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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

What's Already Here

I’m noticing that plenty of people do agree with Wendell Berry, in a way. Check this out about Tim O’Reilly – the oracle of Silicon Valley, whose new book releases next month:

O’Reilly makes the case that income inequality, declining upward mobility and job loss due to technology are all the result of design choices we have made in the algorithms that manage our markets and our companies…..O’Reilly believes we must rewrite our algorithms if we wish to create a more human centered future.

O’Reilly, who has an impressive track record of predicting the next big thing in the tech world, believes that we are misguidedly designing technology to undermine our humanity. Technology isn’t taking peoples’ jobs, he argues. We’re doing it to ourselves. The distinction is helpful – centering the locus of control back in the human being and suggesting, thereby, that we are in control -- not the algos. Hence the book’s subtitle: The Future is Up to Us. It’s all very Wendell: the critique of systems that put technology before people; markets before communities; productivity before health.

O’Reilly isn’t alone. Since I’ve been listening to the excellent Team Human podcast, I’ve met dozens of people who reject the dominant corporate capitalistic paradigm in favor of all kinds of neat alternatives: distributivism, platform cooperativism, collectivism and other pro-social concepts of human organization and enterprise. Amber Case was on this week. She recently wrote a book called Calm Technology (published by O’Reilly Media, unsurprisingly), which I think is a kind of instruction manual for better programming that, instead of distracting us, would enhance and gently extend our human perceptions. Imagine that.

I’m also in the middle of a wonderful book by the British writer and activist George Monbiot, whose thesis is that until we replace our political narratives with a new story, we’re not going to change much of anything. The new story? That human beings are preternaturally cooperative and social. We’ve been duped, Monbiot says, into believing that we’re individualistic and competitive. Our rotten politics will haunt us until we internalize a new story about ourselves – one that recognizes how naturally and instinctively we’re inclined to help one another.

These people impress the hell out of me, because of both their ingenuity and their humanity. Like Wendell Berry, and like myself, they KNOW that we are getting shortchanged by our economy, our technology, and our political institutions. Like Wendell (and unlike myself), they have concrete ideas about how to reform these systems, or at least screw with them. It’s surprising, actually, to find such concordance between the crusty Mr. Berry and these radicalized technology reformers and educators.

But there is also a grave difference between Wendell and these illuminati and it raises THE question for me and for you -- for anyone who gives a shit about what’s happening to us.

Wendell Berry’s worldview is ecological and biological. None of these other humanists come within a thousand miles of his preoccupation with creation or Nature or the planet, or whatever you want to call it.

The question is – THE question is – whether nature and our place in it, matters any more.

It may sound crazy, but Mr. Berry is an outlier for believing that our lot is to fit in and adapt to what’s already here. “What’s already here” is paramount. To Berry, nature is the most salient, organizing, indisputable and primary fact among facts. For these others, “what’s already here” never comes up. I’m not sure why. Maybe it's just taken for granted. Perhaps we’re losing our senses, literally. Maybe, given a couple hundred years of atrophy, most of us are now simply incapable of absorbing very much about the physical world we live in. Whatever the reason, I realized this week that either Wendell Berry is right or he’s wrong. Both ideas cannot stand. Either we fit into the natural world as guests, or we remake the world to fit us. Guest or host. One or the other.

It’s obvious which idea is winning.

Modernity behaves as though our biology (of which we are made), and our ecology (in which we take part), are either so banal they need not be factored, or so antiquated as to offer nothing in prospect. If either, then we must sideline Wendell Berry: a sweet poet -- the rest of his work a nostalgic fuss about trees and grass and as relevant to our current condition as steamboats and soda fountains.

That’s the prevailing view. Humans without nature? Yep. There are super-smart people who ascribe to Transhumanism and Posthumanism – the former an ideology and movement which seeks to develop technologies that eliminate aging and enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities (potentially by uploading our minds to the cloud), and the latter a more pessimistic alternative in which humans will be replaced by artificial intelligences – an eventuality that Posthumanists would like us to embrace to speed it along. I also learned this week about meat labs which grow meat in cell cultures instead of in animals. Apparently “cellular agriculture” would require two percent of the land currently used by livestock and would reduce meat production energy needs by 45 percent. Maybe our best future is one of alteration and not adaption.

The alternative of course is that Wendell Berry is right and these other luminaries are just the latest generation of trippers in a centuries-long hallucination. What comes through so clearly in Wendell’s nonfiction is his relentless argument that we’ve had this alteration vs. adaptation thing backward ever since we arrived in North America. His essay Starting From Loss in It All Turns on Affection begins by reminding us that the Europeans who settled Kentucky didn’t know what they were doing. They arrived as strangers with dreams of escape, or liberation, or material gain, and they looked around and saw vastness. To use the land poorly – what did it matter? The resources appeared limitless and these people were themselves historically unsettled, “unwilling or unable for a variety of reasons to stay put.” To know a place and use it well, even in the best of circumstances, is a long and difficult proposition, requiring observation, temperance, forbearance, caution and affection. C’mon now. There was no chance back then. We still don’t do this well.

The story of Kentucky – mountaintops blown up for coal, fertilizers and pesticides poured all over the ground, slopes and banks ripped up and eroded, parents left behind by their descendants, jobs and wages vanished, government and industry aiding and abetting all of it – is also the story of our country. It’s true whether these effects are internalized and visible (i.e. the flyover part of the country), or externalized and invisible (i.e. the booming U.S. cities). The story of the country has been one of alteration, not adaptation. That’s the first thing that Wendell is at pains to have us see. The second is just how risky and myopic this strategy has been for everyone: those who stay put; those who mobilize for a “better” life somewhere else; and those life forms that flourish or die based entirely on human choices.

Wendell wrote Starting From Loss as an introduction and homage to a recently published volume called Kentucky’s Natural Heritage. It’s the kind of book that Berry wishes would proliferate – a thorough and necessarily modest appraisal, history and lamentation of the state’s land and peoples. Modest because even the most complete telling can’t begin to account for the truth of what’s happened to every creek, woods, field and town over the span of Kentucky’s 235-year modern history. In his introduction, Berry begrudgingly takes up his position as an elder, having collected memories and stories from Henry County, Kentucky, for more than half the span of that history. So, as a kind of watchman over the place, Berry shares a personal tour of the changes he’s witnessed.

Two stories stick out for me. The first is the disappearance of the earthworms. Wendell realizes somewhere along the way that the large worms – the fishing worms he dug up as a child – have disappeared from everywhere except the oldest and largest forests. Sadly, species loss is not shocking any more. What laid him low, however, was learning that these worms were not native to Kentucky. A professor explained to Berry that they were exotics, imported with potted plants or in the ballast of ships. His comment on this newfound knowledge is the most stunning part of the story. “I was shocked," he says. "It is one of my most unfinished and troubling thoughts, for it shows how much I have taken the world for granted, and how little I have thought of what is not obvious.”

The second tale also involves a lost species – the black dung beetle, or “tumblebug” who, in the 1940s and 50s, would roll her dungballs along the dusty paths of cow pastures, burying the cow manure. Berry was curious about their disappearance and so asked a university entomologist. Unsurprisingly came the response “I don’t know anything about them, but I can tell you this – they have no economic significance.” Except that Mr. Berry put together that their departure coincided with an epidemic increase in the population of face flies, which breed in manure. The flies apparently cause pink-eye in cattle that can lead to blindness and which requires expensive treatment. There are many lessons here: the submissiveness of academics and scientists to the “economically significant”; the equation of “economically significant” to “already known economic significance”; the attainment of knowledge that is only available indigenously; and most importantly, the folly of separating economic significance from ecological significance.

I am left to ponder whether these lessons are obfuscated by the material that informs Wendell Berry’s life and work. Down there in flyover land, he’s mucking around with earthworms and tumblebugs. The very reason we fly over these places is because that’s all we think exists down there. Just a lot of dirt. For all the genius that I hear from studios in NYC, Aspen and Silicon Valley, it’s always a scrubbed and polished type. Recondite, technologized, worldly – it’s compelling as hell, and utterly unplaced.

A lot of people are humanists. Even Transhumanists and Posthumanists make their claim, maybe absurdly. Everywhere I look I find a mind-centered humanism. Berry offers us a humanism of the body. The easiest reconciliation is to say that we need both – we need to alter AND adapt. We need, and can have, a technology serves us while also bettering the Earth. We feel intuitively that this must be true.

Though we want it both ways, we haven't produced much evidence yet that we are any good at balancing the scales. But evidence of our incompetence is everywhere and Wendell Berry has chronicled it diligently, as only someone paying careful attention, for long time, in a very small and well-bounded place, could do. What it gets down to, I think, is that unlike Wendell, we’d rather not look.

Very little have we thought of what is not obvious.

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