It’s no secret that Wendell Berry is another one of my inspirations when thinking about sustainable food systems – my post about his work “The Pleasures of Eating” has been one of the most-viewed posts on this blog, and his name repeatedly comes up in things I read and am influenced by. A friend of mine found this recent interview with him online and shared it with me, and I would like to continue the chain and share it with you – it’s another great example of his poignant style of thinking and speaking, his multifaceted engagement and his ability to succinctly get to the heart of the matter while still expressing it poetically.
A couple of my favorite quotes drawn from the interview:
On sustainability in America:
Well, we are a young country. […] And what we have done there in that time has not been sustainable. In fact, it has been the opposite. There’s less now of everything in the way of natural gifts, less of everything than what was there when we came. Sometimes we have radically reduced the original gift. And so for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke, because we haven’t sustained anything very long — and a lot of things we haven’t sustained at all.
On the importance of local connections and the preservation of local memories:
[The importance of connections to the land] starts with the obvious perception that land that is in human use requires human care. And this calls for keeping in mind the history of such land, of what has worked well on it and the mistakes that have been made on it. To lose this living memory of what has happened to the place is really to lose an economic asset.
I’m more and more concerned with the economic values of such intangibles as affection, knowledge, and memory. A deep familiarity between a local community and the local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms. It’s also, down the line, money in the bank because it helps you to preserve the working capital of the place.
On his idea of a 50-year Farm Bill:
Unlike the typical US farm bill, the 50-Year Farm Bill attempts to address the real and ongoing problems of agriculture: erosion, toxicity, loss of genetic and species diversity, and the destruction of rural communities, or the destruction, where it still survives, of the culture of husbandry. It begins with the fact that at present, 80% of the land is planted annually in annual crops such as corn and beans, and 20% in perennials. It proposes a 50-year program for the gradual inversion of that ratio to 80% perennial cover and 20% annuals. It’s pretty clear that annual plants are nature’s emergency service. They’re the plants that come in after, say, a landslide, after the land has been exposed, and they give it a temporary cover while the perennials are getting started. So our predominantly annual agriculture keeps the land in a state of emergency. It’s hard to make a permanent agriculture on the basis of an emergency strategy.
On becoming more, rather than less, radical with increasing age:
One reason is that as I’ve grown older I’ve understood more clearly the difficulties that we’re in, the bad fix that we’re in and that we’re leaving to our children. And as I’ve grown older I’ve understood that when I put my comfort on the line as a protester or whatever, I’m doing what old people ought to do. I have less life to live than the young people. I think the old people ought to be the first ones in line to risk arrest.
And finally, on the role of cynicism, objectivity and conviction in advocating for sustainable agriculture:
One of the things that I think people on my side of these issues are always worried about is the ready availability of cynicism, despair, nihilism — those things that really are luxuries that permit people to give up, relax about the problems. Relax and let them happen. Another thing that can bring that about is so-called objectivity — the idea that this way might be right but on the other hand the opposite way might be right. We find this among academic people pretty frequently — the idea that you don’t take a stand, you just talk about the various possibilities.
But our side requires commitment, it requires effort, it requires a continual effort to define and understand what is possible — not only what is desirable, but what is possible in the immediate circumstances.
As an academic myself, this last statement hit me the most – it is truly hard to figure out where to draw the line and make a convinced stance, especially when trying to be pragmatic and advocate for feasible reforms. It’s easier to hide in the ivory tower and just make observations about the world, but I am excited to soon gain practical experience in contributing to change I believe in – and having Wendell Berry as inspiration will definitely help!
Make sure to click through to the interview if you’d like to hear all of his thoughts!
Did you read the rest of the interview? What statement stood out to you?