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.


Pieces of a puzzle

September 17, 2010

Creating a world and culture of peace is like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. In a jigsaw puzzle, each individual piece by itself gives only a glimpse of the picture of which it is a part. It is only when all the pieces interlock together that the whole picture becomes clear. Peace is the same way. We have a general idea of the big picture, but can only imagine what the final result looks like. We catch glimpse of it when two nations resolve a conflict non-violently, when an individual strives to lead a sustainable life in harmony with the earth, when a girl in Africa is able to pursue an education and earn her own income, when a Muslim and a Jew in the Middle East become friends, but it is not until all these pieces come together to form a whole that we will have peace.

It is possible to construct sub-groups among the individual pieces, in both a jigsaw puzzle and the path of creating peace. The natural way to work on a puzzle is to look for pieces with similar markings and put them together to create something larger. In peace, some of the pieces are naturally more related to each other than others, and through looking at these groups we can begin to gain an understanding of what the whole might look like.

The edge of the peace puzzle might be the values on which a culture of peace is based: healthy relationships and communities, cooperation, compassion, and the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings. These values are the container in which actions towards the creation of peace take place. When two neighbors decide to use mediation rather than the adversarial courts, one reason is because they value their relationship. When we push our government to provide social services, it is because we have compassion and believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Another sub-grouping of pieces are the ones focused specifically on building cooperation and addressing our tendency to categorize into “us” and “them”: conflict resolution, bridge-building, and restorative justice. These actions encompass inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogues; story-telling; groups with differences doing cooperative activities together; individuals learning non-violent communication and learning to listen; individuals, groups, and nations resolving conflicts non-violently; and restoring, rather than punishing, people who have caused harms in the community.

Closely linked to the cooperation and conflict sub-group is another group related to education and treatment of children. Our parenting methods and educational systems must teach children the values of peace: cooperation over competition, listening, valuing needs and feelings, compassion for others, and democracy. We must teach children that they are valued as human beings with worth and dignity, and that community and relationships are important. Perhaps most importantly, we must model the behavior we would like our children to learn.

Another crucial sub-group of pieces are social services and basic human rights, the economy, and the environment. Basic human rights include water, food, shelter, health care (including control of one’s reproduction),  education, and dignity. It is crucial to the big picture of peace that our societies, economies, and governments be structured in such a way that all humans are ensured these rights. In order to do so, our economy must be based on measures of health and happiness, not on ever increasing consumption of material goods. Resources must be distributed equitably and created in ways that are sustainable and not using up finite sources. In our economy and our lifestyles we must value community and the inherent worth and dignity of all humans.

Two last pieces each exist in their own sub-group: empowering women and inner peace. It is impossible to believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all humans without recognizing that throughout most of recent history women were not valued with the same worth as men nor afforded the same dignity, and that in creating peace we must take positive actions to reverse these effects. This piece is in fact linked to all the sub-groups I discussed above: we need education that teaches that women are as important as men, social programs targeted towards women (for example, job training and reproductive health care), an economy that values work traditionally labeled women’s work, and bridge-building between women and men.

Finally, there is the piece of inner peace. Although it is up to each individual to find and create it for themselves, many of the pieces I have discussed can help and encourage individuals on their path to inner peace. Conversely, as people reach inner peace, it will be easier and more natural for them to work towards peace through one or more of the actions above.

I am not under any illusion that I have definitively defined all pieces of the puzzle. What else can you think of that contributes to the big picture of peace?

As we work on our individual pieces in the puzzle of peace, let us remember to look as well for where we might fit in to the big picture. Together, and only together, we can create peace.

Is technology progress? (Technology, progress, and peace, Part 1)

January 4, 2009

This will be a two-part series on technology, progress, and peace. In this first part I discuss the general question of whether or not technology is progress.

I struggle with technology. Not because it is difficult for me to understand or use, but because I am not convinced that the ever-progressing technologies of today lead always to a better and better world. As a software engineer, I use technology – in the form of a computer and the internet – every single day. In fact, I write software that runs on computers and is used over the internet. In my personal life, I am becoming increasingly dependent on the internet. I can hardly imagine not having email to communicate instantaneously with friends and family. Whenever I am wondering about something I have Google at my fingertips for instant gratification. I use a cell phone, a dishwasher, a microwave, a hair dryer, a washing machine, a clothes dryer, a refrigerator. Which of these things are progress and which are not? Why is it that to me a refrigerator and a washing machine seem unquestionably to be progress, but a computer and the internet do not? Perhaps it is simply that I am conservative by nature and resist new developments and change? Or perhaps there is something more to my distinctions. I would define something as “progress” if it contributes to our general happiness and well-being. The question is, at what point does one draw the line between something that genuinely makes lives better and something that is simply an unnecessary, perhaps even detrimental, “convenience” that does not noticeably improve the quality of life?

Let’s look closer at some of the technologies and inventions I consider progress. One, without a doubt, is birth control. Birth control freed women from the burden of being unable to control when they had children other than by refraining from sex. As history demonstrates, this made a huge difference in women’s lives. Other technologies that seem to unquestionably be progress include major time-saving devices such as refrigerators and washing machines, which allowed people to spend time pursuing more meaningful activities than chores, and basic communication devices such as the wired telephone and the wireless radio, which allowed people to communicate more effectively across great distances.

On the other hand, one example of something that is in my mind unquestionably NOT progress is the television. One may argue that it allows effective mass communication. While I agree that communication is important, I think the television has overall had a negative impact on our happiness and well-being as a society, as it has helped create the overly consumerist society in which we find ourselves today. Another thing that I do not consider progress is the atomic bomb. It has no value other than to kill people in huge numbers. Earlier weapons, such as the bow and arrow, spears, and perhaps some guns, had value because people used them to kill animals to feed themselves. However, the weapons in modern times have no such value and are not progress.

Finally, there are the things that do not fall neatly on one side or the other, computers and the internet being topmost in my mind. Being dependent on them myself, it is difficult for me to say conclusively that they are not progress, but it is also difficult for me to see ways in which they greatly enhance our general well-being. I am not sure it is of value to be able to have instant gratification for just about any question one might have, to have to do so little work to find an answer. I am not sure the bombardment of news and the bombardment of entertainment is leading to people’s increased happiness. I am not even convinced that the many software programs intended to be educational or to aid with learning add much value in the end (although I work for a company that produces such software). The problems with education in our society are not ones that are going to be fixed by dumping more technology into people’s laps.

The primary aspect of computers and the internet that I think could be considered progress is the increased ability to communicate – not only with people that you would already be in touch with no matter what (your close friends and family), but with people that you would otherwise never know. People living halfway across the world. The internet has made the world a much smaller place. I could have a multi-way discussion with a person living in Thailand, a person living in South Africa, and a person living in Russia. This is, I think, progress. We have a much greater opportunity than ever before to get to know people different from us, and this is the sort of bridge-building connection that can help lead to a more peaceful world.

A major issue that must be considered when thinking about whether technology is progress is the fact that technology distinguishes between social classes. The upper and then middle classes get the new technologies first. Poor people were still washing their clothes by hand in washtubs long after the wealthy had washing machines. Only after a technology has become deeply entrenched in society does it become just about equally available to all social classes – such as the landline telephone or the refrigerator. Newer technologies are still very much classist. Only the (relatively) wealthy have computers and internet access. There are millions of people in this country (the United States), not to mention in the rest of the world, who do not have a computer or internet. The way in which technology starts with the wealthy and trickles down to the poor can be one way to try to measure progress. If a technology is unquestionably progress, that would mean anyone living without it is living an unquestionably lower quality of life than those with the technology. Looking at things in this light, it is difficult to say whether any technology at all is unquestionably progress. I believe, in fact, that it is entirely possible to live a high-quality, fulfilling life, with very little technology.

Is technology progress? In my short exploration of this question, I have not come to a conclusive answer, nor did I expect to. I do not think there is a clear-cut answer. What technology is considered progress is fluid, dependent on the social context, the use to which the item is put, and the potential increased quality of life, which may vary from one individual to the next.

Part 2 of this series on technology, progress, and peace, in which I discuss the question of “Humanitarian technology?” is here.

Reduce, reduce, reduce

November 6, 2008

I am sick of consumerism. Just plain sick of it. I am tired of living in a country where the measure of the country’s “health” is based on getting people to buy more and more stuff each year. I am sick of being bombarded day in day out by advertising trying to convince me that I will be happier if I have a new car, a new house, the latest cell phone, and countless other unnecessary items. I am sickened by the fact that thousands of factories in impoverished areas spew poisons, ruin the environment and use up our precious resources to produce useless plastic junk that will just end up in a landfill somewhere.

I think people know, deep down, that they are not going to be made happy by their material possessions, but so many people have repressed that knowledge, have convinced themselves and been convinced by advertising that they will be made happy if they buy more, that they are happy now that they own some new product. But if they stop to think they might feel an emptiness, something in them that has not been fulfilled by their constant buying.

Yet it seems like a never-ending vicious cycle. Our economy is built on the concept of producing and consuming. How do we stop that in its tracks, turn it upside down, and demand that the economy be based on something else, such as compassion and treating others fairly?

Colin Beavan of the blog No Impact Man has a good post on “The ridiculousness of relying on ‘market indicators’ to run our planet” last week. At the end he says:

We know that blowing the top off a mountain to get coal and that burning the coal to cause global warming is not good for anyone. We know that putting people to work helping people in the developing world get fresh drinking water is better than making throwaway razors.

Do we really need “free market signals” to tell us that? Why do we need to include externalities in prices before we do what we should? We can’t we just accept that economics are not the be all and end all and just do what is right?

He also had an article at WorldChanging on moving beyond the concept of sustainability. He says we should not just settle for making the same old products in a more sustainable manner, we should look at whether those products are actually contributing to our betterment:

When our measure of sustainability asks only if a given activity is something we can get away with doing — and fails to ask whether that activity is worth doing at all — we fail to see the larger picture.

“Sustainable” implies something can be done, but it says nothing about whether it should be done. It says nothing about whether our precious resources are being used for our betterment.

When we are deciding whether to buy something, we should ask whether the happiness and enjoyment we think it will bring us is worth the resources used in its production.

We will be a happier, healthier people living on a healthier planet if we reduce firstly our consumption and consequently our production of useless, even harmful products and resist the idea that material possessions equal happiness. We need to stop the senseless stream of consumerism that has taken over so many of our lives.