Environmental Policy

With our new life on the shore of Lake Erie, I seem to have a hard time getting back to the blog. But, to continue from last time, here’s how it went down:

It had been a beautiful wedding in a mansion that had once been owned by Andrew Carnegie, overlooking one of his favorite trout streams. I was sitting at the reception across the table from a Pennsylvania Senator’s chief aide. Our conversation was wild and wide-ranging, and since we liked many of the same things, very enjoyable. Somewhere in there, I laughingly said, concerning his Republican boss, “How can a political party jam-packed with hunters, fishermen and other passionate outdoorsmen, constantly find themselves on the wrong end of every environmental issue, every time you turn around?” Suddenly my companion turned dead serious. “They get it,” he said. “But it’s the money. They accept so much money from Big Oil and Big Business and Big Energy companies, they end up voting against the environment all the time. And it is killing us with young people.” I don’t remember the exact words of what all else he said, but he clearly expressed his frustration at knowing that money was buying votes that were clearly against the common good.

Now, we say this kind of thing all the time, “follow the money,” but here was the highest aide of a prominent Senator telling me that it was exactly the case. I don’t know really what to do to solve that problem, except to say that it may very well be that the answers to many of our pressing problems are not going to come from Washington D.C. It’s dis-heartening, because, as great organizations like Bread for the World have found, it’s a powerful venue.

But I wonder if the way things get turned around are more through cultural grass-roots movements in regular neighborhoods and regular high schools and regular towns, so that there is a growing crescendo in the culture that some things are simply not acceptable, and that vibe or perspective percolates upwards to the extent that finally enough representatives believe something to be generally true in the culture that their voting simply reflects the new milieu. I don’t know, but it worked for the environmental movement, who were considered whack-jobs in the 1960s and yet now, in 2016, every single one of their major talking points is considered normative in our culture; (Of course you recycle, of course you conserve energy, of course you don’t litter, etc etc). The fact that very powerful money now works against that enlightened awareness, remains a conundrum. In the meantime, maybe teach a kid to garden and fish.

Henry Beston, writing from his farm in Maine, said this in 1948:

It often strikes me that in our modern Babylons you never see anything begin. Everything comes to you, even thought, at a certain stage in its development, like an iceberg lettuce. Now life is more a matter of beginnings than of endings, and without some sense of the beginning of things, there is no proper perspective on the whole mystery of living. This is only one detail, but it will serve as one of the marks of the whole incomplete urban perspective in which we live. For the city governs us now as never before; it tells us what to love and what to hate, what to believe and what not to believe, and even what to make of human nature.” (Northern Farm, by Henry Beston; Ballantine: 1948).

Wendell Berry

In our increasingly ecologically-aware age, more and more people are asking themselves How can we live well, and sustainably, on this planet in the long haul? How can we feed billions of people and maintain the health of our planet’s ecosystem, our own well-being societally and physiologically, and the fertility and usability of our farmlands? These kinds of questions are dovetailed into many things, including our increasing awareness that the health of our bodies is directly impacted by the healthiness of our foods, which are in turn directly impacted by the health of the soil in which they are grown – and our mental and emotional well-being is likewise impacted by the health of our bodies, the health of our society and world all around us.

Growing numbers of Christians are coming to believe these questions are an express interest of Christian theology as well. Since the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, and mankind’s first and explicit vocation in the story of Scripture is to tend the natural world and be its steward, more and more of us are talking about the state and health of our world – and what we do to impact and shape that – as a high importance Christian concern.

For people like that, Wendell Berry is a rich, vibrant resource. Berry is a Christian, a poet (Kentucky’s laureate), a prolific author, an agrarian philosopher, and a farmer. He has farmed the same 200 acres in Kentucky for the last 50 years. As a social commentator reflecting on the natural world he reminds me at times of John Burroughs, Annie Dillard, Henry Beston, Muir, Thoreau, and others of America’s great nature writers. For people thinking about health, food, how we produce food, and the world’s future, Berry’s agrarian essays are a must read. They are profound, full of wit and humor and an artist’s sense of pacing, tone and detail.

And we need to think about them. Berry contends that approaching the natural/biological world of farming and food with the industrial, mechanical mindset of the Industrial Revolution has created industrial-scale agri-business that is increasingly and alarmingly less and less healthy for the soil itself, the land, the nutritional value of our food, the ecosystems of our planet, and the wholeness and health of our own bodies and communities. Yes, we have produced more quantities of food. But the long-term effects on our soil, communities, farmers, ecosystems and bodies are, he contends, not worth it. He is calling for a re-think and re-set in the way we farm and live. And he believes we can farm in ways that are healthy, diverse, enriching the land, soil, people – and even good for the farmers themselves – and the multitude of businesses which we have lost in uber-scale food production. I highly recommend his book Bringing It To The Table: On Farming and Food. It is only one of many, but he pulls a lot of things together there.