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:
Animals and plants together
Attention to decay and maintenance
Return all wastes
Enable care and safeguard communities
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.”