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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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.


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.


Book review: Small is Beautiful

May 22, 2009

Note: A substantially similar review is cross-posted at Books and Other Miscellany.

After reading Deep Economy, I wanted something that went into more depth about what a small economy would actually look like, so I turned to the book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E. F. Schumacher. Schumacher was an economist who wrote this book in 1973. Although parts of it were dated, much of his general point is still frighteningly relevant to today. The book is divided in to four sections, titled “The Modern World,” “Resources,” “The Third World,” and “Organization and Ownership.” I had a mixed reaction to the book. When I started it I was initially quite engaged and read quickly through the first section, finding that Schumacher had many insightful observations about economics, growth, and related subjects. When I hit the second section, for some reason it did not initially hold my interest as well – I found that he was too critical of science, for one thing, and his specific discussions of oil, coal, and nuclear power were dated. However, I found his chapter on “Technology with a Human Face” quite illuminating, as the question of whether technology is progress is something I have struggled with. In the third section, Schumacher again grabbed my interest with his discussions of devlopment in third world countries, but he lost it again in the fourth section, which I found too technical and detailed about how exactly organizations and ownership should be structured.

The basic point that Schumacher is making appears right at the beginning, when he points out that economists treat limited resources such as oil and coal as income rather than capital. Essentially, classic economics ignores the fact that these resources are, in fact, limited. Schumacher’s point is that unlimited growth is simply impossible. This seems to be a lesson that we, especially in the United States, still have not learned. From this basic point Schumacher progresses along several paths, but the other aspect that particularly caught my attention is his discussion of work: he looks at the Buddhist attitude towards work, which says that creative work is important to the well-being of people, and that the goal is not to produce as much stuff as possible, but to ensure that as many people as possible are gamefully employed. This is another point that seems to be lost on Western culture, where the goal is only to make the most money, which is usually accomplished by increasing automation and putting people to work doing drudgery rather than meaningful, creative work. Along similar lines, when he discusses third world development, he points out that the third world does not need all the sophisticated technologies of the first world. It makes much more sense to use more basic technologies that require more people-power (and thus employ more people) and less capital than to use the latest technologies that require a great deal of capital but do not provide as much employment for the impoverished citizens.

As I was reading Small is Beautiful, it was easy to become utterly depressed about the current state of affairs. When you take a step back, most of what goes on in the Western world (and now often in the Westernized third world) seems so utterly meaningless. Many people do distasteful, meaningless drudgery each day simply to earn enough money to buy all the stuff that we produce, much of which is useless and does little to increase our happiness or standard of living. If people were the center of our economy rather than money, things would look very different. Imagine if our entire economic system were designed not for continual growth and profits, but rather to ensure that each individual had the following things: shelter, food, clean water, health care, and meaningful, creative work. This seems so unattainable, but I think it is a worthy ideal to keep in mind.

I was surprised to find that E. F. Schumacher actually explicitly discussed peace at a few places in Small is Beautiful. It did not seem out of place, and I do feel that this topic is closely related to that of peace, the most obvious relationship being that wars are frequently about resources. If we used fewer resources, then we would have less of a motivation to go to war. More generally, an economy that is people-focused rather than profit-focused would be more likely to promote peaceful resolution of conflict.

If you are interested in a rational, logical discussion of a different approach to economics, I recommend Small is Beautiful. I think it is an important book that should be read by all economists. Keep in mind that while parts of the book may seem dated or tedious, other parts are quite insightful and relevant.

I wrote down several quotes from the books. Here is a sample:

At present, there can be little doubt that the whole of mankind is in mortal danger, not because we are short of scientific and technological know-how, but because we tend to use it destructively, without wisdom.

What makes us think we need electricity, cement, and steel before we can do anything at all? The really helpful things will not be done from the centre; they cannot be done by big organisations; but they can be done by the people themselves. If we can recover the sense that it is the most natural thing for every person born into this world to use his hands in a productive way and that it is not beyond the wit of man to make this possible, then I think the problem of unemployment will disappear and we shall soon be asking ourselves how we can get all the work done that needs to be done.

No doubt, a price has to be paid for anything worthwhile: to redirect technology so that it serves man instead of destroying him requires primarily an effort of the imagination and an abandonment of fear.

It is of little use trying to suppress terrorism if the production of deadly devices continues to be deemed a legitimate employment of man’s creative powers. Nor can the fight against pollution be successful if the patterns of production and consumption continue to be of a scale, a complexity, and a degree of violence which, as is becoming more and more apparent, do not fit into the laws of the universe, to which man is just as much subject as the rest of creation. Equally, the chance of mitigating the rate of resource depletion or of bringing harmony into the relationships between those in possession of wealth and power and those without is non-existent as long as there is no idea anywhere of enough being good and more-than-enough being evil.


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.


A grassroots campaign for sustainability

July 1, 2008

I’ve been reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, recently, and it has been getting me thinking in particular about locally grown food. I think eating more locally is going to be critical to future sustainability – it just takes too much energy to transport (and keep fresh during the transportation) mass quantities of food, not to mention the energy it takes to grow food in an industrialized manner. Growing food locally allows for (in fact, requires) a single farm to grow diverse crops or raise diverse livestock, which is much more sustainable and, if done right, require far less (possibly none) artificial pesticides and fertilizers (which take energy to make). Go read the book and you will see what I mean; Pollan describes a farm with an incredible amount of symbiosis going on, such that the only thing the farmer has to purchase in order to raise beef cattle, pigs, chickens for eating, and chickens for egg laying, is some chicken feed.

As I was thinking about these things, I remembered a booklet I had picked up at the farmer’s market a few weeks ago from the Boulder County Going Local organization. I flipped through it and found an article about a really awesome grassroots community farm. Called Community Roots, it exists in a suburban community: the farmland consists of several front and back yards of standard suburb houses. You can volunteer your yards for their project and they will farm them for you! I think this is such a cool idea. Although I love lawns, they are really a bit of a waste of energy, especially in a semi-arid climate such as this one – they require watering and mowing and don’t provide anything in return. Turning them into food-producing pieces of land is a great use of space. I am even more thrilled about this community farm because it is only a mile or so from where I live! Unfortunately, I don’t have a yard to contribute, but I am definitely going to look for their booth the next time I go to the farmer’s market. I love the idea of buying food grown so very locally.

The thing I struggle with about trying to eat locally is that produce, the primary thing that it is easy to buy locally, does not make up the majority of my diet (although perhaps it should) – breakfast cereals, bread, milk, eggs, cheese, nut butters, and a variety of canned goods play a large role in my diet as well, and it is not so easy to obtain such things locally. I have bought some cheeses at the farmer’s market, but they are expensive artisan cheeses only, not something I would necessarily want to use for my run-of-the-mill scrambled eggs or burritos. I saw in the booklet I was reading that there is a farm that sells eggs at the farmer’s market, so I will have to look for them. However, I fear that there are still going to be many things I buy at the supermarket for quite a while still.


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.