By Contributor on September 04, 2013

By Wendell Berry

Like a lot of people I know, I am concerned about mountaintop removal and climate change. But when we delay our concern until dangers have become sensational, we are late. Whether or not we are too late is a question that should not interest us. Even if we are too late, we still must accept responsibility and try to make things better.

In fact, mountaintop removal and climate change are not the sort of simple problems that can be solved by what we call problem-solving. They are summary evils gathered up from innumerable causes in the bad economy that we all depend upon and serve.

It is not as though we have not been warned. The advice against waste, extravagance, selfishness, hubris, falsehood, and willful ignorance is old. But people of religion have generally entrusted questions about economy, about how we live, to economists and industrialists. Environmentalists seem to think that problems caused by technology can be solved, or “controlled,” by more technology or “alternative” technology. People of both kinds seem to think that big problems have big solutions. Both are mistaken.

Fifty years ago, Harry Caudill published Night Comes to the Cumberlands, causing a flurry of public attention and a spate of federal interest in solving “the problem of poverty” in the Appalachian coalfields. But that book describes the fundamental problem—which was, and is, the industrial plunder of the land and the people—and that problem, already long ignored by 1963, has continued to be ignored officially and conventionally, for fifty more years. As Harry knew, and the politicians have not known, improving the health and economy of a region is not a one-issue project. It is not a one-solution problem.

The long-term or permanent damage inflicted upon all life by the extraction, transportation, and use of fossil fuels is certainly one of the most urgent public issues of our time, and, of course, it must be addressed politically. But responsibility for the better economy, the better life, belongs to us individually and to our communities. The necessary changes cannot be made on the terms prescribed to us by the industrial economy and its so-called free market. They can be made only on the terms imposed upon us by the nature and the limits of local ecosystems.

If we are serious about these big problems, we have got to see that the solutions begin and end with ourselves. Thus we put an end to our habit of oversimplification. If we want to stop the impoverishment of land and people, we ourselves must be prepared to become poorer.

If we are to continue to respect ourselves as human beings, we have got to do all we can to slow and then stop the fossil fuel economy. But we must do this fully realizing that our success, if it happens, will change our world and our lives more radically than we can now imagine. Without that realization we cannot hope to succeed. To succeed we will have to give up the mechanical ways of thought that have dominated the world increasingly for the last 200 years, and we must begin now to make that change in ourselves. For the necessary political changes will be made only in response to changed people.

We must understand that fossil fuel energy must be replaced, not just by “clean” energy, but also by less energy. The unlimited use of any energy would be as destructive as unlimited economic growth or any other unlimited force.

If we had a limitless supply of free, nonpolluting energy, we would use the world up even faster than we are using it up now.

If we are not in favor of limiting the use of energy, starting with our own use of it, we are not serious.

If we are not in favor of rationing energy, starting with the fossil fuels, we are not serious.

If we have the money and we are not willing to pay two dollars to keep the polluting industries from getting one, we are not serious.

If, on the contrary, we become determined to keep the industries of poison, explosion, and fire from determining our lives and the world’s fate, then we will steadfastly reduce our dependence on them and our payments of money to them. We will cease to invest our health, our lives, and our money in them.

Then finally we will be serious enough, our effort complex and practical enough. By so improving our lives, we will improve the possibility of life.

 

Wendell Berry is a writer, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This article is adapted from a speech he delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual meeting in Louisville

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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