January 18, 2021

Wendell Berry on Local Economies

CF Falls

This week, what we are doing (instead of listening to me) is hearing and discussing quotes from Wendell Berry’s 2015 book, Our Only World: Ten Essays. On these weeks of the U.S. political national conventions, I escape to Berry to find fresh air to breathe. Fitting in neither of the binary categories our system seems to want to impose upon us, Berry offers a refreshing and often convicting prophetic voice. In the context of the globalized information barrage we’re subjected to every day, here is a quiet, insistent voice of wisdom rising up from the land and local experience.

In today’s piece, Berry speaks about local communities and what they must do to fight against “the ruling ideas” of our contemporary economy. He states it like this:

The ruling ideas of our present national or international economy are competition, consumption, globalism, corporate profitability, mechanical efficiency, technological change, upward mobility— and in all of them there is the implication of acceptable violence against the land and the people. We, on the contrary, must think again of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, local loyalty. These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.

• • •

The loss of a saving connection between the land and the people begins and continues with the destruction of locally based household economies. This happens, whether in the United States after World War II or in present day China, by policies more or less forcibly moving people off the land. It happens also when the people remaining on the land are convinced by government or academic experts that they “can’t afford” to produce anything for themselves, but must employ all their land and all their effort in making money with which to buy the things they need or can be persuaded to want. Leaders of industry, industrial politics, and industrial education decide, for example, that there are “too many farmers,” and that the surplus would be “better off” working at urban “jobs.” The movement of people off the land and into industry, away from local subsistence and into the economy of jobs and consumption, was one of our national projects after World War II, and it has succeeded.

This division between the land and the people has happened in all the regions of rural Kentucky, just as it has happened or is happening in rural places all over the world. The problem, invisible equally to liberals and conservatives, is that the forces that destroy the possibility of a saving connection between the land and the people destroy at the same time essential values and practices. The conversion of an enormous number of somewhat independent producers into entirely dependent consumers is a radical change that in many ways is immediately catastrophic. Without a saving connection to the land, people become useless to themselves and to one another except by the intervention of money. Everything they need must be bought. Things they cannot buy they do not have.

From “Local Economies to Save the Land and the People” (2013)
In Our Only World: Ten Essays


  1. Hm. After reading yesterday’s excerpt and discovering a bit about Berry I think that if you placed him at any point in history he would have found a problem with the world around him.

    Berry may be an inspiration to many but I’ll just pass on his insights.

    See y’all on “Ramblings”!

    • I think that if you placed him at any point in history he would have found a problem with the world around him.

      Yeah, and? 😉

      Every age and every society has its flaws. And every age and society needs people like Berry to forcefully articulate them. Particularly so here and now, as we Americans are SO adverse to true deep introspection on the courses we have set…

    • I don’t know about that, but I do know that he probably shouldn’t have an opinion on economics. I appreciate the yearnings of his heart, but he really needs to take a few econ courses before sharing his opinion.

  2. One facet I think Berry misses is that none of these changes would have been possible apart from industrialization – and that, in turn, would not have been possible without the vast reserves of cheap energy available in the form of fossil fuels.

    Remove that cheap energy from the equation and things would revert to pre-industrial norms soon enough. Then the question becomes, what happens to the billions of us who can’t be fed and sheltered without it?

    • Robert F says

      Some of the billions of us who can’t be fed and sheltered without that cheap energy would no doubt make our way to Berry’s Eden, ransack what he has so that we could survive a few more days, and destroy his experiment. In a way, Berry would become just another survivalist taking care of his own, except that, given his philosophy, he wouldn’t have any weapons to keep the starving hordes away even for a little while.

      But perhaps it’s possible to think of what Berry is doing as a vocation to live in a different way, not to secure himself against the uncertainties the rest of us face, but to provide a vision, a living symbol, of how things might be different, even if only on a small scale. Perhaps there are many such vocations for people in our world: special vocations to pacifism, say, in a world irreversibly bound to violence. The living of such vocations especially makes sense within a Christian understanding of things, as tokens of the eschaton, as incarnations of hope in an often hopeless world. Perhaps a prophetic role is served by the living of such vocations.

      • I agree.

      • Robert F says

        Such vocations, like Jesus’ miracles, would then be signs, as well as inbreakings, of the Kingdom.

        • Robert F says

          And prophetic signs do two things: they point the way forward, and by pointing the way forward, they point at the problems, the deficiencies, the evils, the sins that we are embroiled in presently. There is judgment, and hope for liberation in signs. The sign that Berry, and Christian pacifism, provides points us toward actions that decrease rather than increase the violence, toward cooperation rather than competition, toward taking risks for peace rather than in war.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        I agree

        > Berry would become just another survivalist taking care of his own

        So true. I have this debate with the Local Food Movement people all the time [friendly, they are my friends… but they are terrible at math]. The population of Boston – just Boston – needs ~600,500,000 calories A DAY, for mere subsistence. Wendell’s world not a place we can return to.

        >>Remove that cheap energy from the equation and things would revert to pre-industrial norms…

        On the other hand I do believe that an continuing incremental increase in energy prices would apply a hand-of-sanity upon the system. Free/cheap energy is a madness inducing drug.

        • Burro [Mule] says

          Could this be done any way except coercively (i.e. as a carbon tax) whereby the Evolved Ones save the Blodgetts from themselves by Government Policy?

          Yeah, I know. I’m a Stalinist at heart.

          I keep trying to think of free-market or traditionalist answers to the problem of resource depletion and I keep coming up blank.

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            > Could this be done any way except coercively


            > I keep trying to think of free-market or traditionalist answers

            The “traditionalist” answer is Taxation.

            Given that the “free-market” does not exist, I do not believe it can solve *anything*, ever. Some forms of taxation [such as the carbon tax] attempt to achieve this by acting with the Marketplace [which is itself an instrument of coercive power; so the “free” appellation is 110% bogus]. Personally I prefer Taxes that are Taxes, as straight-up and honest as possible, but if burying them within market mechanics makes people happier…. shrug.

        • “Soylent green is people!”

        • Christiane says

          I’m for USING our natural energy resources to the MAX. And no, this is not something ‘new’ ……. take a look at the way water power was used in Norway fifty plus years ago, to run a saw mill and produce electricity:

          we are spoilt and take way too much for granted . . . . have you noticed how subtle Walmart has been in coming into our lives, and under-pricing all the mom and pop stores in our communities, and taking over the market place . . . . . and THEN, once Walmart was established as the go-to shopping center,
          the prices s l o w l y began to RISE, just a little bit at a time ??? And what was once purchased there for a hundred dollars now costs two hundred???

          My Pop planted a large garden every year. He worked three jobs, sixteen hours a day and on weekends, except for Sunday mornings. He wouldn’t have known not to have a garden, as his father before him and on and on . . . .

          it might not help for us to take a page from the old people who planted potatoes by hand, raised their own meat, made their own houses, and knew how to card wool and spin thread and ‘make clothes’

          someday, should we ‘return’ to living instead of existing, I suspect we might all be more peaceful toward one another

    • Eeyore, he writes a lot about industrialization as the primary culprit. Not that he’s against machines, he just thinks humans have been foolish in how we’ve employed them, failing to see the damage they do to the human and natural ecosystems at the same time they provide many good things.

  3. Burro [Mule] says

    Wendell Berry’s agrarianism needs to be balanced by Charles Williams’ Vision of the City.

    Williams came out of hardscrabble rural poverty into London between the wars to experience it as a profoundly liberating milieu, and deeply Christian at its root.

    • It does help to remember that the ultimate depiction in Revelation of the New Heavens and Earth is not a Garden… but a City.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      I agree. It is the critical flaw in Wendell that his is infected with Claphamism.

      Yesterday I was pessimistic and negative in comments. But one of the places I find Optimism is that I meet de-Clapham’d Wendells pretty regularly. The are not even that rare among Millennials – we fogies dismiss them as Hipsters and laugh at their skinny jeans. But there is ingenuity there, some have stepped outside the system and are thriving. Just not in Wendell’s vision of a pastoral landscape [which in America today is a deeply impoverished place]. Sometimes they are called “urban homesteaders”; with a focus on ownership [the real kind, not the financed kind], local-ism, and sustainability [including financial – hence a dim view of financializaion]. There aren’t millions of them, but there are tens of thousands; I find hope in them.

      But just as scraping a farm out of the wilderness is brutal sweaty work so is rehabilitating – by yourself – a dilapidated turn of the century building back into a home/business. The filthy dirt lot out back turns into a garden, the ground floor turns into a local book store, there is a small Internet business run from home, and a part time job here or there. On weekends they are the pedicap drivers downtown in the bar district. It is hard work. But one thing you notice about them – they are free. They smile when someone starts whining about college debt [one or two semesters of college cost could have purchased that building without debt].

      Whenever I hear my corporate overlords crabbing about how hard it is to hire anyone and how “those Millennials don’t want to work!”. I just smile and think to myself: “Yep, not for you. Good for them!”.

      The ugly part of this is the same as always. These Urban Homesteaders are almost universally white and from middle-class backgrounds. They had a bootstrap with which to pull themselves up.

      • Burro [Mule] says

        I love you because you’re a Finn and you’re from West Michigan

        Probably Hunky Hill in West Grand Rapids where all the girls who were fun to date came from.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says

          > Probably Hunky Hill in West Grand Rapids

          Nope, I’m from the ghetto just north of Hunky, on the wrong side of MDOT’s concrete canyon.

          > where all the girls who were fun to date came from.

          I wouldn’t know, never dated. I enjoy math too much to be successful at such an endeavor. 🙂
          Besides, the TCO of fun girls is fiscally untenable.

  4. I’m guessing I probably have more in common with Wendell Berry than with most people here. He strikes me as more of a monk than anything else, tho not a conventional one. There is a saying, Before you are enlightened, you chop wood, haul water, weed the garden. After you are enlightened you chop wood, haul water, weed the garden. I don’t know how Berry relates to spiritual enlightenment but I would like to spend a couple of hours with him finding out. What people here dismiss as survivalism or agrarianism, I think I would look at as sustainability and spirituality. When I moved here two years ago, I consciously looked for a piece of land that could sustain life for a community of people if necessary. Most people consider that wacko thinking. I consider most people’s thinking as wacko, so I guess that comes down to a Mexican standoff for now, if you’ll pardon the political incorrectness.

    I couldn’t do this without receiving Social Security. It’s my only source of income and I couldn’t pay my taxes without it, so I guess that’s another Mexican standoff. Probably half my time and energy expenditure these days is spent on building up my woodpile. If I had to support a family, I couldn’t do this here, at least not being as old as I am now. It’s a hard place to earn a living, but I’ve lived much of my life in such places. To my mind, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages but most people would come here, look around, and say, yes, it’s very pretty, but what do you do here out away from everything? Why would anyone want to live here? That’s maybe the main benefit.

  5. Klasie Kraalogies says

    This is where my patience grows thin with the idealist crowd. Sure, there are many places where globalization (never a homogenous, singular process, btw), have had bad results.

    BUT: It is a fact that globalization has released more people from the tyranny of poverty, disease and early deaths. Globalization has spread the wealth from the wealthy to the developing world. Those are facts.

    Anti-globalization people do not realize it, but they are unintentionally racist. Avuncular agencies there to look after and guide the poor dumb unwashed brown masses. Keep’em down sonthat we can volunteer and donate and salve our wretched consciences. It is on these points that the idealists meet and shakenhand with the Trumpists. No wonder there was little difference in the economic policies of Trump and Sanders..

    • The real problem I have with Berry – and maybe he addresses it elsewhere – is akin to what you say here. Localism can promote a certain kind of ecological and human thriving, one for which many of us are nostalgic. But it also breeds parochialism, insularity, and distrust of the other. It must be balanced with a broad mind and a willingness to allow for diversity, not “out there,” but in our midst.

      • Christiane says

        “Localism can promote a certain kind of ecological and human thriving, one for which many of us are nostalgic.”

        my cousin lives in Northampton Massachusetts (in Pioneer Valley) in the western part of the state. Smith College is two blocks from her old renovated farmhouse. Anne is an artist and a member of a large town community farming plot (the whole town either has a piece of land in it that they work, or they support the effort financially) . . . all organically grown healthy foods

        I think the greatest by-product of this town project is that it brings people together in a positive caring way. Much is shared and help is given when needed, and the project has helped the sense of ‘community’ greatly.

        Now people in Northampton for the most part have money, some are famous, and many are academics or artists, but they have chosen this lovely way to bond as a town . . . . digging in the earth, watering, and planting, and harvesting, and sharing, and selling the extra or donating it to the needy . . . I would say that counts for a definite ‘human thriving’ not just of the body, but of the soul and the spirit. It’s a good thing. 🙂

    • In a global economy, who is our neighbor?

      Luckily I’m told by most of my Christian friends that those values don’t apply to nations, and they will vote accordingly.

      • Klasie Kraalogies says

        Exactly. Everyone is our neighbour in the modern world.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > In a global economy, who is our neighbor?


        Fortunately, setting aside theory, we do not have a global economy. All politics are local… as are all economies; they’re subsets of a global politic/economy. Theory and the Thomas Friedmans of the world are one of the chief impediments to understanding the world. 🙁

        • Given that most of us get more than half our vegetables from places that are 4 or more digits of miles from where we live, I think that there is some truth to there being a global economy. 😉

          • Adam Tauno Williams says

            Some truth, yes. But the continued distinctiveness of local economies is rather obvious.

            Why don’t tech companies relocate from the expensive bay area to northern Michigan? Way cheaper. Turns out Talent and Infrastructure are notably illiquid. Agriculture adds the variable of climactic compatibility.

            > more than half our vegetables from places that are 4 or more digits

            Yep, that is a whole topic in itself. Given than 70-80% of the American population lives on the coasts, and the majority of our agriculture is in the midwest and south – that average (I think it is currently ~1,400 miles?) is sort of inevitable. It is fun to track the life-cycle trip of products.

        • Klasie Kraalogies says

          I disagree. I have recently been going through some very difficult times. I have received neighborly love from people around here (SK), as well as 100’s and 1000’s of miles away. I discovered I have more friends than I ever knew.

          The modern, globalised world has increased our list of neighbours, and has also enabled us to be neighborly without being in the same location.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > It is a fact that globalization has released more people from the tyranny of poverty,
      > disease and early deaths. Globalization has spread the wealth from the wealthy to
      > the developing world. Those are facts.


      I also like to add that as America has become increasingly diverse – and less white – the great majority of places experience record *low* levels of violent crime. Lower than previous generations, almost universally.

      I feel that Wendell does add to the conversation, that what he says something important. But what he says is not useful beyond the principles it may supply to a local community; they cannot be used to think about “the world”. Stretched to that scope his ideas do not work.

      • You’re probably right that Wendell’s ideas would never work on a global scale. There’s just too much momentum behind the present speed and course of civilization. For good or ill, the trajectory of economic forces and technological advancement — all backed by the sheer weight of billions of people pursuing their own desires and self-interest — is going to keep plowing ahead along the road it’s been following since the outbreak of the industrial revolution. If there’s a cliff or an iceberg ahead, then it’s probably too late in the game to hit the breaks or turn hard to port.
        Still, I admire people like Wendell who can not only dream of a better world, but actually hope for it.

  6. Lisa Dye says

    “The conversion of an enormous number of somewhat independent producers into entirely dependent consumers is a radical change that in many ways is immediately catastrophic.” This struck a cord with me. I know Berry intends it in an economic sense, but I think it speaks to something else pertinent too … lack of appreciation for those who labor. This means no disrespect to people who make their living without manual labor. (I push papers and sit at a computer for my paycheck.) But I have often thought that being married to someone who builds things and fixes things for a living as well as my own physical labor in garden, yard and home gives me an appreciation and compassion for anyone who serves me in a restaurant or fixes my car or who does a thousand other things I cannot do.

    I live in a community of achievers who practice excellence at their one white collar endeavor and pay others for everything else, even very basic things. Although it may be more efficient, I fear there is a disconnect when this philosophy prevails. We develop the attitude that nothing must get in the way of our “one thing” and we treat our providers of everything else with contempt and disdain. We forget what it means to sweat.

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