Sunday, August 18, 2013

What Are People For? (Comments & Selections)

What Are People For?
© 1990, 2010 (2nd Edition) Wendell Berry
210 pages

Did the Lord say that machines oughta take the place of livin'? ("John Henry", Johnny Cash)

Wendell Berry is a softly outspoken critic of the triumph of inhumanity. What are People For? collects essays both literary and critical, with topics ranging from poetry to economy, but settling most around the meaningful life and obstacles to it. Before locavorism and community-supported agriculture, Berry preached the diverse benefits of local, organic agriculture: before James Howard Kunstler, he talked about the value of Place, and mourned the destruction of it by the expansion of sprawl. But Berry is no progressive prodigy: he is, in fact, a traditionalist, who sees great value in a nation of small agriculturists and great danger in one of big agribusiness corporations and consumers. Berry sits in judgment of a modernity that destroys families, communities, people's connection to the land, and their ability to derive pleasure and independence from it. He has little regard for economic arguments for Free Markets that allow tumorously huge food-factories to drive out the little farmer: he moved by a man of flesh and blood, more concerned with his "fellow humans, neighbors, children of God, and citizens of the Republic" than economic principles and statistics that prove people are better off even as their places are destroyed by progress.  You can't stop progress, Berry might say with a sigh, but you can wish mightily for it to choke on its own exhaust.

One need not agree with Berry in entirety to appreciate his work, and I have found this collection of his essays, the first I've read (aside from "Health is Membership" in The Plain Reader), to be full of a great many humbling, gracious, and troubling thoughts. Below are a few excerpts.


The truth is that we Americans, all of us, have become a kind of human trash, living our lives in the midst of a ubiquitous damned mess of which we are at once the victims and the perpetrators, but we must count ourselves among the guilty nonetheless. In my household we produce much of our own food and try to do without as many frivolous 'necessities' as possible -- and yet, like everyone else, we must shop, and when we shop we must bring home a load of plastic, aluminum, and glass containers designed to be thrown away, and 'appliances' designed to wear out quickly and be thrown away.

I confess that I am angry at the manufacturers who make these things. There are days when I would be delighted if certain corporate executives could somehow be obliged to eat their products. I know of no good reason why these containers and all other forms of manufactured 'waste' -- solid, liquid, toxic, or whatever -- should not be outlawed. There is no sense and no sanity when objecting to the desecration of the flag while tolerating and justifying and encouraging as a daily business the desecration of the country for which it stands."

"Economy and Pleasure"
In the right sort of economy, our pleasure would not merely be an addition or by-product or reward; it would be both an empowerment of our work and its indispensable measure. Pleasure, Ananda Coomaraswamy said, perfects work. In order to have leisure and pleasure, we have mechanized and automated and computerized our work. But what does this do but divide us ever more from one another and the world?

"The Pleasures of Eating"
"Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels. 'Life is not very interesting,' we seem to have decided. 'Let its satisfactions be minimal, perfunctory, and fast'. We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry through our work to 'recreate' ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations. And then we hurry, with the greatest possible speed and noise and violence, through our recreation -- for what? To eat the billionth hamburger at some fast-food joint hellbent on increasing the 'quality' of our life? And all this is carried out in a remarkable obliviousness to the causes and effects, the possibilities and the purposes, of the life of the body in this world."

"Word and Flesh"
"Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence -- that is, to the wish to preserve all its humble households and neighborhoods. [...]
We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other. It is either that or continue merely to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make."

"Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer"
I should give my standard for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.
2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.
It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.
4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.
5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.
6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.
7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.
8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.
9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
Do engines get rewarded for their steam? ("John Henry", Johnny Cash)

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