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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

No Brakes

Imagine for a moment that in 1908, when the first Model T's rolled off Henry Ford's assembly line in Detroit, the cars had no brakes. Imagine they were still popular, nonetheless.

Sure, it was tricky finding a slight incline to slow to a stop. But people quickly figured out that if the car was moving slowly enough, they could drop a foot outside the running board and drag it alongside. There were ways to get the car to brake. It just wasn't part of the design.

What if the automobile industry went along this way for the next 110 years, continuously improving the original Tin Lizzie. Automatic transmissions, power steering, torque vectoring, GPS navigation systems -- all invented and designed in, but strangely -- no brakes. As the cars got faster and cooler, it somehow became harder to see the oversight, not easier. With each passing decade in fact, the very idea of "car" began to negate everything that brakes are for. The car was for movement, speed, infinite choice and excitement.

Brakes? Brakes are the exact opposite of all that.

And crazier still in this imagined story is how people were constantly getting hurt and killed in these marvelous machines. It's not that brakes ever became unnecessary. The cars -- especially the newest and most advanced -- were preposterously dangerous. For many unfortunate drivers, car cabins became missile nosecones. Seat belts would often abrade shoulders and neck tissue was especially vulnerable. Older people and children regularly developed incurable phobias, and hyperventilation was so common that oxygen masks were standard issue in all models after 1950. Collisions were commonplace and almost always fatal. Just being around cars was risky, but there was no avoiding it. Pedestrians took courses to perfect their reaction times and ditch-diving techniques. Drivers learned to roll out of opened doors at 25 miles per hour and below.

A few lone voices tried to advocate for brakes and safety for the sake of human health. They were brushed off with hardly a notice -- chided as anachronistic, protectionist and nostalgic. After so many decades of giddy and dizzying advancements, the idea of brakes became stigmatically attached to shame -- to the anathama of societal regress. To slow or stop the car meant slowing or stopping progress which, people in charge argued, was worse than unconscionable. They decried it unnatural.

Important and brilliant people actually came to believe that slowing the cars by design would be like slowing time -- an impossibility. Even as more people began to question the danger and tragedy of brakeless machines and the broken lives that resulted from them, there was just no getting a frame around the issue.

The original problem had never been properly understood. It was usurped by belief, conviction, and finally, religion. Finally, it was swallowed whole. Time cannot be stopped, technology and speed cannot be divorced, the costs and burdens of progress are inevitable and cannot spare everyone.


For so long now, I've been excavating Wendell Berry's work to see if I could identify the first place on the path where his beliefs fork away from the world we have. I have longed to be able to say the singular thing that ties together his many well-recorded positions -- including those against inappropriate technology, corporatism, extractive industrialism, soft-headed collectivism, overweening specialization, educational profiteering and all the rest. In reading A Long Job, Too Late to Quit in Citizenship Papers, it struck me that the first branch -- the original point of departure -- may well be the idea or the imperative, of Health.

Think about it. Where in all our of our economic doctrine can you find a standard of health that isn't recursive? We don't have a doctrine that says: "The standard for our economy is health for everyone and every thing." We instead have doctrines that say "The standard for our economy is a healthy economy." And here "healthy" is defined by putatively objective things like number of jobs, incomes, unemployment rates, GDP, housing starts, and exchanges rates.

But these things aren't measures of real, actual health - the kinds of things that Wendell cares about and wants to see accounted for. His list would include topsoil depth and fertility; local business longevity; flora and fauna diversity; stable or increased small farm holdings; a plentiful population of farmers; young people choosing to stay in rural communities; young people and aged people thriving in rural communities; short supply lines; self-reliance among individuals, families and communities; subsistance economies during hard times; self-provision and savings during good times.

For urban dwellers like myself, some of these may seem irrelevant. But that's just the mistake. Under an Economic Health standard of this kind, nothing is irrelevant. My health and my family's probably depends a great deal on the number and type of farms and farmers in my region -- it's just that no one has ever taught us that, or designed experiments to prove it at, or figured out a control condition that would allow us to even test the theory. Besides, the advances in pharmacology and medical treatments seem to speak for themselves. Aren't we getting healthier and healthier? Isn't that an obvious truth?

Well, no. A lot of us are getting less healthy, including many of us who happen to be born into low-income zip codes, whether urban or rural. And for the more geographically fortunate, the jury is still out. We always tend to think that our gains are vested, but what if they're not?

Wendell is good at is reminding us that the ubiquity and monoply of our current economic system proves neither its success nor its permanence. "What if," he asks in this essay, "farmers, farm families and farm communities are not expendable 'extras' in the drama of industrial progress, but instead are indispensible to health and long term survival of our food supply?" What if we really do have choices in this industrial and (now) digital march forward? What if we've had choices all along? If we have had, it's inevitable that to a greater or lesser extent, we've chosen wrong.

I think that's why these questions aren't allowed in the halls of power. We've been made to feel that doubting the glory and inevitability of our progress is provincial and aberrant, akin to vouching for astrology and crystals.

But our economy has become a 6,000 pound SUV without brakes: powerful, ingenius, unimaginably complex, and dangerous in the extreme. As I've said many times in this blog -- where we look matters. Where we look detemines how we think we're doing.

We're continually told to look at the power, ingenuity and complexity, and all the mastery and "advance" that these attributes imply. Wendell is saying that's wrong. He is saying that what matters is the risk and damage, and thus the opposite of risk and damage, which isn't ingenuity, complexity or power, but health - a state of proper functioning that allows organisms, whatever they are, to remain "vital" (i.e. maintaining their life).

"Health," and any standard it might suggest, establishes interdependency -- the one quality that our economic world fails to acknowledge almost comically. Parts cannot be separated from the whole and organisms (like organizations - same root) exchange information with their environment second by second. An economic health standard would not measure (recursively) the "health of the economy," but rather the health of the natural world, the groups of people who use and share those resources, and the individuals who contribute to or subtract from the group. The health of the organism here is a fractal: the scale matters not. The resources, the group and the individual can each be measured by the same standard ("health"). The model is easiest to understand when applied to a bounded place, where people and groups have tried to maintain their lives and livelihoods over many generations.

That's what Wendell Berry has been doing and he wants his findings, if we can call them that, acknowledged. We've destroyed rural communities as a matter of policy, and with them the dignity and chances of country people, through the decimation of forests and farms, for the sake of a "healthy" economy, and it is an affront. It's an affront to our morality, and more insidiously, it's an affront the very language we rely on to make sense of what's happening to us.

Our confusion, and Wendell's frustration, are understandable. Health is not our economic standard. The closest thing we have to that are "standards of living" which have been indisputably increasing since long before Henry Ford's time. But these are not standards of health. They don't measure health, they measure access to healthcare; not the nutritional value of food, but its availability; not the quality of lives, but their longevity; not the proximity of all people to work, educators and doctors, but the numeric count of these things.


I want to believe that I've done it -- that I've located the lodestone in Wendell Berry's philosophy. If health is magnetizing everything he's talking about, it's easy enough to find evidence, at least in this particular essay.

Going back through, there's this:

The only conceivable defense against the workings of the global economy, which is indifferent to all localities, is a system of healthy local economies.

And this:

We need to know what works to protect the health of farms and farm families, and the health of ecosystems and watersheds where farming is done, and the health of consumers and users of the products of farming.

And this:

Common sense tells us -- and experience shows us -- that economy and ecology are ultimately the same, just as economy and community are ultimately the same; ultimately, people cannot expect to prosper by doing damage to the land and to human communities.

Wendell Berry looks out that famous multipaned window of his writing studio and there among the Honeylocusts and Sourwood trees he sees wreckage. He senses danger -- rolling in on proclamations from the state capital in Frankfort, running down the strip-ruined Appalachian mountains, lapping the poisoned riverbanks of the Kentucky River. We tend to think our poets lend us their eyes to see beauty. But it isn't beauty they offer necessarily. It's truth.

Our sickness is hard to fathom. It always has been. It hides itself ridiculously well, in speed, in statistics, and in our ever-increasing comfort. Our stories are designed, like the brakeless cars, to thrill and delight us, no matter the cost.

Toward the end of this essay, Wendell asserts a claim:

It is by now undeniable that we have been wrong in assuming that we may safely wreck our rural communities for the improvement of urban communities...that the willingness to damage some communities damages all communities.

If you really want to understand Wendell Berry, contemplate what it means to "safely wreck" a community. See if you can justify it. Do that and you'll find yourself a tiny half-step away from the doctrine of creative destruction -- that gale of economic innovation that we accept so thoroughly, everywhere, all the time, and at such great consequence.


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