A Rush of Straight Talk
"It is not as though we have not been warned. The advice against waste, extravagance, selfishness, arrogance, falsehood and willful ignorance is old."
WB in Less Energy, More Life (2013), from Our Only World
Wendell Berry's address to a convention of Unitarians in Louisville in June of 2013, which is reprinted as Less Energy, More Life, is short and tetchy by normal Berry standards. Much like the author himself, Wendell's essays and talks usually have an ambling quality to them, slow paced and keenly observant. On this day, for whatever reason, his comments were urgent and importuning, and marked by a pair of entwined refrains. First he locates the onus of the climate change problem on us -- on you and me, on individuals. Then he challenges our commitment to do the necessary work. It shouldn't interest us whether or not we are "too late," he says. Only whether we are accepting of our responsibility to make things better. A message for the moment, once again.
Although he is taking aim at fossil fuel dependence and the industries of "poison, explosion and fire," I find that the talk reads just as fittingly as a commentary on our current political strife. The quote I opened with flew off the page for its pertinency not to the ecological degradation born of a bad economy, which is the statement's actual context, but to a newly elected president. I've heard Donald Trump described as the perfect digital candidate, relying as he does on discrete on/off, yes/no, for/against, us/them binaries and an operating code that is ever erasable and therefore always rewritable. But I have yet to hear him called the perfect post-capitalist apocalyptic candidate. But why not? No one better embodied the qualities of waste, extravagance, selfishness and arrogance than Donald J. Trump the businessman. And Trump the politician is showing us, more effectively than any Wendell Berry speech, the falsehood and willful ignorance that any crowned prince of western capitalism will both embody and require.
What is false and willfully ignorant about our "bad" economy? First that infinite growth is possible and desirable on a finite planet. Second that fossil fuels will forever power the machines and buildings we rely on absolutely. Third that technology will save us from any future reckoning with natural resource depletion or any problem at all. Fourth that central banks can print money without any consequence on the value of money and therefore the reliability of fiat-backed currency and therefore the reliability of the world monetary system. Fifth that interest can infinitely accrue to capital and infinitely regress from economic contributions of land and labor. Sixth that damage to land and sea can be permanently done without inflicting damage on people. Seventh that communities and neighborhoods can thrive where profit is maximized and labor is minimized. Eighth that higher education can be reduced to a training camp for the job market without shortchanging the minds of both educators and the educated. Ninth that global trade can be conducted without winners and losers and therefore without regard to the plight of anyone in particular. Tenth that our politics can exist outside our economics. Ten falsehoods about our economy that wouldn't be too difficult to elaborate into the hundreds or thousands. Our economy, like our new president, is full of shit. But unlike the new president, it's unfashionable to dump on the economy. At least partially, the reason why is captured in Less Energy, More Life.
One truth for Berry is that neither religious types, nor environmentalists nor politicians will bring us the better economy, the better life. He says that religious types tend to entrust matters of our economy to industrialists, environmentalists to technologists, and politicians to the market. All three tend to think in terms of big solutions and quickly fall into oversimplification. There isn't a group "out there" that is going to change the things that need changing (and mind you Berry doesn't say "solve," but only "change.") It is, he says again, the responsibility of individuals and communities to make this change, and according to terms we're not used to -- not those of the so-called free market, but of the nature and limits of local ecosystems.
This is a problem. For what do we know about those terms? How can we change our lives according to the limits of our local ecosystem if we don't know what those are, and maybe don't even know what's meant by the "nature and limits of local ecosystems?" I was thinking the other night about two interpretations of Wendell Berry's worldview. One is that he's speaking to us in a British dialect - very hard to make out but still clearly in the mother tongue and thus comprehensible with great effort. The other is Swahili. Good luck with that.
But let's not rush to despair. In reading Berry, there is no shortage of suggestions for how individuals and communities can pivot from our bad economy to a better one, including those I wrote about in his essay Local Economies to Save the Land and People. But at the end of Less Energy, More Life, in what probably amounted to no more than two minutes, Wendell closed not with another list of suggestions, but instead with a rush of straight talk. It seems that he felt inspired not to say how change must happen, but who needs to enact it, and he isn't much in the mood for any weaseling.
For starters, he utters the unpardonable blaspheme that if we are to stop the impoverishment of the land and people then we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer. We must give up our mechanical ways of thought that have dominated the last 200 years. We can't expect to replace fossil fuel energy with clean energy only, but also with less energy, because if we actually had clean energy we would use up the world faster than we're using it up now. How serious are we, he asks. Are we serious enough to ration our own use of energy? To spend more on energy alternatives for the sake of slowing and then stopping the pollution and destruction of the fossil fuel industries? Are we ready to sacrifice ourselves, he wants to know, for the sake of improving our lives and improving "the possibility of life?"
It is easy to rail against Donald Trump and his sycophantic cronies. It is easy to dismiss or even disdain his voters. In relative terms, it is also easy to start a blog site and write about all that's wrong in the world today. None of these are, to use his word, "serious," if we don't actively, conscientiously, and persistently fight the industries that are burning up the world and supporting a false and willfully ignorant economy. It's a bit of a scold from Mr. Berry. I'll be the first to admit it isn't easy to look in the mirror when looking out the window affords so much to wag our fingers at.
For now, I am compelled to use this blog site to continue my personal rant against our political grand mal seizure. But the site is going to keep using me to stay real about the work, because that's the Wendell Berry effect. Overcoming 200 years of mechanical thought, limiting my own energy use and choosing the local instead of the convenient is a tough prescription. But it is serious in the manner that Wendell means it: complex and practical. It isn't Swahili. It's just hard, and for better or worse, it's on us.