Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The slow death of Rural America (Berry)

Wendell Berry wrote in his 1991 essay "Conservation and Local Economy" that the "great, greedy, indifferent national and international economy is killing rural America" and that the "interests of local communities and economies are relentlessly subordinated to the interests of 'business'". This has led to the American people's increasing estrangement from "the native wealth, health, knowledge, and pleasure of their country" and in fact is leading to the destruction of their country -- both the country as polis and the country as the soil, water, and other building blocks of life we depend on to live. Berry presented the community he knows best as a case study.

The town of Port Royal, Kentucky, has a population of about one hundred people. The town came into existence as a trading center, serving the farms in a few square miles of hilly country on the west side of the Kentucky River. It has never been much bigger than it is now. But whereas now it is held together by habit or convenience, once it was held together by a complex local economy. In my mother's childhood, in the years before World War I, there were sixteen business and professional enterprises in the town, all serving the town and surrounding farms. By the time of my own childhood, in the years before World War II, the number had been reduced to twelve, but the town and its tributary landscape were still alive as a community and as an economy. Now, counting the post office, the town has five enterprises, one of which does not serve the local community. There is now no market for farm produce in the town or within forty miles. We no longer have a garage or repair shop of any kind. We have had no doctor for forty years and no school for thirty. Now, as a local economy and therefore as a community, Port Royal is dying.

Now the residents of Port Royal have to drive 10, 20, 30 miles to get medical care or the materials and equipment needed to maintain a farm or garden. One could make an argument that the same economic forces that are killing Port Royal have brought countervailing benefits. For instance, the modern medicine available from the specialists in the city 20 miles away is better than that provided by the local general practitioner back in the day. But is it inevitable that the advances of modern consumer society mean the slow death of communities like Port Royal? Can we have life-saving drugs and the local drugstore?

Berry wants us to question the inevitability of the death of small communities and local economies. It's so easy to passively accept the Walmartization of America as the natural outcome of a free-market economy. Will the gods of commerce not rest until every last one of us is purchasing our food from brightly-lit, temperature-controlled steel buildings surrounded by acres of parking lots and congested roads? I can't and won't claim a "holier than thou" attitude. I admit my wife and I are pretty darn happy that we have a shiny new Walmart only five minutes by automobile from our house. It's so, well, convenient. And we're all about convenience.

The picture Berry paints is bleak, but he reminds us of the duty we owe to ourselves and our descendants to be hopeful and to look "for the authentic underpinnings of hope." He sees these in the resilient health of nature and the "sufficient examples of competent and loving human stewardship of the earth." On top of that is the persistent human desire to "be healthy in a healthy world" despite our propensity to go along with ideas and practices that undermine healing. Fundamentally, Berry calls us to a self-conscious examination of the ways we live, in whatever community God has us, as the first step to positive change.

We face a choice that is starkly simple: we must change or be changed. If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse. We cannot blunder our way into health by the same sad and foolish hopes by which we have blundered into disease. We must see that the standardless aims of industrial communism and industrial capitalism equally have failed. The aims of productivity, profitability, efficiency, limitless growth, limitless wealth, limitless power, limitless mechanization and automation can enrich and empower the few (for a while), but they will sooner or later ruin us all. The gross national product and the corporate bottom line are utterly meaningless as measures of the prosperity or health of a country.

All quotes from Chapter One of Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (Pantheon Books, 1993)

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