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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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.


Every day is Earth Day

April 22, 2010

I did not do anything special for Earth Day today. In fact, I even drove my car this evening, as I do every Thursday evening. I did not feel the need or desire to specially celebrate the earth today because I think about the earth and sustainability every day of the year. I am well aware of the impact of my actions on the earth and I have taken sustainability into account in many deliberate choices about the way I live, including when I will drive somewhere and when I will bicycle somewhere.

Earth Day is perhaps important as a means of consciousness-raising for those people who do not otherwise think much about the impact of their behaviors on the earth. But we must all be reminded of these impacts far more frequently than once a year. Earth Day is not just about taking care of the planet because we think trees are pretty or wild animals are cute. It is about taking care of our home. If the earth goes down, we go down with it. To be more specific, if the climate changes drastically on earth, human civilization as we know it will end. If we continue on our path of massive consumption and little regard for the interconnectedness of all life, we will eventually reach a point at which our civilization can no longer sustain itself and will quickly decline. We must drastically change our ways of living if we do not want to see ourselves, our children, or our grandchildren face massive chaos. So,  make tomorrow Earth Day and the next day as well. Think about how sustainable your behaviors are every day, not just one day a year.


Organization of the week: Edible Front Range

February 22, 2010

In keeping with the spirit of sustainable and local eating, I want to mention today a resource I have used for finding local food producers in the Boulder, Colorado area: the website for the magazine Edible Front Range. Although I prefer to highlight non-profit, non-commercial organizations, I have found the resources on this website useful, so I think it is worth mentioning. Edible Front Range is a “quarterly magazine that celebrates the abundance of local, seasonal food in Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Pueblo and towns in between. Through our magazine, website and events, we seek to connect the people who produce, sell and cook local food with those who care enough to seek it out.” I have found the local resource guide particularly useful; it lists farmers producing dairy, egg, produce, honey, meat, and poultry in various regions of the Front Range, including Boulder. The website also contains articles from the printed magazine, recipes, a list of farmer’s markets, local food events, a bulletin board (which looks mostly unused), and blog posts.

Edible Front Range is part of the nationwide Edible Communities, which has magazines for many regions around the country – check it out, there may be one for where you live!


Organization of the week: Slow Food International

February 15, 2010

To continue along the themes of two books I read recently, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and A Short History of Progress, I want to highlight today the organization Slow Food International. Its goal is “to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. To do that, Slow Food brings together pleasure and responsibility, and makes them inseparable.” Slow Food has several specific ways in which it works towards this goal, including:

All this work is important in promoting a more peaceful and sustainable lifestyle. The Slow Food Manifesto captures this importance. Here is an excerpt, but I highly recommend you read the entire thing:

In the name of productivity, Fast Life has changed our way of being and threatens our environment and our landscapes. So Slow Food is now the only truly progressive answer.

There are branches of Slow Food International in many countries, at both the national and more local levels. You can search for organizations in your country here. I recommend checking out the Slow Food International website, as it contains a wealth of information.


Book review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

February 13, 2010

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

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver, may be a memoir, but it is far from light reading. Phew. I thought I was familiar with all the horrors of the food industry from having read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really makes it hit home. It is the story of how Kingsolver and her family embark on a year of growing and raising almost all of their own food, and obtaining the rest from as local as possible sources. They are lucky enough to own a farm in Virginia, and thus had the setting to make such an experiment work. Along the way, they comment on many of the ironies and horrific practices of the food industry. Despite the at times depressing content, the book is wonderfully well-written, with plenty of humor and entertaining passages. I recommend it! If you want to know more about the content of the book and my reflections on what I can do differently, read on.

Barbara Kingsolver and her husband and daughter make the eloquent point that we Americans have become extremely detached from the very thing that sustains us, and that there is much to be gained in rediscovering food from the source. One thing that I had thought about before but had never quite sunk in was how very strange it is for it to be snowing outside but to be able to go to the grocery store and buy fresh lettuce. Our industrialized food system has removed from us the need to know when different fruits and vegetables are in season; fresh fruits and vegetables of all sorts are transported from all over the world to allow us to have things like fresh lettuce in January in Colorado. The enormous environmental impact of this process of moving food around (not to mention the conventional methods of growing the produce, with oil-based fertilizers and pesticides) is highly ignored in our society. As Kingsolver says, “The conspicuous consumption of limited resources has yet to be accepted widely as a spiritual error, or even bad manners.”

Kingsolver goes beyond the lower environmental impact of eating locally, however. Going into their experiment, her family anticipated deprivation, as many people would: no peaches in April, no lettuce in January, etc. However, they discovered that the pleasures of eating fresh produce in season far surpassed the deprivations. Asparagus grown locally and eaten fresh in April tastes far better than asparagus grown halfway across the country in January (note, I did in fact see asparagus at the grocery store the other day, and I was not tempted to buy any). Winter was not a deprivation either: they canned tomatoes and froze many other vegetables and fruit when they were fresh, to eat all winter along with winter squashes and root vegetables that they stored in their root cellar. Furthermore, many of the fruits and vegetables they grew were heirloom breeds that are not found in the conventional grocery stores, and which have much greater variety and more flavorful taste than the ones that have been bred for the industrialized processes. Kingsolver makes a passionate and compelling case for cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients and reconnecting to the source of our sustenance.

So, am I going to make changes in my eating habits after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle? I find that thinking about doing so is a little overwhelming. It is a far from easy thing to do, because the impact of continuing to buy non-local and conventionally-grown food is not tangible. I know, intellectually, that it is having a negative impact that I do not like, but it is easy to disconnect my knowledge of that from my actions and continue to buy that broccoli in January that was grown conventionally in California – in fact, it takes a purposeful effort to make the connection and change my habits because of it. Furthermore, it is difficult to get good information about how sustainably grown something actually was. I know, especially from reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, that the big industrial organic companies are sometimes only marginally better than conventional ones – and that they continue to push for loosening of the organic rules.

Kingsolver does point out, thankfully, that the middle of winter is probably not the right time to start thinking about eating more locally. She is right. My town has a fabulous farmer’s market that runs from the beginning of April through the end of October. I do make an effort to buy much of my produce from the farmer’s market during those months, although I don’t succeed 100%. I am thinking that this year perhaps I should try freezing more fruits and vegetables from the farmer’s market for use during the winter. Canning scares me (and I don’t have the equipment for it), but freezing is simple and, although my freezer is not that big, currently it is usually not very full. I would also like to stock up on locally grown winter squashes and root vegetables in the fall, but I am not sure I have the proper place to store them long-term, that would be the right temperature and humidity. The final change I am thinking about looking into is a local source for milk and eggs. We eat a lot of both and it seems so illogical to transport them great distances (and, I would much prefer to know that they came from free-range cows and hens raised and treated in a sustainable and humane manner).

A final thought on changing my habits: I am going to make an effort not to feel guilty, but to just remain aware of things and make changes in one area at a time when it feels doable. So many factors in the structure of our society are against eating locally and sustainably, so it takes more effort and time, at least initially, than just going to Safeway and buying anything I want. I only have so much time and effort, so I can only do so much. The most important thing that I must remind myself, the reason that the effort is worth making and the time worth spending, is that we are talking about what we put in to our bodies. Food is the very core of our existence and we should not take it lightly.

I will conclude my ruminations with a little admission. There are three items that I am highly unlikely to give up any time soon, even though I know that they are transported ridiculous distances to get to me: bananas, avocados, and chocolate. I just love them too much.

In case you couldn’t tell, I highly recommend Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. It will definitely make you think, and perhaps make you look at your grocery store a little differently the next time you go.


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.