Because few things are as pleasant as summer dinners outside in Portland, I am thrilled to have a new 7-piece patio dining set, complete with snappy red cushions and armrests that are actually comfortable. Coming to own this thing was the prettiest picture of efficiency. The not-small set arrived at my doorstep in just two boxes, merely five days after I spent three minutes ordering it online. I put it together on a Friday morning last month – the assembly process was another pleasure of efficiency. Using a tiny L-shaped Allen Wrench and about sixty screws that were neatly included, the set came together with nary a glitch, which rarely happens for me. In this case, the parts, screws, and screw holes were machined with such precision there was just no way to screw it up.
Only after it was assembled and out on the patio did I stop to appreciate the table top design itself -- a criss-crossed diagonal pattern, intricate as a basket weave. You might be picturing wicker but the table top is steel. It occurred to me then that this was a design that only a computer could fabricate. That thought was quickly followed by two others: "How many people were involved in the design, construction and delivery of this set?" (Not many I was sure). And, "Isn't this the heart of the Wendell Berry problem?"
Having this patio set behind my house brings me immense pleasure. The ease with which I ordered it, received it and assembled it also tickles me. I am seduced.
When I step into "Wendell World" to either read or write about Mr. Berry, I readily take up metaphorical finger-wagging -- condescending to industrialism, capitalism and their nasty spawn like corporatism (bankers/criminals!), careerism (climbers/snobs!), consumerism (debtors/shoppers!). But this is just convenient hypocrisy on my part. It enables me to rest in the intellectual warm bath of agrarian ideas without confronting my own complicit sanctioning of the industrial economy so antithetical to the virtues of agrarianism. And it’s not just the patio set. I also love my car and my phone (though my phone and I are going through some tough times. It’s complicated).
These comforts and pleasures are a problem. As they make my life easier and more luxurious, they make the lives of other earthly creatures much more difficult and maybe even impossible. The seduction that these comforts and pleasures offer is THE problem that keeps me, and millions like me, from approaching the standards that Wendell Berry’s life exemplifies.
Corporate Industrialism isn't actually evil -- that's just a convenient and thought-stopping label. What it is is one-dimensional. These are systems that are breathtakingly exceptional at one thing and one thing only: making stuff. In our 200-year affair with these systems, we have refined them so ingeniously, so relentlessly, and with such creativity, that as we’ve made the stuff better and better we’ve also, miraculously, made it less and less expensive. Some of us can afford a lot more stuff, and nearly all of us can afford at least a little more. The internet, instead of becoming the cybernetic town hall for a global brotherhood instead became a 24/7/365 bazaar and a ready dopamine hit for any craving you might have.
A lot of what the system produces is crap, but some of it is really beautiful and useful, like the patio set and the smart phones which, love them or hate them, are certainly marvels of science and engineering. The services that are now so much a part of the economy also derive from Corporate-Industrialism’s core competency. If we couldn't afford such stuff, including food, clothes (SO inexpensive now!) and shelter, there wouldn't be a service economy. We'd go back to washing our own stuff, fixing our own stuff, and providing everything from entertainment to health care for each other. There'd be no choice about such things.
What would a world without great, inexpensive stuff look like? The 19th century comes to mind and that's not a world I’d want to trade ours for. Imagination fails partly because we can't look on alternative pasts for an array of options. Faced with imagining a world without my Lexus, iPhone and patio set, I am at something of a loss. Whatever that world is, it sure feels harder, less fun, and more threatening.
The Wendell Berry Problem can be put thus: we all want the community, rootedness and peaceableness of Wendell Berry's world, but not if it means forsaking the pleasures and comforts we’ve come to know and love. Forced to choose between the patio set and whatever offset my non-purchase would have made against the extraction and use of hazardous materials, cheap labor and carbon emitting power, again and again I choose my pleasure. I sacrifice the well-being of the world. I do not sacrifice my alfresco summer evenings. How much plainer can it get?
This is the tough spot -- the uncomfortable truth. It's one thing to dally in agrarian ideas with their pastoral appeal (and how many of us do even this?). But it's something else entirely to elect to go without for the sake of agrarian values. I'm not sure I can point to a single example in my life of having made this sacrifice. The fact that my Lexus is a hybrid is nice, but it’s hardly a sacrifice. It is better than some alternatives, but a largely empty gesture. In blogging about these ideas, in my longtime reading of this work, and as a visitor to New Castle, Kentucky, I admit that I am a tourist. Even as I delight in spending time with Wendells' thoughts (“walking” with him, as I like to say), I am not taking up residence. My self-made life is more Apple than apples.
I think that’s true for nearly every one of us moderns. Some of us have made choices that align with Wendell World and I don’t mean to discount these. Choices that reduce carbon emissions, support local growers and makers and democratize political power structures are all essential, praiseworthy and pointing in the right direction. Wendell’s criticism, however, as is mine, is not with individuals. It is with systems. As individuals we are like insects caught in a spider web, the web being our modern, interlaced systems of political power, money, land abuse and energy consumption. Some of us are completely caught, others are free enough to wriggle around and understand something of what has us trapped. A tiny lucky few even manage to escape. The point is that Mr. Berry isn’t much interested in what people are doing in response to these systems; what he wants to understand and have us understand is how these systems work, how people contribute to their dominance, and how they wreak damage on people, land, and community.
Wendell Berry is not a futurist. He doesn't really offer an alternative system to corporate industrialism as a replacement program. He recognizes in himself a set of values and way of thinking that fits into a forgotten strand of philosophy called agrarianism. From a life lived mostly outside the prevailing systems, he is able to offer suggestions and examples of people, places (mostly imaginary) and practices that register as alternatives to the dominant structures of modernity. But mostly what he is is an auditor. Beyond anyone I know, he has written more observantly and effectively about how we are living, and what it portends for us.
If I were to recommend a single Berry essay for transmitting the full spectrum of his thought and beliefs, I’d probably point to the Jefferson Lecture he delivered in 2012 on receiving our nation’s highest honor for intellectual achievement from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Trying to reduce any of it for my WWW readers feels as hopeful as walking across a river. The first steps seem possible but the power of the current and depth of the bottom sweep away any hope of getting all the way across. But several of the themes I’ve touched on in this post – efficiency, pleasure, complicity and most importantly, affection, all bubbled up from my reading and re-reading this tour de force.
I learned that efficiency, for example, as in the ordering, receiving and assembling of my patio set, belongs to ethos of James B. Duke – founder of Duke University who founded the American Tobacco Company and monopolized his industry by growing the corporation, depressing prices, and running countless small farmers out of business. This wasn’t done as political oppression – there was no intent to harm – likely there wasn’t even an awareness of harm. It was an economic oppression, “involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds.” Efficiency is a principle to be careful with. One should remember, like I tried to with my patio set, that people, places and communities are not by their nature “efficient.” The pleasure of efficiency is the appreciation of the machine.
Wendell holds his grandfather out as a counterpoint to Mr. Duke – a “sticker” who was motivated by affection for a place and its life such that he desired only to preserve it and remain in it. Wendell credits his teacher, Wallace Stegner, with sorting the American character into two camps – “Stickers” like Wendell’s grandfather and “Boomers” like Mr. Duke who are motivated by greed and the desire for money, property and therefore power. These two kinds are different in many ways, including in the ways of pleasure. Boomers must only want what they do not yet have. Their great pleasure is in prospect, which rules out affection as a motive. Grandpa Berry, on the other hand, took delight in the modest good that was at hand; his pastures, animals and crops. Mobility, which is so much a part of our world today and assumed to be an all-good feature, was not a part of the elder Berry’s world. Of the one longish trip he made to Virginia from Kentucky, he was to have said “Well sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”
And of our complicity in supporting the corporate industrial economy, Mr. Berry draws a distinction between knowledge born of real contact with things in and of the land, land-communities and land-use economies – a visionary knowledge which can best be captured in the word “imagination,” and statistical knowledge which is blind and unfelt. Statistical knowledge was once rare – the domain of rulers, conquerors and generals who succeeded or failed by the manipulation of large quantities that were, to them, unimagined because unimaginable. The quantities of land, soldiers, workers or treasure has transitioned, in our time, to data, facts and information. “By means of such (statistical) knowledge, a category assumes dominion over its parts or members.” (This should strike a chord with everyone today who has been following the big data trends in our corporate economy). By virtue of our remoteness from actual experience in the actual world, we participate in an absentee economy just like the industrialists who pull its strings. “Though most of us have little wealth and perhaps no power, we consumer-citizens are more like James B. Duke than we are like my grandfather. By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are Boomers.”
This is what I guiltily understood about my pleasure in acquiring the patio set – that I am prone to Boomerism. It must be an important step in stopping all this madness – admitting that American Power and American Dominion has infected all of us, even those of us who care so deeply about people, places and community.
If statistical knowledge is the kind that leads to Boomer behavior, and imagined knowledge is the alternative, then how do we learn to imagine? The answer, as revealed in the title of his talk, is affection. Affection, says Wendell, arrives through contact. When I wrote earlier that I love my car and my phone, I didn’t quite mean that. Such things give pleasure, but they aren’t truly objects of my affection. That quality is reserved, as Mr. Berry notes, for that which can be illuminated by their own unique character and by our love for them.
Using this standard, I quickly see that affection is for my wife and kids, my garden, my home, the giant trees of my neighborhood and the mountains and rivers and creeks of western Oregon. I have affection for the members with whom I share my place, my local experience, and for whom I can sympathize with. Here, I am a long, long way from the patio set. I am reminded of who I really am, and what I really want. And from here, Wendell says – from affection – might we begin to imagine the genius of a place, the uniqueness of a person, the miracle of an osprey or frog or ant. We might even close the distance from affection to imagination to embrace the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy. The patio chairs might be less comfortable and more costly in such an economy, but I think there’d be more guests for me to offer them to. That’s a trade I’d gladly make, if I could figure out how to do it.