Saturday, September 28, 2013

Home Economics

Home Economics
© 1987 Wendell Berry
192 pages

The term economics originally referred to household management, and to Wendell Berry, that's what it should remain still. Home Economics collects essays on the meaning and relation of economy to human life. In it, he deplores the cancerous growth of massive, unwieldy structures like agribusiness, globalization, and the state which destroy culture, communities, and the land, reducing the human experience to economic inputs. He ruminates thoughtfully on the value of more traditional ways of life, and advocates for an approach which is much more finely-grained For Berry, the humane society is one built to a small scale, built on local economies wherein people, not institutions, are the primary actors, and where the relationships between people and the land are respectfully maintained.

Berry is a fascinating author. At first glance, he's manifestly romantic and old fashioned, advocating for the same kind of agrarian  Republic of citizen-farmers that Thomas Jefferson yearned for. Though he's grounded in the past, quoting freely from classical poets and the Bible life, he's not mired by it: he does not despise cities as Jefferson and other agrarians did, and writes that if we wish to preserve the wilderness and farms, we must preserve our cities, too.  Though he doesn't outline his reasoning, it may be similar to that of David Owen's, who sees energy-efficient cities as the best hope for combating climate change. It's certainly a better  hope than car-dependent suburbia, which Berry despises (however much a gentle and aging scholar-farmer can despise something).   Berry urges readers to consider a return to localism not just because it's better for the environment (his veneration for which is religiously inspired), and not just because the new institutions are oppressive and destructive but because Nature has a way of correcting the unsustainable. That which cannot sustain itself will not: eventually it will fail. We will not persist living as we do now forever: our choice is in how and when we change.  In the hereafter, Berry writes, we may ask forgiveness for the crimes Nature has judged us for, but God has never shown any inclination to overturn her just sentences.

At times a warning, the vision of Home Economics is not dire.  In elaborating on the weaknesses of industrialized and globalized modernity,  he affirms that the ongoing desecration of human life and the planet will not long endure -- and in articulating what was lost, he makes clear to modern readers what it is they miss without being able to describe; the bonds of family and community life, attachment to place, and the sense of a life of meaning and purpose. His holistic vision offers to restore those powers laid waste in getting and spending.

Folks, This Ain't Normal, Joel Salatin. Salatin advocates some of the same ideas, at least in terms of farm ecology. He's more cheerfully manic and provocative, though.
Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey (on the virtues of the wilderness)

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