Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Pastoral Roots and Stewardship

Instead of reading Chairman Mao
I think I'll go and milk my cow.
--Wendell Berry, "The Mad Farmer March"

Back in the day--when I was still leaning rightward regarding economic issues--the main sources for information on what would now be called "sustainability" were to be found only in leftish periodicals, such as Mother Earth News and the Co-Evolution Quarterly (later to be called the Whole Earth Review). Urban-dweller that I was at the time, I still longed for the life of the self-sufficient farmer/rancher whose ethos I'd been fostered into: farms, ranches, victory gardens, home-grown cattle and eggs that could be found in farmers' markets, home-made sausage and cheese, down-to-earth values.

Early on I was also seduced by the ideal of community, and actually partook in a co-operative apartment arrangement that did amazingly well, housing three women (including one who was married and attended Penn three days a week before heading home to husband and hearth in Washington DC for the other four days) and two men, a dog, and two cats. One of the cohort was an Orthodox Jew who managed to maintain Kosherness in a house full of heathens. We did rather well for over a year until she and I both left to marry and one other member bought a chicken farm in upstate New York.

I was reminded of all this by a recent op/ed piece by local pundit Rod Dreher in the Dallas Morning News on Kentucky farmer, poet, and advocate of sustainable living, Wendell Berry. One of the reasons I don't like political labels in general (Liberal, Conservative, Etc.) is because they generally don't do a very good job of describing folks in particular, and because many of us don't fit into tidy little piles. Wendell Berry is one such person, being extremely conservative in regard to land use, responsible stewardship, and the centrality of family and community. He's also a pacifist (for reasons that coincide with his other values), and a proponent of social justice. Likewise, Rod Dreher (author of the Crunchy Cons concept that describes conservatives who hold what otherwise might otherwise be considered tree-hugging Lefties; he also writes a blog for Beliefnet) shares a number of these values (as do I), which led him to write this week's essay.

Praising Wendell Berry gets one in trouble with free-market economists because Berry's model for how to live in the world posits that competition presupposes winners and losers and, thus, if the free market reigns, we foster a class partition into one or the other. A thoughtful critique of this stance (like this one from Taki's Magazine) would note that the "losers" aren't thrown into a pit of alligators or anything (ideally, they find something else to do), but I think that misses the point. Berry's own critique is primarily about values: the very same values that helped found the Republic in the first place: agrarianism, community, co-operation, responsibility, justice. And most critics of this view start talking immediately about personal preference, and ask "what if I don't want to do what Berry thinks I should do?"

So once again we move toward the politics of desire: I don't want to have to pay the high prices that free-range, hormone-free chickens or beef cost, so I shouldn't have to; I should be free to choose. Never mind the multiple long-term benefits of better choices, such as decreasing the amount of meat we eat (thus reducing the cost of our meat bill in the first place), the higher quality of the meat as a product, the welfare of the animals, the reduction of pollutants and chemical use, the livelihood of the farmer, etc. Never mind that people in the habit of considering the entirety of the picture (not just the initial cost) conclude that convenience is pretty far down on the list of reasons for doing anything. Never mind that personal preference (again in the long run) is a pretty lousy reason for doing anything (because, after all, we're not all hermits living alone in the wilderness). That we should only do what we want to do seems to be an awfully childish way of approaching life.

Another criticism I've heard lobbed toward both Dreher and Berry has to do with religion. While most folks would see faith as a good place to begin, those given to questioning its efficacy as a source of reason do have a legitimate complaint. Believing something frequently trumps rationality, and citing a god as the ultimate authority doesn't work in a cogent argument. The skeptics among us (and I include myself here) are always looking for solid evidence.

But this country and most others on this planet are grounded in one religious tradition or another, and faith permeates culture to such a degree that ignoring it isn't going to make it go away. Preferring that it not exist helps no one and alienates many. In addition, faith is usually only one reason for doing something--not the entire ground. So if you think we should be stewards of the earth rather than exploiters of its bounty, it doesn't make a lot of difference whether it's because of faith or simply because it makes good scientific sense. Until god is really dead, we have to take belief into account, and he/she doesn't appear to be expiring any time soon. Some form of religion is part of our history and foundational to more world views than not. And since many of the most reasonable people I know also believe in some form of divine being, I can't see dismissing an argument simply because it arises from a deeply held belief.

That said, we are what we do. So if we say one thing and do another, we're just hypocrites, and no amount of religious doctrine is going to make us anything else. And this is why I admire Wendell Berry; he's deeply Christian, and he lives, breathes, writes, and acts as a steward. And a steward, I think, is a good thing--a caretaker, a holder of the house, a fosterer of the land. Instead of doing something simply because it's convenient, or because it satisfies some immediate desire or preference, Berry thinks broadly about taking care of the earth, of sustaining life and well-being, rather than pursuing some nebulous notion of "happiness" that involves constant acquisition of stuff.

It's unfortunate that, like the words "green," "organic," and "natural," "sustainability" is becoming another buzzword, used as a mantra by some and derisively by others. It's already losing its root notions of upholding, supporting, preserving,--even cherishing, as well as restraining. It's a good word. We shouldn't turn it into jargon, but rather attend to its richness. We need to participate in all of its meanings if we're to temper the rapid, mindless, heedless, and perhaps inexorable destruction of habitat, species, cultures, and the very ways of life that allowed us to emerge into the modern world.

In many religious traditions, even those that arose where there were only two real seasons, this time of year found people celebrating first fruits: the biggest harvest festivals of the year. We commemorate the season in the U. S. after the harvest is in, the jam has been made, the pickles put up, the seeds gathered, and the root cellar stocked to tide us through the winter. We call it Thanksgiving and attribute the holiday to an almost mythical event in American history, but its practice is similar to much earlier celebrations. I'm reminded of my favorite Hebrew prayer, the Shehecheyanu, which is said frequently during the year, notably at the beginnings of festivals and holidays, and has special poignancy at harvest time:

Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the world,
Who has kept us in life, sustained us,
and brought us to this moment.

I only hope that the idea of sustainability--creating the ability to sustain ourselves--doesn't get lost in all of the election and economic hoopla playing out on the news these days. It seems that anybody who talks about co-operation and sustenance is being branded a Socialist, and the idea of sacrificing wants in an effort to create an economy that supplies needs is being called Communist (and its clear that only cartoon definitions of either are being evoked), so the rhetoric will have to be tempered if we're to get back to talking about what we're leaving our children and grandchildren.

If we don't begin to talk more seriously about sustainability, and to act accordingly, the opportunity to address looming problems may disappear altogether. Predatory practices in the market seem to have buried whatever benefits might have existed under deregulation, and some serious reconsideration of the nature and scope of Capitalism seems to be occurring (see, for example, John Kenneth Galbraith's new book, The Predator State: How Conservatives Abandoned the Free Market and Why Liberals Should Too).

But economics, because it affects all of us, shouldn't just be the purview of theorists, and the better you and I understand what's going on, the better prepared we will be to make sound decisions in the voting booth over the next decade. Sustainable choices and market economies can actually work, as John Ikerd (an agricultural economist, who wrote Sustainable Capitalism: A Matter of Common Sense) and others have noted, even if they require careful thinking--and rethinking. Just because we're not all farmers doesn't mean we can't embrace agriculture as a metaphor, and see land stewardship as a model for better living. Our national roots reach deeply into this country's soil, and a careful study of those roots seems to be in order. This conversation should not be about who's a "Socialist" and who's a "Real American." It should be about going out and milking that cow.

In his 1980 essay, "Solving for Pattern," Wendell Berry offered some sound advice about how to create human solutions, grounded in specific human virtues. One such virtue is restraint, which he defines as "the ability to accept and live within limits; to resist changes that are merely novel or fashionable; to resist greed and pride; to resist the temptation to 'solve' problems by ignoring them, accepting them as 'trade-offs,' or bequeathing them to posterity."

Restraint is in short supply these days, but I look forward to the day when I don't have to rail constantly against greed and excess. The only way that'll happen, however, is if we can become a more educated electorate, and heed Berry's increasingly timely advice.

Sources for Wendell Berry quotations: "The Mad Farmer March" from A Part, North Point Press, 1980. "Solving For Pattern" was printed in The Gift of Good Land, Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural, North Point Press, 1981.

Photo credits:
Strohräder (Straw bale) by Walter Pilsak; Pumpkins, by Yolan Chériaux. Both from Wikimedia Commons.


GEM said...

"restraint" is a marvellous word and concept. it is one I hope doesn't make it into the vocabulary of jargon such as 'sustainabiity', 'simplicity', 'socialism' have and which are used mainly as shorthand for committed debate and discussion.
All religious traditions espouse restraint and husbandry and care-taking - in this they share a commonality. The only religion which does not is the religion of 'free trade' or Mammon, and I am afraid that primary beliefs in self-interest run very much counter to the notions of restraint and caretaking. Yet these beliefs have ardent followers, almost blind and deaf ones. G

Owlfarmer said...

I'm not sure why more people haven't made a bigger deal out of the notion of restraint; but you're right that this is probably a good thing--and might keep it from losing its potential power as a goal.

We certainly don't need a larger vocabulary of jargon!