Wendell Berry on Faustian Economics

Wendell Berry’s article in the May Harper’s is out from behind the paywall. It’s a really interesting attempt to take moderns to task for their conflation of freedom with limitlessness and infinite progress. (My Metafilter post on Wendell Berry is the most popular thing I’ve ever done there, so go check it out if you don’t know who he is.) He takes the current economic slowdown as his springboard for a consideration of the problem of limits and limitless, and comes to some fairly standard Berry-iffic conclusions about appropriate technology and existential sustainability (which is part-and-parcel of environmental sustainability.)

To recover from our disease of limitlessness, we will have to give up the idea that we have a right to be godlike animals, that we are potentially omniscient and omnipotent, ready to discover “the secret of the universe.” We will have to start over, with a different and much older premise: the naturalness and, for creatures of limited intelligence, the necessity, of limits. We must learn again to ask how we can make the most of what we are, what we have, what we have been given. If we always have a theoretically better substitute available from somebody or someplace else, we will never make the most of anything. It is hard to make the most of one life. If we each had two lives, we would not make much of either.

Berry’s work is very close to the Heideggerian Deep Ecology movement, and so it’s worth reading him just to see how romantic environmentalism and localism remains a flourishing branch of our culture. My reflections on his reflections after the jump. I find Berry persuasive on particular issues like marriage. The lifestyle he espouses is seductive, though mostly at odds with the one I’ve chosen. However, I suspect that his arguments against technological and economic growth in the name of defending essential human needs are dangerously elitist and unjust. Agricultural communities require certain sorts of divisions of labor that are both anti-egalitarian and highly stratified. Serfdom is worse than working in an office cubicle, even if they both suck.

He’s not wrong, though: unlimited growth is also dangerously elitist and unjust. I’ve been doing some work lately on bubbles and the effects of the financial sector, insurance, and real estate on the American economy, and it’s certainly the case that our collective ambition can be very detrimental to egalitarian values. I’m not going to try to summarize it all here, but in short, some forms of ‘wealth creation’ are actually disguised appropriations, and some forms of economic growth are merely inflationary. My post about Elizabeth Warren’s lecture pretty much frames the issue: despite all the economic growth of the last two decades, the middle class is substantially worse off than it was twenty-five years ago. We’re working harder and harder just to stay in place.

That said, the escape clause to our Faustian bargain had better not be another back-to-the-land movement. That’s no more sustainable, though the real limit is population, which requires the efficiency gains of urban life and industrial agriculture to survive. With peak oil talk taking hold, there’s an awful lot of economic anxiety and apocalyptic fantasy going around. But that’s for fantasists. We’re making decisions, right now, to trade food for oil, and that’s something we should rectify. “Appropriate technologists” and simple pragmatists like myself can agree that that’s a bad deal, even if we don’t agree on what the ‘proper’ human essence is or if such an idea is even coherent. High food prices mean the poor starve. Generally, women and children die first in such situations. Premature morbidity is not a term that many existentialist are comfortable with, for obvious reasons (it suggests a problematic being-towards-death,) but it’s the proper measure of severe injustice.

Second Opinions