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.)

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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.

Resurrection and our World

To those of you who are Christians working in the complex tangle that is International Development (the primary audience for whom I created this blog in the first place!), friends, I’m so proud of you. As we approach Easter, I wonder if the image of resurrection might be a powerful driver in your work.  N.T. Wright has written, perhaps more than anyone else in the last 30 years, regarding the robust meanings of resurrection. Below, is a short quote from him.

“…the Eastern Orthodox churches have always emphasized, when Jesus rose again God’s whole new creation emerged from the tomb, introducing a world full of new potential and possibility ….When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus…”

“Indeed, precisely because part of that new possibility is for human beings to be revived and renewed, the resurrection of Jesus doesn’t leave us as passive, helpless spectators. We find ourselves lifted up, set on our feet, given new breath in our lungs, and commissioned to go and make new creation happen in the world….  The music he wrote must now be performed.” (N.T. Wright, Simply Christian: 2006).

So I wonder if you might find resurrection to be a theme to characterize what you do. Resurrection/ new creation is a template for reconciliation, restoration, redemption, healing, things being put right and brought to their intended wholeness.

Saint Paul: “If anyone is in Christ – new creation!” (2 Corinthians 5: 17)

May new creation in us make His Way and Goal (Omega) credible to the world around.

Why Enlightened Self-Interest Doesn’t Rescue the Environment

You would think that enlightened self-interest would cause corporations, like individuals, to avoid doing things that would be unsustainable in the future, since that would nix their ability to continue in that line of business. So, for example, you would think a corporation would avoid over-cutting a particular forest, and manage it for the long-term, so that they could continue to cut it and make profits from it in the future. However, avoiding environmental damage (as any enlightened farmer would do for his fields) is not a guiding star for corporations, who often don’t own the environments they wreck, but even when they do! Socio-political thinker and novelist Kim Stanley Robinson explains it succinctly in his novel Antarctica (1998):

“Say a company owned a forest that it had harvested selectively for generations, delivering its shareholders a consistent ten percent return. Meanwhile the world financial markets were offering bonds with a fifteen percent return. Lumber prices dropped, and the company’s returns dropped, so the traders dropped it and its shares plummeted, so the shareholders were angry. The management, on the edge of collapse, decided to clear-cut the forest and invest the profits from that lumber sale immediately into bonds that yielded a higher return than the forest had. In effect the money that the forest represented was more valuable than the forest itself, because long-term value had collapsed to net present value; and so the forest was liquidated, and more money entered the great money balloon. And so the inexorable logic of Gotterdammerung capitalism demolished the world to increase the net present values of companies in trouble… simply the logic of the system.”

Add to this scenario the fact that it’s not a self-owned lumber company. That company is among thousands of companies some transnational mega-corporation owns, and they are into everything: lumber, cement, films, cars, oil, wind energy, toys, music, insurance, housing, aerospace technology and munitions. If some of their companies aren’t returning good quarterly profits, they take a tax write-off and liquidate the company at a loss. Thus, cutting the forest to the ground and not re-planting, and then walking away from lumber altogether is simply a decision made at a desk in a cubicle at a Manhattan (or Toronto or Tokyo or Berlin) skyscraper, and the man whose office looks out across the city with the windows never even knows the decision was made, besides some numbers on a spreadsheet.

So, thinking that the common sense of wanting-to-have-a-planet-to-live-on-in-the-future-that-isn’t-a-wasteland would naturally cause companies and corporations to make sensible, long-term, sustainable, healthful decisions… is simply not how our world system is set up to work. Those mega-corporations are not looking out for your interests. So how do you fix that? U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, (president from 1901-1909), whom the United States can thank for the vast majority of the National Forests and wildlife sanctuaries that exist, did not believe the timber barons and mining barons of his day could be trusted with American’s forests and lands. He believed vociferously in the free market and personal freedom and property, but he also believed capitalism had to be reined in by the government on behalf of the people, or the logic-of-the-system (and those who became powerful within it) would wreck the world around us. He did not allow the giant corporations to do whatever they wanted nor to take over the world. Maybe we should go look at and think about his insights again in our day. Because current events have demonstrated for quite some time now that just hoping common sense will cause smart decisions ISN’T protecting the Earth’s environments for the future.

The Practical and Theological Litmus Test

I have a theological litmus test for any action, whether it is a decision by a church, a development initiative by a NGO, interaction between adherents of different world religions, economic theory, or just about anything else.

And this is it: does the action contribute to human thriving?

I think this covers it.

Throughout Scripture the issue keeps coming back to the Creator’s desire for His creation to thrive. While we have tended to read the (selected) texts since the Reformation to be simply about a contractual agreement to escape punishment for sin, the Scriptures continually draw our attention back to the Creator’s desire for shalom for His world.

The problem in Noah’s generation that brings on the apocalyptic flood?  Human thriving cut off by violence across the earth.

God’s continual concern with the welfare of the unempowered throughout the Torah, the writings  and the prophets; Jesus’ hometown self-definition in Luke 4 (18-21);his ministry of healing the sick; his contention that he came to bring abundant life; Paul’s confidence that in the Son all things are reconciled in heaven and on earth and all things hold together in him – all of these are about God’s desire for His Creation and image-bearers to experience wholeness and well-being.

Recall Irenaeus’ contention that the glory of God is man fully alive.

If for each theological direction we take, each decision we render on an action, be it church or community, this litmus test brings us to the crux: does it advance human and creational thriving?  This cuts past culturally-tied issues in Scripture which no longer obtain, it frees us from a legalism that always devolves into dysfunction, it breaks out of adventures in missing the point that accumulate around nit-picking Scripture battles and brings us to the central question What does God want in His world? We need a litmus test that engages that exact question, and I believe this one does.

Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.

Slow Ways and Means

If you are a practicing Christian investing your energy in the Kingdom of God, or a person working for the betterment of the world, maybe you should realize this will not be quick.  Almost every image Scripture (and Jesus!) used – seeds, trees, vineyards –  are images of slow.

I am pastoring again. I thought that phase of my life was over, but it is not. I am on the shores of Lake Erie with wonderful folk in an exciting church. And lots of snow.

Pastoring is slow business. Church growth sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t – it depends on lots of factors – and I’ve known it both ways. But pastoring is slow. It requires patience, to do it well. It involves a long obedience in the same direction, and you walk slowly through the years with people in their lives. As I said, it requires patience, because most of its best outcomes require time to germinate and come to fruition. It’s probably good I’m a gardener and tree-planter, fisherman and hunter too, as these things propagate patience in the soul. Having pastored some 22 years, I’ve become much more patient about these things than I used to be. And patience is a cousin to wisdom. Hard-charging isn’t the answer to every problem, though our culture certainly likes it, and it can cause outcomes you didn’t foresee, because you are rushing in – something Solomon said about fools.

So the ways and means of pastoring – and Christian spirituality for that matter – are slow. God is inefficient, one person quipped, just look at the Old and New Testament story – long and winding. I am thinking about this because I am reading Northern Farm by the great American naturalist Henry Beston. Whether you are working in International Development or something else, these words probably apply. At one spot, Beston says this:

“There is one principle which our world would do well to remember, for it is of first importance whether one sharpens a pencil, builds a house, bakes bread, or lays the intended foundations for Utopia. It is this – that what we make is conditioned by the means we use making it. We may have the best intentions in the world, but if we sharpen our pencils with a dull knife or build a house with a faulty rule, the pencil will be badly sharpened and the house will have an odd little way of opening doors by itself and leaning to one side.

 In our barn the larger beams were worked over and squared by someone using what was probably an old-fashioned ship builder’s axe. They are honestly and carefully made, and something of the humanity of the past is in them to this day. Certain other beams have been sawed out, and they are good beams, too, though quite different in look and feeling. The means used in making have marked each kind of beam for all time.

 But I do not wish to labor the point. It is enough to say that prophets of expediency who are careless of the means they use and who work outside the human and moral values, have never been able to build anything humanly worth while.” (Henry Beston, Northern Farm; 1948. Pgs 70-71).