For Example (Wendell Berry on our economy’s effect in human communities)

Last time I remarked that Wendell Berry’s agrarian philosophy is congruent with the Trump administration’s re-focus of economy here in America. For example –

“…The attitudes of the industrial economy…” writes Wendell Berry, “have taken their toll…. the news from everywhere in rural America… bankruptcy, foreclosure, depression, suicide, the departure of the young, the loneliness of the old, soil loss, soil degradation, chemical pollution, the loss of genetic and specific diversity, the extinction or threatened extinction of species, the depletion of aquifers, stream degradation, the loss of wilderness, strip mining, clear-cutting, population loss, the loss of supporting economies, the death of towns. Rural American communities, economies, and ways of life that in 1945 were thriving and, though imperfect, full of promise for an authentic human settlement of our land are now as effectively destroyed as the Jewish communities of Poland….

The news of rural decline and devastation has been accompanied, to be sure, by a chorus of professional, institutional, and governmental optimists, who continue to insist that all is well, that we are making things worse only as a way of making things better, that farmers who failed are merely ‘inefficient producers’ for whose failure the country is better off, that money and technology will fill the gaps, that government will fill the gaps, that science will soon free us from our regrettable dependence on the soil.  ….We have heard that the rural economy can be repaired by moving the urban economy out into the country and by replacing rural work with work in factories and offices. And all the while the real conditions of the rural land and rural people have been getting worse.

Port Royal, Kentucky… (was once) held together by a complex local economy…. sixteen businesses and professional enterprises… all serving the town and the surrounding farms. …Now, counting the post office, the town has five enterprises, one of which does not serve the local economy. 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.

What does the death of a community, a local community, cost its members? And what does it cost the country? So far as I know, we have no economists interested in such matters. ….as the urban-industrial economy more and more usurps the local economy…. my part of rural America is, in short, a colony…. in the power of an absentee economy, once national and now increasingly international, that is without limit in its greed and without mercy in its exploitation of land and people.” (‘Conservation and Local Economy’ (1992) in The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry.)

Donald Trump, Wendel Berry, and International Development theory all in agreement

One of the ironies of the present moment (and there are many) is that while the media pundits declare that President Trump’s ‘isolationism’ (in prioritizing the American economy and withdrawing from international trading not to America’s advantage), is economic suicide, bad global citizenship, and regressive… he actually advocates what both current international development theory recommends to developing nations, and what agrarian philosopher/farmer/poet/economic thinker Wendell Berry advocates for rural American towns.

International development theory currently contends, due to decades of observation, that the promise of benefits from hooking up to the global economy are not panning out for developing nations. Relatively few people are benefiting, and most of them are banks and corporations in the developed world. Instead, development theorists contend, developing nations should look inward, develop a diversified economy that meets the needs of their own populations. In other words, don’t base your economy on Americans buying bananas or T-shirts (while you have to import everything else) – the price of bananas in the U.S. may drop five cents per pound and wipe out your economy, or Vietnam may start making T-shirts cheaper than you, equally wiping out all the eggs you placed in one basket. Make things in your own country that people in your own country need, thus creating jobs and economic linkages both vertically and horizontally along the economic spectrum. This has been a radical re-think in the development industry, a painful moment of repentance. What Trump is advocating for the U.S. is exactly what development theorists advise developing nations to do. Don’t expect many people in our megalopolis or Ivy League schools to admit this though.

Wendell Berry, as well, advocates the same thing for small rural American towns. Throughout his writings he bemoans the loss of local economies and economic linkages to transnational, absentee corporations who rape local economies in all the ways we learned during the era of colonialism against the indigenous peoples of the world. Berry points out that small towns used to be loci of production, horizontal linkages (blacksmiths, tack shops farmers needed, etc) and now there are neither jobs nor those horizontal-linkage businesses. These absentee corporations care neither for the people nor the place where their goods are made or bought, and local conditions testify to the fact – including the contrast to what these places used to be like. The Art of the Common Place: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry is rife with this thought. Though the Trump administration’s policies on international trade are demonized as throw-back, ignorant hyper-nationalism, he is actually doing what both the international development industry is telling developing economies to do, as well as being congruent with the avant garde thought of our most famous agrarian philosopher alive.

Poverty, lack, enough

I meant to post this two weeks ago, but my access to internet has been spotty the last few weeks. Looking around our new location (we have moved to SE Asia) has sparked thoughts about, among other things, what is poor and what is not. I am looking at the cover photo right now of Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick’s Theories of Development. It is a rural African scene, with the small clay-brick houses and stick-wall-and-thatch-roof homes of smallholder farmers. There are tools on the roofs, fruit trees around the homes… this field-and-tree homesteader view rolling into the distance, where it creeps one third up a mountainside, with the top two thirds of the mountain still wild-forested. The scene appears to have sufficient water, and there are harvested crops stacked and stored.

In terms of ‘material civilization,’ this scene doesn’t have a ton. It is a relatively sparse setting, in terms of the number of objects the households own. But does that make it ‘poor’? If there is sufficient water, food, shelter and clothing, is that poverty because there is less than rural Pennsylvania? (My grand parents and their parents used to say to me “we didn’t know we were ‘poor,’ everybody was.”) Or is poverty more an issue of enough, and then access to sufficient education, healthcare and opportunity to exercise one’s freedom and develop one’s life (… aka Amartya Sen)?

I have a feeling we often think ‘poor’ when looking at a material civilization without as many accumulated household goods and gadgets as is typical in the West. But I don’t think that’s accurate. My family of six came here with 12 suitcases of clothing and small personal effects (no one in their right mind goes across the world without their favorite fishing reels!) We then bought some furniture, an iron, some cooking and eating implements, and mosquito nets. Our new home (palatial as it is!) seems more than adequately outfitted. I now am wondering, aside from my books, why we shipped 200 cubic feet of household items and fun stuff. The families around us have far fewer material possessions than people accumulate in America, yet they do not seem poor at all. Alongside Sen, I wonder if our impressions and measurements of ‘poverty’ and ‘lack’ are often skewed toward material possessions that are not actually the determining indicators.