Reflecting on 'What Matters' by Wendell Berry

Backstory

After deciding to migrate away from my digital lifestyle, I pulled What Matters by Wendell Berry off my bookshelf to help prepare for whats next.

In an effort to absorb the wisdom of Mr. Berry and also to share its fruits, I've decided to write a little reflection on this collection of essays subtitled "Economics for a Renewed Commonwealth". As the introduction suggests, this book should be required reading for all economists and policy makers, but it also has life changing perspectives for the common man and household. It has made a profound impact on the direction of my life and my hope is that it can shed some light on anyone else looking for a purpose-driven existence.

Berry's work doesn't read like a dry manuscript on economic theories. He's a poet and his mastery of the english language is felt in every sentence, paragraph and chapter. It's hard not to fall into motion with the cadence of the author's rhetoric and logic. I would wholeheartedly agree with the publisher's testament that "there is perhaps no more demanding or important critique available to contemporary citizens than Berry's writings".

I am so fortunate to have discovered this book at such a crucial juncture in my life—one where I have turned away from a certain way of living and am in pursuit of another. May this post do justice to Wendell's profound work, but ultimately, if you like what you hear, go buy it from your local bookshop (read on and you'll understand why supporting local establishments is key).

Overview

The fundamental premise of What Matters is that our current global economy has failed the people and the planet it is supposed to serve. Aristotle defined "oikonomia" (the word from which "economy" is derived) as a "balanced system of science and art to efficiently produce, distribute and maintain concrete value for the household and community" for generations."

Unfortunately, our present day economy looks a lot more like another greek word "chrematistics" which is "the art of maximizing the accumulation by individuals of abstract exchange value in the form of money in the short run". I assume this would be obvious for anyone living in the modern world. Our global economy is geared towards accumulating abstract value in the form of money. It's certainly not about efficiently supporting the household and community for generations...

So what are we to do about this issue? How are we supposed to fix it?

Before offering specific solutions to fix the broken economy of today, Wendell illustrates the undermining philosophies and values that propel the problematic machine of the economy worldwide.

He argues that nature itself is an economy's most important resource, followed by the use of the land, manufacturing and, to my surprise, Berry places the consumer economy as the least important element in an economy.

This might seem surprising to you also because our existing economy holds these priorities completely in the opposite order. These values are demonstrated by the government's decision to focus on stimulating the consumer economy in times of recession. There hasn't been much discussion about sustainable forestry or restorative agriculture amidst recent economic trials. This reveals our belief that as long as people keep spending, businesses will keep running and everything will be fine. As we know from experience, this consumer-obsessed economy has a lot of issues.

The unfortunate reality is that this is destroying the planet. It is taking advantage of local farming and forestry communities, drawing most people into urban contexts and in it is undermining the well-being of much of the human race. This might seem like a heavy-handed argument but as you read Wendell's words you discover that the truth is right in front of our eyes. We've just been programmed to think that 'there is no other way', but in reality there is. We have a choice in the matter and we can make a difference.

Key Propositions

Berry's hierarchical strata of what he purports to be a 'good' economy forms the foundation of every solution suggested throughout the rest of the book. All of the essays build arguments through different angles and approaches based upon these same economic values. The essays demonstrate the broken corrupt nature of our current economy and reveal there is a much simpler, better and healthier way of life on this planet. There are very obvious choices we can make as individuals which can help restore balance to our planet and our households to remedy some of the illnesses caused by our technology-crazed industrial economy.

There are three key propositions that form the backbone of the book's argument:

  1. The Problem of Agribusiness
  2. Stewardship of The Land
  3. What People Are For

The Problem of Agribusiness

A vast majority of modern day food production is driven by what Wendell calls 'agribusiness'. It is not agriculture or farming as we have known it throughout most of history, it is a different type of discipline entirely which involves thousands of acres of monoculture crops, large machinery, petrochemicals and government subsidies.

If you've ever heard of Monsanto then you've heard of agribusiness. These are the corporations driving food production in America, and unfortunately this way of working the land has spread across the globe and is destroying our natural planet, local communities and human culture.

Some people argue that this is the most efficient way to produce food and thus the only way we can feed the planet. Unfortunately it is the mainstream method of food production and we're not feeding the planet. People are starving across the developing world whilst the developed world is obese and throws away unconscionable amounts of food.

The reality is that agribusiness is only efficient if you neglect to account:

  • Topsoil degradation*
  • Water and air pollution
  • Destruction of ecosystems
  • Degradation of human communities

(*Understanding the importance of topsoil for the long-term health of life on this planet is absolutely key in understanding Berry's proposition. I won't go into detail about it but a quick search should help.)

So if you disregard all of the crucial long-term factors above, agribusiness looks efficient. It can produce enormous amounts of food in a short amount of time. Whether or not that food is actually nutritious and good for you is another subject entirely.

It appears that we've bought into a way of producing food that is incredibly costly to the most precious long-term resource: the land. We've replaced family farms with Monsanto fields, typical foods and products with GMO corn and wheat, rural communities with urban isolation... Rural families are moving into the city in order to find more financially lucrative work (because American policy makers have bought into agribusiness—impeding the economic viability of small scale farming). The difficulties these communities face in urbanization are seemingly limitless and deeply destructive. There's a serious imbalance going on as a result of how we treat our land...

Meanwhile the owners of agribusiness corporations are making billions. With their enormous profits they continue to develop an ecosystem of products which includes genetically modified food, herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals, each product deepening the farmer's dependency on the corporation.

2. Stewardship of The Land

Wendell has a very simple solution for agribusiness's catastrophic destruction of our planet and rural society. It is the restoration of local forest and farming communities whose main economy comes from stewardship of the land.

He argues again and again that nature is our most precious resource. It is where food, water and shelter comes from. It is the source of all of our production and economy. Yet we've looked at the land as something to be raped and pillaged for the benefit of urban elite. It's not only unsustainable environmentally, it's destroying our experience of life as human beings.

If there were restored local communities with a diverse range of businesses centered around stewardship of the land, it would provide a deeply rooted long-term fortress around the crucial strata of the economy and it would cultivate purpose, meaning and prosperity for the humans who lived in it. We would have more local products that represent strong human culture. We would have deeper human relationships and healthier ecosystems. We would have less dependency on corporations and more interdependency with our neighbors.

Wendell argues that stewardship of the land is the most crucial vocation. Everything else emanates from our relationship with the land as humans. Unfortunately modern times has depicted manual labor as a lesser activity to the greater tasks of the professions of the industrial age. Under the premise of land's central role in a healthy economy, I wonder whether stewardship of the land is as important and Wendell proposes. I wonder whether there might be a resurgence of young people who are looking for more meaningful, satisfying and sustainable ways of life.

3. What People Are For

The third proposition of What Matters stood out to me more than any other. The heart of the entire book is a question that points at the root of the matter, a question that demands a deeper and truer response from our current governments and economies: What are people for?

Since World War II the world has witnessed one of the most significant migrations in human history: Urbanization. Millions of rural people are packing up their families and moving into cities. The result is degraded rural communities and economies across the globe with overpopulated urban centers that are rife with unemployment and other forms of social malaise.

"As the farming people have departed from the land, the land itself has departed. Our soil erosion rates are now higher than they were in the time of the Dust Bowl."

This brings into question the sustainability of the urban food supply. With such a high percentage of people living in cities (depending on food coming from the countryside), our civilization is banking on a very small percentage of people to provide the rest with healthy food. It just so happens that those food production systems are controlled by massive corporations—the very entities that most public people hold in disregard and disdain.

With food productivity at its highest and topsoil degradation skyrocketing, it appears we're reaching a critical juncture in history. Fewer and fewer people know how to steward the land, meanwhile we're rushing towards mechanization, automation and computerization.

With so many jobs being replaced by these torrents of technology, it beckons the question: "What are humans for?"

Critical Conclusions

Throughout most of history, we've seen our physical labor replaced by machines, but now with the rise of artificial intelligence at the hands of corporations like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, we must wonder where all this is headed. The younger generations of our time which are immersed in this technology seem to be suffering from mental illness and anxiety unlike ever before.

Our work as humans is becoming more and more abstracted from the physical stuff of survival. We're becoming machine operators of different forms, stripes and colors.

"Technology is a generous benefactor. To those who have wisely used his gifts he has bestowed freedom from drudgery: freedom to travel; freedom from the discomforts of cold, heat and dirt; and freedom from ignorance, boredom and oppression. But father technology has not brought us freedom from disease." — Sally Fallon

With the rise of social isolation in an 'ever-connected' world we must question how we can leverage technology to make us more human rather than being more distracted. With the epidemic of auto-immune conditions and chronic illnesses, our lifestyles and food systems must be critically examined. If the fruits of agribusiness are not ones that promote long-term wellness and sustenance, we need to replace our method of producing food with something that serves humanity rather than robs it.

There is great honor and duty in committing to local: Local businesses, local people and local culture. We should get to know our neighbors and help those in need—no matter whether we live in a block of city flats or in the countryside. There is great purpose in stewarding the earth for the benefit of the soil, the ecosystem and for humanity. With so much of mankind rushing headlong towards the next technological innovation, we better test our assumption that access to money means access to food.

What would we do if there weren't food in our grocery stores anyway? That is a bit of a leap of faith that those coporations will continue to provide for us day to day even amidst the challenging circumstances that we have seen throughout history.

Reflection

Wendell's book made me question my lifestyle and perception of what is 'good' and important in life. He instilled in me a deep respect for stewardship of the land and cultivation of local economy. It made me laugh at the absurdities of our present day system and yearn for a better way of living.

Whilst sowing seeds might not be the first step I take from this book, it certainly has given me a sense of duty to provide a healthy lifestyle for my family—one that is connected to the earth from which we're sustained.

My hope is to use the power of technology to learn what it means to be human and to help others do the same. My dream is to live in harmony with the land and with the people around me and to serve something far greater than the economy that we've created. I refuse to be enslaved by a system that begs for perpetual growth and incessant innovation, but likewise I don't plan on digging a hole and pretending it doesn't exist.

If you've read this far, my guess is you'd get a lot more from dropping by your local book store to see if they have a copy of Wendell Berry's phenomenal book What Matters, and if they don't maybe you'll find something else worthwhile. If all else fails you could buy the book from a corporate giant like Amazon, but what's the fun in that? Every great story is fueled by a healthy dose of conflict...