Book Review: The Unsettling of America

by Daisy


This is a book I’m ashamed to admit I only recently read.

The Unsettling of America was published in 1977, which means I could have read it as a child, again as a teenager, a young adult, and many times throughout my adulthood, and it would have probably changed my life.

I might have been a real farmer if I’d read it earlier.

But don’t let that worry you; read this book as soon as you can.

If you don’t already know this book, here’s a brief overview.

Written by Wendell Berry, the fifth-generation Kentucky farmer with Stanford and Guggenheim fellowships in the back pocket of his overalls, it is part philosophy, part rant, part prescription to salve our souls and save our bacon.

He puts his finger on what is wrong with us, through the lens of the agricultural system, with such focused insight it makes clear what has been happening to America, and by extension, the world, over the past fifty-plus years.

Having grown up in the New Agriculture, it’s hard for me to have a good perspective on it. I can’t see the forest for the trees. This book gives me the perspective I’ve needed and wanted.

Wendell Berry is the naive child calling foul a la The Emperor’s New Clothes at the collective denial of both the public and the government concerning the effects of the corporate overthrow of the American agricultural system. Where once small, independent, diversified farms provided local food to local people, Big Ag and Big Chem hand in hand with the government and the university research system now control our food system.

Using an insidious form of appeal to altruism, big ag convinced us we needed them in order to insure our food security for the future, but as Berry points out: “How the future might be served by careless and destructive practices in the present is a question that is simply overridden by the brazen glibness of official optimism. If there is a food crisis, then, according to specialist logic, we must produce more food more carelessly than ever before.” (p. 63)

And Berry is not without his own brand of dire humor: In a discussion of how modern agriculture simultaneously generates toxic excesses of wasted manure AND formulates toxic solutions to infertile soil, he quips, “The genius of American farm experts is very well demonstrated here: they can take a solution and divide it neatly into two problems.” (p. 67)

He calls out our agricultural scientists and technologists for betraying the small farmer: “We seem to have abandoned any interest in the survival of anything small. We seem to have adopted a moral rule of thumb according to which anything big is better than anything small. As a result, the agricultural establishment has simply looked away from the possibility of an economics and a technology suited to the needs and aims of the small farmer.” (p. 84)

He doesn’t only decry, he reflects on a simple formula for appropriate agricultural technology:

  1. Diversity

  2. Animals and plants together

  3. Attention to decay and maintenance

  4. Return all wastes

  5. Enable care and safeguard communities

  6. Small holdings

  7. Make our own energy

We have attempted to reduce agriculture to science alone. This is fallacious. Berry says,

“The damages of our present agriculture all come from the determination to use the life of the soil as if it were an extractable resource like coal, to use living things as if they were machines, to impose scientific (that is, laboratory) exactitude upon living complexities that are ultimately mysterious.”  (p. 94)

Big Ag sells itself as a means to free mankind from the “drudgery” of growing its own food. In the process, it has robbed us of our communities, our jobs, and our clean environment.

Save us from such “salvation.”


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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Bonnie North July 18, 2016 at 8:51 am


I hadn’t heard of this book before today, but for a long time, I have been feeling a sense of alarm over the highjacking of our food systems and communities, by corporate interests and industrialized processes.

There is a discussion forum I have been reading, where the moderators asked if people wanted to have GMOs labelled clearly, and when some of us answered that we did, we were then assailed with scientific evidence of how apparently innocuous and benign GMOs are. No matter what our various reasons for wanting GMO labelling were, our opinions were uniformly admonished and ridiculed as being anti-science, simplistic, and even somehow anti-social justice.

I don’t intend to to spark a discussion about the merits or detractors of an industrialized food system, but I deeply appreciate you mentioning this book because it seems to validate my feelings. I will gladly find and read it. 🙂

Daisy July 18, 2016 at 10:19 am

Bonnie–I’ve heard of scientists who are funded under the table (oh, they’re cloaked in legitimate donation clothing, but they wouldn’t hold up to rigorous ethics standards) by corporate interests, who engage people online to debunk the science that undermines their interests. They maintain their impartiality while populating the internet with corporate views. I’m sure there are scientists who, entirely unfunded, believe in the benignity of GMO’s, etc., but it’s hard to tell who’s who.
Shh, they’re listening . . . 😡

Erica Stoltzfus July 18, 2016 at 5:56 pm

I read this book last year – also for the first time and wondered where it had been all my life! I loved how he helped me see how everything is interconnected and how one shift (agriculture to agribusiness) has created so many new problems…but it also gave me hope that the solution, therefore, is not many, but one (though not necessarily easy). If you haven’t had enough of Wendell Berry, I also discovered that you can watch/listen to some of his lectures on YouTube. And his novels are great too! Hannah Coulter was my first introduction to Wendell Berry, and I am glad I read it first because Unsettling was not an easy read (it requires a lot of thinking and rumination).

Sallie July 19, 2016 at 5:28 am

Follow the money. Check out the farmers markets !!!

Daisy July 19, 2016 at 6:03 am

Sallie–Yes, have you seen any local ones that are organic?

Sallie July 19, 2016 at 6:04 am

I think the rise of organic foods has been the first push towards real food. Countless cookbooks have been written for the “real food” push. Community Gardens have sprung up in inner cities on vacant lots that not only feed the local people, but teach the next generation how to save seeds and grow food. There is a group of nuns in Montana that have saved their way of life by raising their cattle and then selling them to the locals. Needless to say, they get top dollar. There are communities that are growing up around 200 acre farms and the farmers sell crops directly to the folks around them outside of Atlanta. We have Asian people the grow so much food they sell at the farmers markets. There is progress, quietly happening thank God.

Daisy July 19, 2016 at 7:27 am

Bonnie–Also, this is interesting on the subject of trolls:

Leslie July 19, 2016 at 8:15 am

I’ve always wondered why Big Ag resists labeling GMOs or imported food. I mean, if it’s truly superior, toot your horn! Sterile seed you can only buy from Big Ag rubs my fiercely independent sensabilities the wrong way. And if God wanted salmon DNA in a tomato, he would have put it there.

VictoriaM July 19, 2016 at 11:47 am

Hey, they put the salmon DNA into tomatoes so you don’t have to bend over to pick them. They leap into your hands! Gee I thought everyone knew that!

Daisy July 19, 2016 at 12:49 pm


Daisy July 19, 2016 at 12:51 pm

Leslie–Give enough money to lobbyists, you can do just about anything you want.

Pam July 24, 2016 at 8:51 am

I found Mr. Berry after reading Nick Offerman’s book “Gumption”. More need to know about and read Berry.

Daisy July 24, 2016 at 11:04 pm

Pam–I agree. I kept thinking of people I wish would read it as I was reading it myself. I think it would open a lot of eyes and change attitudes.

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