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.

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U.S. Department of Peace

June 11, 2008

This evening I attended a meeting of a local group working on the campaign for a U.S. Department of Peace. There is currently a bill before the House of Representatives to create such a department, which would “augment our current problem-solving options, providing practical, nonviolent solutions to the problems of domestic and international conflict.” The following excerpt from the website summarizes some of the key things this department would do:

The Benefits: International

The Department of Peace will:

  • Advise the President, the Secretaries of Defense and State, and others on root causes of violence, plus practical ways to dismantle violence while still in a formative phase
  • Support the military by:
    • Providing cultural, ethnic and psychologically insightful information, education and technology
    • Offering practical skills (conflict resolution techniques, and the like) for the amelioration of violence among adversarial factions
    • Administer the training and support of civilian peacekeepers to participate in multinational nonviolent peace forces

The Benefits: Domestic

The Department of Peace will:

  • Develop field-tested educational programs promoting conflict-resolution and peer mediation among school-age children
  • Provide violence-prevention programs addressing domestic violence, gang violence, drug and alcohol-related violence, and the like
  • Provide much-needed assistance for the efforts of city, county, and state governments in coordinating existing programs in their own communities, as well as programs newly developed and provided by the Dept. of Peace

Another thing the bill would do is establish a U.S. Peace Academy, which would be sister organization to the U.S. Military Academy.

I think that a Department of Peace is an important and necessary thing that should exist in our government. We spend so much time, money and effort on war in this country, without spending similar effort (and time and money) on working productively towards peaceful solutions to conflict. War is not a long-term solution and it is time we started turning some efforts towards other options. I am not just anti-war, I am pro-peace, and I think a Department of Peace is important in progressing beyond the anti-war mentality. We need to be constructive and creative about exploring peaceful solutions to conflict, and the existence of such a department would send a strong message that the United States is committed to doing this.

It turns out that there is already something called the U.S. Institute of Peace, which receives funding from Congress. However, the power of this organization is limited. Having it be a cabinet-level position is important for visibility, to act as an umbrella organization for many existing pro-peace and anti-violence organizations, and to have the power and authority to advise the President. In addition, the existing institute only addresses international issues, while the proposed Department of Peace would address domestic issues as well.

I am convinced that the Department of Peace is an important thing to work on, but I am not sure of what my role in this can be. I have never done anything related to politics, campaigning, or lobbying before, and I’m not sure it is something I am cut out for. However, it was inspiring to be with other people who think peace is as important as I do, so I plan to continue going to the meetings and getting involved as feels appropriate for now.


Article: The Defining Moment for Climate Change

May 11, 2008

The Defining Moment for Climate Change is an excellent article. It does not beat around the bush, or try to make the actions we need to take sound easier than they are. It simply states the cold, hard facts. If we want civilization to continue as we know it, we need to decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to a maximum of 350 parts per million now. This is not going to be easy, but there is still hope. We can still make choices that will help do this, instead of work against it. To help make people aware of the importance of this, the author of the article, Bill McKibben, has started a grassroots movement at 350.org.