Book review: Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community

October 1, 2010

Note: I cross-posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community is a collection of eight essays by Wendell Berry. Although each essay is on a different topic, covering subjects such as economics, conservation, tobacco farming, war and peace, Christianity, and sex, all eight essays are closely linked through a centering focus on the concept of community. Wendell Berry is an exceptionally clear thinker and writer, and he presents compelling arguments for why globalization is causing more harm than good and why we must instead return to true, localized communities (and, consequently, economies). In the title essay, he defines community as follows:

By community, I mean the commonwealth and common interests, commonly understood, of people living together in a place and wishing to continue to do so. To put it another way, community is a locally understood interdependence of local people, local culture, local economy, and local nature… Lacking the interest of or in such a community, private life becomes merely a sort of reserve in which individuals defend their “right” to act as they please and attempt to limit or destroy the “rights” of other individuals to act as they please.

A community identifies itself by an understood mutuality of interests. But it lives and acts by the common virtues of trust, goodwill, forbearance, self-restraint, compassion, and forgiveness. If it hopes to continue long as a community, it will wish to – and will have to – encourage respect for all its members, human and natural. It will encourage respect for all stations and occupations. Such a community has the power – not invariably but as a rule – to enforce decency without litigation. It has the power, that is, to influence behavior. And it exercises this power not by coercion or violence but by teaching the young and by preserving stories and songs that tell (among other things) what works and what does not work in a given place.

A community as described above serves neither private interests nor “public” interests, but rather the interests of the localized community as a whole. A major point that Berry makes is that it is only in the context of such a community that we will take care of each other and the land and live out the higher human values of respect and compassion. For example, in the globalized economy, where our food comes from thousands of miles away, it does not seem to matter how we treat the land around us, because it does not directly impact our ability to obtain food. On the other hand, when our food comes from the land near where we live, we see the consequences of poor treatment and are therefore are more motivated to care for that land in a way that ensures it continues to produce the food we need.

Occasionally as I read the essays I sensed a hint of glorifying the past. However, on the whole Berry maintains a nuanced perspective on the reasons our society is broken and what it would take to fix it. Although his proposal for more localized communities and economies does hint back to lifestyles in the past, I do not think the Berry is proposing that we return everything to exactly as it was 100 years ago. Although Berry does not address this explicitly, I believe that we can take the aspects of life 100 years that will improve our society (e.g. more tightly-knit, localized communities and economies) and leave other aspects (such as oppression of women) behind. Overall, Berry makes important points about globalization and communities that hold a lot of truth.

Although I agree with much of Berry’s arguments, I do not agree 100% with everything he says. Take this perspective on technology:

We must give up also our superstitious conviction that we can contrive technological solutions to all our problems. Soil loss, for example, is a problem that embarrasses all of our technological pretensions. If soil were all being lost in a huge slab somewhere, that would appeal to the would-be heroes of “science and technology,” who might conceivably engineer a glamorous, large, and speedy solution – however many new problems they might cause in doing so. But soil is not usually lost in slabs or heaps of magnificent tonnage. It is lost a little at a time over millions of people. It cannot be saved by heroic feats of gigantic technology but only by millions of small acts and restraints, conditioned by small fidelities, skills, and desires. Soil loss is ultimately a cultural problem; it will be corrected only by cultural solutions.

I do agree that we sometimes try to solve problems with technology when in fact they cannot be solved in that way, because they are cultural and societal problems. However, I think there is a place for science and technology, for example in harnessing clean energy sources. Our extreme overuse of unsustainable energy sources is of course partly a cultural problem, but ultimately we will need sustainable, clean energy, and that requires a technical solution.

Reading Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community left me feeling a bit hopeless. The community-based society he describes is so very different from our current globalized society, and things seem to be going only further in the direction of globalization. I am left wondering how we get from here to there? The obstacles sometimes seem insurmountable.

I do not mean to leave you with negativity, however. Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community contains important, and at times very radical, ideas and one way that we will get from here to there is if more people read it and contemplate the ideas in it. I highly recommend it – you do not have to agree 100% with Berry in order to find his ideas worth thinking about. If you are not already convinced, here are some more quotes:

But a conservation effort that concentrates only on the extremes of industrial abuse tends to suggest that the only abuses are the extreme ones when, in fact, the earth is probably suffering more from many small abuses than from a few large ones. By treating the spectacular abuses as exceptional, the powers that be would like to keep us from seeing that the industrial system (capitalist or communist or socialist) is in itself and by necessity of all its assumptions extremely dangerous and damaging and that it exists to support an extremely dangerous and damaging way of life. The large abuses exists within and because of a pattern of smaller abuses.

Many people would like to think that our diseases are caused by one simple thing, like tobacco, which can be easily blamed on one group and fairly easily given up. But of course they are fooling themselves. One reason that people die of diseases is that they have grown old enough to die of something; they are mortal, a fact that modern humans don’t like to face. Another reason is that as a people we live unhealthy lives. We breathe unhealthy air, drink unhealthy water, eat unhealthy food, eat too much, do no physical work, and so forth.

So long as there is a demonstrable need and an imaginable answer, there is hope.

This war was said to be “about peace.” So have they all been said to be. This was another in our series of wars “to end war.” But peace is not the result of war, any more than love is the result of hate or generosity the result of greed. As a war in defense of peace, this one in the Middle East has failed, as all its predecessors have done. Like all its predecessors, it was the result of the failure, on the part of all its participants, to be peaceable.

The significance – and ultimately the quality – of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.

The difficulty is that marriage, family life, friendship, neighborhood, and other personal connections do not depend exclusively or even primarily on justice – though, of course, they all must try for it. The depend also on trust, patience, respect, mutual help, forgiveness – in other words, the practice of love, as opposed to the mere feeling of love.


Book review: A Short History of Progress

January 22, 2010

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

My thoughts on A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright, can be summarized as follows: first, that everyone should read it, and second, that it triggered a minor existential crisis. Why, you might ask, do I think everyone should read a book that has the potential to trigger an existential crisis? Well, first of all, not everyone will react the same way that I did (the are other things going on in my life right now that likely contributed to my existential crisis; if that hadn’t been the case this book may not have triggered one). But in fact I think everyone should read it precisely because of its power to make you think about and question the meaning of existence.

Essentially Wright takes you a giant step back from your daily life and gives you a bird’s-eye perspective on human civilization and progress. He looks at four case studies of civilizations in human history that continued down the path of “progress” to the point of collapse. Over and over, humans have followed the pattern of overusing their environment until it can no longer sustain their numbers, continuing towards collapse even when it should be clear that they are living unsustainably. His point is that we are currently following the same exact pattern – our growth is accelerating in a clearly unsustainable manner, and we are causing environmental change that will be our downfall. However, there is a crucial difference from past civilization collapses: during the time periods of the cases he presents, there were many mostly isolated civilizations on earth, and the collapse of one did not significantly impact humans living on the other side of the world. Now, all humans are a part of one big civilization, and if it collapses it will impact all living beings on the entire earth.

Before I reached the end of the book, I started feeling that all our attempts to reverse climate change and prevent civilization collapse are both helpless and pointless. In the grand scheme of things, why does it really matter if our civilization falls apart or not? Why does it even matter if the human species continues to exist or not? Someday it will not. Someday the entire earth will fall into the sun. Deep in my heart I feel that it does matter, but I lost my grasp of why.

As I said, these questions arose for me before I finished the book. As it turns out, Wright addresses some of these very questions in the last chapter. His answers were interesting, although I think that ultimately each of us needs to figure out answers for ourselves and find our own meaning:

The most compelling reason for reforming our system is that the system is in no one’s interest. It is a suicide machine… I honestly don’t know what… the hard men and women of Big Oil and the far right… think they are doing. They have children and grandchildren who will need safe food and clean air and water, and who may wish to see living oceans and forests. Wealth can buy no refuge from pollution; pesticides sprayed in China condense in Antarctic glaciers and Rocky Mountain tarns. And wealth is no shield from chaos, as the surprise on each haughty face that rolled from the guillotine made clear.

Things are moving so fast that inaction itself is one of the biggest mistakes. The 10,000-year experiment of the settled life will stand or fall by what we do, and don’t do, now. The reform that is needed is not anti-captalist, anti-American, or even deep environmentalist; it is simply the transition from short-term to long-term thinking. From recklessness and excess to moderation and the precautionary principle.

Wright concludes with a strong call to learn from and avoid the mistakes of the past:

We are now at the stage when the Easter Islanders could still have halted the senseless cutting and carving, could have gathered the last trees’ seeds to plant out of reach of the rats. We have the tools and the means to share resources, clean up pollution, dispense basic health care and birth control, set economic limits in line with natural ones. If we don’t do these things now, while we prosper, we will never be able to do them when times get hard. Our fate will twist out of our hands. And this new century will not grow very old before we enter an age of chaos and collapse that will dwarf all the dark ages in our past.

Now is our last chance to get the future right.

A Short History of Progress is a compelling and important book. One way you can look at the present human situation is that we can either choose to change now and become a sustainable civilization, or we will be forced to change later by unpleasant circumstances out of our control. We have the opportunity to learn from the past, but will we take advantage of it? I believe humans are capable of much more than we currently demonstrate, and if we do not make the necessary changes now we will be failing our own capabilities.

I cannot more highly recommend A Short History of Progress. To conclude, here are a few more insightful passages:

At the gates of the colosseum and the concentration camp, we have no choice but to abandon hope that civilization is, in itself, a guarantor of moral progress.

Civilizations have developed many techniques for making the earth produce more food – some sustainable, others not. The lesson I read in the past is this: that the health of land and water – and of woods, which are the keepers of water – can be the only lasting basis for any civilization’s survival and success.

Capitalism lures us onward like the mechanical hare before the greyhounds, insisting that the economy is infinite and sharing therefore irrelevant. Just enough greyhounds catch a real hare now and then to keep the others running till they drop. In the past it was only the poor who lost this game; now it is the planet.

We should therefore be wary of technological determinism, for it tends to underestimate cultural factors and reduce complex questions of human adaptation to a simplistic “We’re the winners of history, so why didn’t others do what we did?” We call agriculture and civilization “inventions” or “experiments” because that is how they look to hindsight. But they began accidentally, a series of seductive steps down a path leading, for most people, to lives of monotony and toil. Farming achieved quantity at the expense of quality: more food and more people, but seldom better nourishment or better lives. People gave up a broad array of wild foods for a handful of starchy roots and grasses – wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, maize. As we domesticated plants, the plants domesticated us. Without us, they die; and without them, so do we. There is no escape from agriculture except into mass starvation, and it has often led there anyway, with drought and blight. Most people, throughout most of time, have lived on the edge of hunger – and much of the world still does.

The concentration of power at the top of large-scale societies gives the elite a vested interest in the status quo; they continue to prosper in darkening times long after the environment and general populace begin to suffer.

[T]errorism cannot be stopped by addressing symptoms and not the cause. Violence is bred by injustice, poverty, inequality, and other violence. This lesson was learnt very painfully in the first half of the twentieth century, at a cost of some 80 million lives. Of course, a full belly and a fair hearing won’t stop a fanatic; but they can greatly reduce the number who become fanatics.

Archeology is perhaps the best tool we have for looking ahead, because it provides a deep reading of the direction and momentum of our course through time: what we are, where we have come from, and therefore where we are most likely to be going. Unlike written history, which is often highly edited, archeology can uncover the deeds we have forgotten, or have chosen to forget.


The global food crisis

April 18, 2008

My brother-in-law brought to my attention this article on nytimes.com about the global food crisis. Food prices have risen dramatically in the past few months and people in impoverished countries around the world are not getting enough to eat. First of all, reading about this makes me incredibly sad. How can we, as a single global humanity, be allowing so many people around the world to not have one of their most basic human needs be met? Here I am, a comfortable middle-class American, thinking about how my cereal is running low and I better go to the store soon, while people in other countries are starving. Something is not right here. Secondly, it makes me angry at my government and country. The United States consumes a huge amount of resources proportional to the population, produces an extraordinary amount of material items and thus material waste, and the government is not taking global warming seriously. Meanwhile, people around the world are starving as a global food shortage becomes a reality – a shortage that is in fact due in part to global climate changes; I found a good article about that here.

It does not surprise me one bit that there are outbreaks of rioting in the affected countries. People who are starving and desperate are going to do whatever it takes to obtain food. They are justifiably angry at their governments. And yet some of the governments do not seem to be reacting in a productive manner (quoted from the nytimes article):

Last month in Senegal, one of Africa’s oldest and most stable democracies, police in riot gear beat and used tear gas against people protesting high food prices and later raided a television station that broadcast images of the event. Many Senegalese have expressed anger at President Abdoulaye Wade for spending lavishly on roads and five-star hotels for an Islamic summit meeting last month while many people are unable to afford rice or fish.

“If all the people rise, then the government will resolve this,” said Raisa Fikry, 50, whose husband receives a pension equal to about $83 a month, as she shopped for vegetables. “But everyone has to rise together. People get scared. But we will all have to rise together.” It is the kind of talk that has prompted the [Egyptian] government to treat its economic woes as a security threat, dispatching riot forces with a strict warning that anyone who takes to the streets will be dealt with harshly.

Tear gas? A security threat? How sad. Using violence against the rioters is not going to help anything. It is only going to incite more anger, as the people sense that their government is resisting them rather than trying to work with them to solve the crisis. I am far from an expert on how governments can in fact go about addressing this crisis, but I’m pretty sure using violence against the people is not the solution. Niger seems to have the right idea, as activist Moustapha Kadi describes: “So when prices went up this year the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

There is certainly no easy solution to this crisis. But perhaps if we all start from a place of compassion for our fellow humans, we will be able to work together towards a productive and sustainable solution.