Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the decline of thrift

Like the essay on Peruvian farmers I quoted from in the last installment of Wednesday Wendell, Three Ways of Farming in the Southwest chronicles a trip Wendell Berry took to observe traditional agricultures in a context far removed from his Kentucky home -- here the desert Southwest of Arizona. Along the way Berry encounters an old man of the Hopi tribe who laments the disintegration of values and skills that kept that community self-sufficient and intact for generations.

Berry admits that this sounds like the proverbial complaint of the old about the young. "They are lazy." "They don't care about the old ways." etc. But, Berry argues, this man isn't ranting he's matter-of-factly stating what he's observed, and he's articulating a theme that figures prominently in Berry's life and writings.

I agree with the old man. I am worried about the decline of farming communities of all kinds, because I think that among the practical consequences of that decline will sooner or later be hunger.

In some respects, the traditional subsistence agricultures are the best agricultures, the best assurances of a continuous food supply, simply because they are not—or were not—dependent on outside sources that must be purchased. To exchange these locally self-sufficient subsistence agricultures for the "good life" of a consumer economy is like climbing out of a lifeboat onto a sinking ship. That image, I think, only seems extravagant. The values of our present economy do indeed suggest that it is better to perish with some ostentation of fashion and expense than to survive by modest competence, thrift, and industry.

In saying such things, one must anticipate the accusation that one is simply indulging in nostalgia—sentimentalizing the past, yearning naively for the survival of quaint anachronisms and relics. That might be true if one were dealing only with rare and isolated instances. The fact is, however, that these instances are not rare or isolated. The decline of the Indian agricultures of the Southwest follows exactly the pattern of the decline of local agricultures everywhere else in the country. The economy of extravagance has overthrown the economies of thrift. Local cultures and agricultures such as those of the Hopi and the Papago do not deserve to survive for their picturesque trappings or their interest as artifacts; they deserve to survive—and to be emulated—because they embody the principles of thrift and care that are indispensable to the survival of human beings.

It's fair to say that Berry's prophecy of hunger hasn't come true yet, at least not in America. Despite occasional media stories to the contrary I don't see that widespread hunger is a major problem in our society, even among the very poor. If anything we have the opposite problem -- a kind of hollow surplus described by the prophet Haggai in the Old Testament: "You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill."

The triumph of "Agribusiness" and the industrialization of food production has done a remarkably efficient job of keeping an ample supply of relatively cheap food close at hand. There's a supermarket, mini-mart or fast food restaurant on virtually every corner. If need be one can survive on a diet of Big Macs, potato chips and high fructose corn syrup chasers (and some do). But what of the unforeseen consequences of the paradigmatic shift from a society in which a significant percentage of the population grew at least some of the food they ate, to one in which almost nobody does? If nothing else, the astronomical rise in healthcare costs associated with obesity and related diseases should raise some red flags.

Nevertheless, three decades after Berry noted the demise of "principles of thrift and care" there are growing opportunities to support local agriculture, to practice thrift and care in the way we live our lives, and to vote with our pocketbooks to support those corners of the economy where such values are still honored. In ways large and small it's possible to secede from the "economy of extravagance."

Quote from pp. 74-5 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)


Benjamin Price said...

This is a great post Stephen. I am a huge Berry fan and have written an essay inspired by Berry. Here's a link to the piece and would love your thoughts:

Looking forward to reading more of your posts.



Stephen Ley said...

Thanks, Benjamin! (btw my second son is named Benjamin) I read your essay. It's excellent and inspiring, and all the more impressive because you channel Berry without ever quoting him.