Creation Care in the Great Economy: A Conversation with Wendell Berry

41 mins read

The following is an excerpt from a conversation between Centre College Professor (and ACSWP member) Eric Mount well-known farmer, writer, and activist Wendell Berry that took place at 3 PM on Sunday, May 18th at Crescent Hill Baptist Church.

Read Eric Mount’s introductory article here.

Wendell Berry at Crescent Hill Baptist Church
Wendell Berry at Crescent Hill Baptist Church Photo Credit: Alan Cornett of www.eatkentucky.com and www.pinstripepulpit.com

Eric Mount: You’ve said that ‘environmentalist’ is not a label you welcome for yourself. Rather, it is an ‘agrarian vision’ that you are trying to institutionalize at the Berry Center. Can you say more about that?

Wendell Berry: Start with environment. The problem with the word ‘environment’ is that it means ‘surroundings.’ For certain expedient reasons in a biology class, you might separate an organism, an inhabitant, from its environment. Otherwise, it’s a bad idea. I honestly don’t think that it’s possible. The better word would be ‘ecosphere’ because the life support system depends on non-living as well as living things. Or if you want to, we can call it the world or the local ecosystem; or we could call it the local neighborhood including its human and non-human inhabitants. Or we can call it by its proper name – the Kentucky River watershed or the Elkhorn watershed. Then we’d be talking about something specific known by name by its inhabitants.

But you can’t draw a line between an organism and its environment for the reason that organisms don’t just live in their environment; the environment also lives in them. They mutually participate in the community of microorganisms, but organisms also breathe, eat, excrete, and so on. So there is no division. You can kill an organism, but unless you took its body out of the eco-system, there would still be participation because the eco-system would claim that body and recycle it. So, the idea ‘the environment’, as we are using it, throwing it around, is a false idea. You have to wonder where we think we are when we suddenly decide we will apply our interest or help to the environment. Where do we get to make that decision? So the more local, the more particular, the more familiar the living circumstance, the habitat, the better chance we’ll have of making sense about it. […]

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You can’t draw a line between an organism and its environment for the reason that organisms don’t just live in their environment; the environment also lives in them.
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Mount: You are talking locally, as you always do appropriately. We have all heard the slogan “think globally and act locally”. I have a feeling you might want to reverse that – “think locally if you wan to act globally”.

Berry: Well, again, that’s linguistically a mess. To start with, we’ve got to decide what we mean by that, and that raises a very interesting question of whether or not anyone knows the globe extensively enough and in enough detail to actually commit something like a thought in reference to it. I doubt it. I’m not much prejudiced in favor of the adequacy of human intelligence. So, actually what has happened is we’ve now got a global economy whose purpose, and I don’t think anyone is making any bones about it, is to plunder localities all over the globe… So, I think maybe we need to reduce that saying, “think globally and act locally,” to simply “think”. […]

Eric Mount interviews Wendell Berry
Eric Mount interviews Wendell Berry Photo Credit: Alan Cornett

Mount: “Christianity and the Survival of Creation” is the title of one of Wendell Berry’s essays. It refers to an address given at the Southern Baptist Seminary here in Louisville. It’s been reprinted in a number of his collections, and in it he talks about the charge that the Biblical tradition is at fault for its anthropocentric view of creation. It sets the wheels in motion for an ecological crisis when people think that they are to subdue the earth and have dominion. It is alleged to open the way to exploitation. In that essay you talk about Biblical resources for a different vision of stewardship, guardianship, and understanding dominion in a different way. I wonder if you would talk to us a bit about the real heavy in the story – namely dualism – and spell out here your different facets of dualism that you’ve talked about in your writing.

Evidently you think that Christianity has certainly contributed to some of the dualism problems, and I wonder where you think we can see those problems at work. You want to re-conceive the Kingdom of God as the Great Economy that includes everything. Do you think in the church we have inclined toward conceiving the Kingdom of God in a dualistic way that has contributed to our problems? Have we made the anticipation of the “end time” something that enables us to forget about the “now time” and the need to address what’s going on in this world and on our land? That’s another pool to toss you into and see if you want to swim around in it a bit.

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I would like to see the Christian Gospel amount to something. I am very clearly implying by saying that that I don’t think it currently amounts to much. I think this dualism is right at the heart of the matter.
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Berry: Yes, that is an ample body of water! Well, for reasons that maybe I’ll be able to make clear, I would like to see the Christian Gospel amount to something. I am very clearly implying by saying that that I don’t think it currently amounts to much. I think this dualism is right at the heart of the matter. The religion that I learned growing up really wanted to say that we’re in this world in effect to deny it, to depreciate it, in order to get the soul to heaven someday. This meant, practically speaking, that Christianity was a very noticeable presence in my life as I was growing up but that it exerted no force at all. I didn’t believe it was why people are in the world, and I didn’t believe anybody else did. I just let it slide by. I wasn’t challenged by it and really had very little to say back to it. So when I did finally read the gospels and began to learn the Christian tradition in literature – and began to suspect that it might amount to something – then I became interested in what it might amount to as a practice, which to me means it would have to be an economic practice.

There was a big moment for me when I discovered the Buddhist doctrine of Right Livelihoods. The idea that there is a way to live your economic life and make your living that is right and distinguished from ways that are not right: that plugged a huge hole in the Christianity that I had known about. The only document I have ever found really that comes close to it is this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. I have the 1928 version; a friend of mine gave it to me when I graduated from high school in 1952, and I never looked in for about 30 years. But anyway, the prayer is this, or this is the heart of it:

“Deliver us, we beseech thee, and our several colleagues from the service of mammon that we may do the work which thou giveth us to do in truth, in beauty and in righteousness with singleness of heart as thy servant and to the benefit of our fellow man (sic).”

That’s just astonishing. It’s very well said, but what’s astonishing about it is how utterly alien it is from our economy. It has the endorsement, I reckon, of most churches. But the idea of working in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness with singleness of heart as thy servants and to the benefit of our fellow man (sic) just doesn’t describe most jobs. It just doesn’t. We have, in fact, I’ve said it before and am glad to say it again, we’ve got an economy that is founded four square on the seven deadly sins. Just go down the list and you’ll see. So how did this happen? There was that essay by Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis”. I think that the historical root of the ecological crisis is the withdrawal of the interest of Christianity from the economic life, and I don’t know exactly when it happened. I can’t figure it out, but at some point it happened. It happened that this prayer became irrelevant, and all our troubles we’re in now ecologically and otherwise, it seems to me, follow from that.

Eucharist BookMount: So the little economy consumed the Great Economy?

Berry: The little economy is busy consuming the Great Economy.

Mount: In their book The Eucharist, Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff argue that ordinary meals are sacramental as well as the Eucharist, and that the Eucharist has become something other-worldly instead of something that is a critique of the way we do things in this world. The peculiarity of the Eucharist as a meal is realized through “eschatological imagination” wherein the eaters anticipate the new covenant and the coming economy of God in the world: in other words, the Great Economy. The capacity of such an imagination is the readiness to see one thing as another. The other world that is imagined in the holy eating is not an escape into other-worldliness but is an access to a world that is governed by the Messiah through the promises of God. Bieler and Schottorff argue that the Eucharist has been preempted and redefined in dualistic terms that leave the status quo of the world untouched. So congregations can take the meal without raising questions of violence. The outcome is a colonized imagination that is drained of dangerous hope. […]

When I hear lines like “invest in the millennium”, “expect the end of the world”, and “practice resurrection,” from your poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front”, that sounds like the “eschatological imagination” to me. You want to say more about the imagination?

Berry: Well, I can feel pretty comfortable with the idea of eschatological imagination, though I must say eschatological is a word I’ve looked up a thousand times. There’s a whole bunch of those abstract words; I somehow can’t learn them. But anyway, I do take the imagination very seriously, and we’ve been taught very carefully in our schools to see without imagination. Bisection, analysis, taking apart is a way of seeing without imagination. So you don’t see things whole. You see them in their material disassemblement. The power of the imagination is to see things whole, see them clearly.

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I think that the historical root of the ecological crisis is the withdrawal of the interest of Christianity from the economic life.
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To see them whole, moreover, is to see them in their sanctity, which they have if they are part of the creation. But also, maybe to see them with love. The older I have gotten and the more experienced, the more I have noticed things, and the closer love and know have come in my understanding. They are not exactly synonyms, but the idea that you can know a thing without loving it seems to me more and more preposterous. The imagination shows us things in their inherent radiance as loved or loveable, and that to me is supremely important; but we’ve got to have a different curriculum if we’re going to encourage young people to have that kind of vision. […]

Mount: One of the things your daughter Mary talks about that the Berry Center is trying to do is encourage institutions to be good neighbors. How do you get a church as an organization, an institution or a corporation, or a government or a school to be a good neighbor? In some of my writing, I’ve raised the question, is there such a thing as institutional virtue? We know what individual virtue is. Can organizations develop cultures that are virtuous and therefore contribute to the solution rather than the problem as you’ve been laying it out?

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit: Alan Cornett

Berry: Well that’s a problem of considerable interest to me – whether you can have a righteous institution or organization, and I think maybe that depends on how much your institution or organization is invested in the economy. It’s really suggestive to me that the Amish, who I think are the most successful Christians and the most successful communities in the country, have no built church. That is, their church is not going to be dependent on the economy.

Whether there can be an instituted neighborliness, there probably can be an institutional credit given to the idea of neighborliness. You may make an institution that can be dedicated to that idea of neighborliness, but you’ve got to be watchful because the idea of neighborliness is the radicalness of the Gospel. That’s it. That’s where the radicalness of the Gospel is most felt, it seems to me. It’s the second commandment. Love God, and the next one is very like it – love your neighbor. This is attended first by great difficulty because, unless you can get yourself into a situation where you are permitted to pick your neighbor, not all of them are going to be that loveable. Not all of them are going to be as good as you are. Or, not necessarily worthy of your love, but that’s not the definition. The definition of a neighbor is someone who needs your help, which is just terrible. That’s just awful, but the definition is given in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Anybody who needs your help is your neighbor.

So, Will Campbell, who understood one of the funniest things in the world is to compare Christianity to the gospels, was in effect saying to the churches in the South, “All right, now you’ve come around. You see you’ve got to be a liberal on the race question, but what about the Klan?” I don’t know if they ever got around to the Klan, but Campbell did get around to the Klan. They are made in the image of God too, and they’re your neighbors. So, he was saying – do you know those people? Have you found out whether they need you or not? That’s awfully difficult. It seems to me he couldn’t have enjoyed that too much – to say anything like that. It’s awfully difficult, but it’s the radicalism of the Gospel, right there.

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The imagination shows us things in their inherent radiance as loved or loveable, and that to me is supremely important.
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I think that’s where you can get the clue for the definition of good land use, but you’ve got to expand the idea of the neighbor and the neighborhood quite a bit farther. Of any example of land use, and there are a lot of bad examples around now, you can ask with the confidence that’s going to lead you straight to very practical issues and measures. Is it good for the neighborhood? Is it good for all the community and creatures that are neighbors in and to this place?

Mount: We are all acquainted with various recommendations about lifestyle changes Christians can make to alleviate some of the problems connected to the ecosystem. So, individual Christians can do things. Congregations have asked about their footprint and what things they can do as organizations. Regional expressions of Christianity have sometimes taken stands on issues, as have national and global manifestations of Christianity. When I talked recently with Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, the chief person in the public advocacy office of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Office of Public Witness in Washington, DC, he described what he sees as he looks around at what’s happening in the streets: for instance at Moral Mondays in North Carolina, where as many as 80,000 people have participated at some time in these demonstrations in Raleigh and other cities. He said that they may not be waving Christian flags, but he thinks Christians are perhaps the most active group on these issues. He is heartened by that. They are out with their feet demonstrating.

Rev. Merili Douglas and Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson  at a Moral Monday in North Carolina Photo Credit: Office of Public Witness
Rev. Merili Douglas and Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson at a Moral Monday in North Carolina
Photo Credit: Office of Public Witness

I know that Wendell has offered to engage in civil disobedience since I’ve heard him on I Love Mountains Day, “If you’re ready to do this; I’m ready to go with you.” I know he has sat in at the governor’s office and taken direct action. So talk to us a bit, Wendell, about different forms of public advocacy and the effectiveness of telling people to change their lifestyle. Is it one person at a time, or does there need to be a more overt group advocacy, a public demonstration, if you will?

Berry: Well I want to back this up a little bit. We’ve got all these terms and ideas in the air – environmentalism, agrarianism, Christianity, neighborliness, and now public advocacy – and we haven’t talked about a standard of judgment. How are you going to have an effective or practical advocacy if you don’t have a standard? I think since we are talking about the so-called environment, which is to say the created world, which is to say the world we are living from and that we are part of, that we’ve got to turn to nature to find the standards.

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So, what then an institution can do as a form of public advocacy for the health of nature is to study those laws of nature.
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Now it hasn’t been forever alien to Christendom to think about nature. In the twelfth century, a French theologian and poet Alain de Lille, or Alanus ab Insulis or Alan of the Island, wrote a book called The Plaint of Nature. I’ve read it. It’s a pretty dull book, and I don’t recommend it. Anyway, in that book Alanus understood Nature, our mother, as the vicar of God: the maker, the mother, the judge, of all creatures in the sub-lunar creation. She presided over this world of change. Chaucer knew about Alanus’ book and about Nature. Edmund Spenser the author of The Faerie Queene (1590) knew about her. I think, although I haven’t been able to find out for sure, that Milton knew about her.

Wendell Berry reads from Albert Howard's "An Agricultural Testament"
Wendell Berry reads from Albert Howard’s “An Agricultural Testament” Photo Credit: Alan Cornett

Spenser speaks of Nature – it’s a great moment nearly at the end of the Faerie Queene when Nature appears. She is veiled. It’s hard to see her features. It’s hard to make sure she’s not a man. She’s an androgynous figure, we’d say now, and she has an aura of luminosity like Christ at the Transfiguration. Spenser says of her, “She is of all the creatures; all the equal mother, not prejudiced in favor of humans, of all the equal mother who led us each to each as brother unto brother (sic).” That is perfect ecology. A long time ago before Shakespeare, Milton says, “Nature, called her good cateress, means her provision only to the good.” You can just tumble into this statement – “means her provision only to the good that live according to her sober law in the hold dictated of spare temperance.” So, we must do like those old poets and look to Nature for some instruction here, and here are Nature’s instructions.

I’m going to read you a paragraph that has been deeply influential to me. This is from Albert Howard’s introduction to An Agricultural Testament. It sort is a founding book of the organic agriculture movement, although he never used it and never over-simplified it as it has often been over-simplified. It was published in 1940. His idea simply is that if you want to know how to farm, if you want to know how to use land, look at the way Nature uses land. Look at how Nature does her farming. Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, KS, says, “Look at the prairie.” If you want to know what’s wrong with these wheat fields in Kansas, look at the native tall grass prairies and put down the differences. Albert Howard says this. This is really important; this gives us our standards:

“The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words, Mother Earth never attempts to farm without livestock. She always raises mixed crops (a word we use now is diversity). Great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion. The mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus. There is no waste. The processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another (That’s what we call sustainability). Growth and decay balance each other. Ample provision is made to maintain reserves of fertility. The greatest care is taken to store the rainfall. Both plant and animals are left to protect themselves against disease (I will translate that: no poison).”

Mount: Would you say a word about topsoil?

Berry: That’s what it’s all about. Vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus, and that’s taking place in the topsoil, which is a recycling organism really – the topsoil given its place if it’s healthy. So, what then an institution can do as a form of public advocacy for the health of nature is to study those laws of nature. Try to understand the importance of having them observed, and hold current practice up to those standards. In other words, the institution has to foster a good general criticism. I’m not the one to talk about what an institution ought to do. I’ve sat through enough dull meetings to be an organizer, but I’m not an organizer. I don’t know how to do that, but I guess I stand by what I’ve said so far. […]

TopsoilMount: Climate change of course is in the news a lot. There is evidence that more people think that climate change is a problem, but there’s also an indication that people find it hard to feel the acuteness of the problem unless they can see how it affects them locally. How do you get people really energized to do something about climate change if it seems like a threat, but the threat to them seems remote? And how do we stay the course when the forces that are dragging things down are so powerful? How does one keep on keeping on knowing that it’s hard to make progress in this realm? How does one get energized if the sea level is not rising next to your house?

Berry: Well I’ve listened to myself so much through this program that I’m beginning to become uneasy because it is awfully easy to be one man talking in front of a group and not become afraid if people believe you. Before I say any more, I would just like to say this is all one person talking, one very limited person talking so you ought to take me with a grain of salt. Now, about climate change; I somewhat regret that term – climate change or global warming, either one – because it defines the problem in its largest aspect, for one thing. An immediate personal response to the definition of the problem in its largest aspect is to think, “What can I do about that?” To call climate change ‘global warming’ is to imply this is something the government should do something about. It’s a big problem, and it ought to have a big solution.

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Now, about climate change; I somewhat regret that term – climate change or global warming, either one – because it defines the problem in its largest aspect.
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In truth, it is not going to have a big solution. It’s going to have many, many individual solutions – solutions by many individuals and solutions in many localities. Another way to put it is to speak of the problem of poison and waste, which maybe gets it down to where people handle it. If you define it at it largest aspect, it means that most individuals have to take it on faith. I take it on faith, and I take it seriously; but I don’t take it seriously on the basis of anything that I myself responsibly know or anything I can responsibly know. If people with some scientific competence whom I know and respect didn’t take it seriously, I’d have a very hard time taking it seriously myself. Waste and pollution I think we all know about. We know the world is full of poison, and we can take that seriously in our own behalf and maybe do something on our own about it.

Digging in the process of mountaintop removal Photo Credit: ilovemountains.org
Digging in the process of mountaintop removal
Photo Credit: ilovemountains.org

How to keep on, how to not be discouraged? I don’t think you can not be discouraged. If you get into this and stay long enough, you’re going to pass though terms and times of discouragement. I don’t see how you can help it. The problems are far reaching, extreme, difficult. And yes, here there are a lot of noisy, powerful people on the other side, so it is possible to be discouraged. It’s also possible, though, to know with some kind of real competence that you’re right. There’s something wrong with poison. There’s something wrong with waste, and we’ve always known it. Instructions about these matters are very old. That helps. Having friends and allies on your side helps. Having a bit of a victory occasionally helps, and I have in my time.

I’ve participated in some victories. We beat Marble Hill, or the Public Service of Indiana really beat itself on Marble Hill. Anyway, we beat it. We beat the Louisville International Jetport. We beat Eagle Lake on Eagle Creek twice. We saved the Red River Gorge. It’s good to remember those things. Better not forget them. We ought to call that roll more often. Occasionally good things have happened. It looks like that Bluegrass Pipeline had a good setback. Nuns are very powerful people. I’ve been going around being grateful that I didn’t marry a nun. Seems to me it would have been a great mistake. I don’t think I would have won a single quarrel.

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I see an occasion that calls for patience, and this is our trial because we understand, and a lot of us do, that you can define the situation, the ecological fix we’re in, as an emergency.
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Question from the audience: What would you suggest if you face a situation in which the people in the locality are actually advocating for a greater amount of change within their ecosystem then other people further distant? For instance, related to the mountains (Editorial note: mountaintop removal) we are often hearing that the people who are living there are not necessarily the ones who are most protective of [what] needs to be preserved.

Photo Credit:
Photo Credit: Alan Cornett

Berry: That’s right, the coal companies have very influential allies in the people who work for them and are dependent on them. They’ve exploited that to the limit. […] I think that you have to understand the fix they are in, for one thing. The people who are defending the coal companies because they provide jobs are in a tragic situation; namely, that they can’t have a job that doesn’t involve destroying their home country. So, this is an occasion that requires a lot of understanding and a lot of sympathy. To let this become a simple face-off between the people who are for and the people who are against is wrong in human terms and impossible and useless in terms of the political situation. […] We don’t want to define ourselves as people who are contemptuous of this (economic) need that other people have. So, I don’t see an immediate solution to the problem you are talking about. I see an occasion that calls for patience, and this is our trial because we understand, and a lot of us do, that you can define the situation, the ecological fix we’re in, as an emergency. Then to turn around once you’ve understood that and require yourself to be patient in it is a trial. But I think that is what we have to do, and we have to be a little humorous about it. Another little thing to keep you going is to have as much fun as you can. […]

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More of Alan Cornett’s work can be found at  of www.eatkentucky.com and www.pinstripepulpit.com.

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