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.


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.