility that are cultivated through a kindly care of land which involves diversity, crop rotation, husbandry.

This distance from the land is also a product of the absence of markets for minor produce. Smallholders find it difficult to find places to sell their excess and local people also do not share and distribute what they are not going to use. The small land holders have been systematically undermined by the sanitation movement because this often require purchasing materials and equipment that are too expensive. Hence the motto, which originated from Ezra Benson, ‘get big or get out!’.

This distance also ignores that food is a cultural product, it is not merely the consequence of technological production. In fact this type of production (which is again linked with specialization) undermines the culture of work that attends to food production. A farmer does not end when the clock tells them too but rather when the job has been performed well. This fragmentation of mind that Berry discusses is also evident in the attitude toward technology when we can introduce to new technologies to land without thinking about their consequences for the earth or the communities who use them.

Animals do not tend to foul in their own nests and yet what we think our nest is and where it is are questions of vital importance. If technology is to effect the land and the communities that use them then our lack of care suggests that we do not consider those places or peoples as part of our places and peoples. Transportation can separate us from place because when we do not live where we work we do not care about the effects of our work on the place. At the same time our desire to consume (not just the adequate or even the excellent) the new has an impact on those communities that must constantly be supplying those new products. Our consumption has become separate from the place of production.

‘Conviviality is healing’. For Berry, community is place where we can heal the earth and also heal this fragmentary mind that has come to dominate our culture. This fragmentary mind extends to the body as well. In our Christian culture, we have the absurd desire to be resurrected while we despise the body. Our loathing of the body is in part manifest through our wasting of the land for how we live in agriculture is also how we live in the flesh. This marginalisation of the body has been driven by our reduced use for them. As our work required less of us physically and as it separate the spaces of work, leisure, and home, we find an increasing sense that the concerns of those who occupy those separate spheres become more alien to those who do not inhabit them. That is, as men have frequently moved away from the home to places of work their concerns do not reflect the concerns of the woman who is left in the home. This fragmentation of space has led to an increasing divide between the sexes. Moreover, as technological production entered the household the work of the home became more boring. Because conviviality is healing, a sexual division of this kind can be a wound.

Berry’s book establishes an intuitive and experiential response to the fragmentation of our society.  This distance between ourselves and the land, our families, communities, and other human beings facilitates a form of consumption that can be at worst exploitative and destructive, and at best wasteful and painful.


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