I had never heard of Wendell Berry until a few years ago, from one of my online friends. I’ve by no means read all his writing, but have read several of his novels, and was most impressed by Jayber Crow, which I think was published nearly 50 years ago. Berry is still around, though, still farming the land that has been in his family for 200 years, near Louisville, Kentucky along the Kentucky River. Tonight I got to watch a recent interview he did with Bill Moyers, and continue to be impressed by him.
His farm is a family farm, while agriculture has shifted in this country to the factory farm. Factory farms are huge enterprises using lots of land, and artificial fertilizers and insecticides. Animals raised to provide meat are never allowed outside, but kept in stalls for their short lives. The fertilizers and insecticides are among many pollutants in the environment, which are helping to destroy the biosphere we all depend on to live. What are his thoughts about that?
For one thing, that we have to stop the people who claim to own the world outright: they’re ruining it, though I have to add that most of us are also complicit in this process. He says that capitalism from the beginning aimed to replace people with technology, and is closer now to achieving that than it has ever been.
Of course we run into an ideological problem with a statement like that. Those who love capitalism will obviously respond that he’s espousing Communism. I argue that he’s doing no such thing. Communism, as practiced in Russia, China and eastern Europe has no better environmental record than capitalism, and turned out to be even less democratic than our corporate society now is. Although socialism, as practiced in western Europe, for example, is not the same as Communism, it’s still a highly technological society, though much more concerned about the environment than is our country.
True believer capitalists frequently talk about liberty, and how overly large government takes it away. That isn’t untrue, as far as i goes, but governments are not the only entities that can take liberty away. So can big corporations, which are much more wealthy and powerful than most individuals, and are committed to inhuman behavior, as long as it makes a profit, until they are forced to change.
And humans aren’t the only things that can take liberty away. The forces humans have set in motion with industrialization supporting the lifestyle most of us live in this country have prepared many timebombs for us. Pollution of air, food and water, I have come to believe, are the greatest objective threat to humanity that we face right now. Of course this threat isn’t disconnected from other things.
Climate change has been a controversial and divisive issue for several decades, but not, I think, on its merits as an argument. People don’t like the idea because it would force responsibility on them that they don’t want. They’re comfortable with the world as it is–for now. Climate change is merely one of the results of pollution created by humans. Dispassionately viewed, I think (and always have thought) it to be quite a plausible thesis, though we don’t know all the causes or effects of how it happens in detail. I saw a snippet of a TV program in which a corporate head said that we’re now conducting an experiment as to how hot we can stand the world to get, and that if there’s even one percent chance that we can make it too hot, it doesn’t seem like an intelligent thing to do. The interviewer asked him what percentage of chance he thought was likely, but I don’t think he answered. The probability seems a lot greater than one percent to me.
And that’s not the only thing pollutants of various sorts are bringing us. When talking with a woman from Colombia, she mentioned that many in her city were diagnosed with psychotic depression (as best I remember), and questioned what would cause that. I remembered reading that artificial fertilizers and insecticides might have such an effect, and that the United States has a higher rate of insanity than many countries in the world, so I asked if they were used in her area.
She said yes, they were, to such an extent that there were no longer fireflies there. Anything that’s bad for fireflies is likely to be bad for humans too.
We’ve also been losing large amounts of honeybees, which could be catastrophic for agriculture. The most definite statement I’ve read is that it may be a mixture of insecticides and other chemicals, and that it would be difficult to ban all of them. I’ve also read that a large American corporation is being sued on this basis in Europe to prevent them from producing and using these chemicals. The corporation seems to be fighting the suit.
I’ve read that aluminum is liked to Alzheimer’s dementia, often via canned drinks, though I also recently read about some baby formulas that contain high levels of the metal. If so, it makes me wonder if autism too is connected to pollution. A quick check of Wikipedia seems to say that if it is, the factors are currently unknown, but I wouldn’t think this would preclude pollution being part of the picture.
One of my friends of the past decade told me about her grandson, who was diagnosed autistic. His parents were very careful about his diet and other things he was exposed to, and she said that when he was about seven the diagnosis was withdrawn. That certainly suggests that pollution might be an influential factor.
Much of our current behavior, including behavior regarding pollution, can be seen as driven by overpopulation. With a population of 7-9 billion, the world is close to its limits of human population it can support. I think that many of us are subconsciously aware of this, and frightened. Americans have generally felt that bigger is better, but that’s not always true, and sometimes things have to be destroyed to allow new and more healthy growth. We can see this in the history of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, which swept away decadent societies in the Middle East to provide the chance for something new . As a world, we seem to have reached a point where this is necessary, and if enough of us don’t undertake it, nature will. For two centuries we’ve been engaged in making a world we can’t live in, and the consequences have begun to arrive.
George Gurdjieff, the spiritual teacher I’ve mentioned in other posts, said there is a reason for overpopulation. The reason is rooted in a question he asked when he was quite young: What is the reason for organic life in general, and human life in particular? He spent a great deal of time seeking the answer to this and other questions, and eventually found an answer. Life is used to transform energies, some of which we can already see, some of which we’re generally unaware of. There are different levels of life, and the lower levels support the higher ones.
We see an example of this in soil, which is a very complex phenomenon. It is a very small percentage of the world, but one of the most important parts of it in supporting life. Its fertility can be increased, but it can also be destroyed by mismanagement. Artificial fertilizers and insecticides are arguably one sort of mistreatment that can destroy soil fertility, as well as introducing pernicious factors into our environment and bodies. There are, of course, many others.
Mining and manufacturing are two other such factors. They release chemicals into soil, air and water that are bad for the environment as a whole. And whatever is bad for the environment is also bad for us as individuals. By poisoning the environment in these and other ways, we also poison ourselves.
Gurdjieff went on to say that humans have the possibility of transforming necessary energies either consciously, or by dying. Learning to do this consciously is not easy, and although there have been many messengers sent to us, we’ve generally disregarded what they taught, so that we generally don’t live as we were intended to. Because we don’t provide the energies that nature needs, nature tries to compensate by producing more of us. And because there are still very few who consciously transform energies, we have wars. These produce what is necessary.
J.G. Bennett, a student of Gurdjieff’s, said that there is a close link between insects and humans, which isn’t easy to see. We generally have little use for insects (other than bees). Some people include them in their diets, but relatively few. Bennett said that insects have a high level of sexual energy, and that this supports human creativity. Indeed, I remember reading many years ago that insect penises are often bent, making them difficult to insert into the female, so a high degree of sexual energy must be necessary for insects to reproduce. That makes the proposition at least plausible.
If very much of this point of view is accepted (and of course many will NOT accept it), it’s clear that the human race is in deep trouble. Unfortunately, we seem to HAVE to get into trouble to realize that we have to do things differently. There are certainly people, like Wendell Berry, who have realized at least part of the problem, and are trying to do something about it, but most of us are connected to the industrial system, and don’t know how to live without it.
I don’t have a garden, I don’t hunt, I drive a car to work, and have computers and a cellphone. I use electric power, probably generated by coal. I use things made of plastic constantly, whether at work or home. As convenient as these products of technology are, I know they’re bad for the environment, but don’t yet know how to do without them; or rather haven’t made the effort it would take to live more naturally. A good many people have and do, but only a small percentage of this country and the world.
Wendell Berry remarks in his interview with Bill Moyers, that we don’t have the right to ask the question of whether we can successfully stop the catastrophic process most of us are involved in. We have to decide what’s right to do, and start doing it. We’re not guaranteed good outcomes; we’re probably guaranteed a lot of bad ones until we’re willing to start learning and doing things more in tune with nature and life. In this respect, I am certainly little if any better than anyone else.