Friday, 29 April 2022

What Are People For?

Today, economic growth rides roughshod over the earth, devastating the natural environment and sustainable rural economies in the third world and Eastern Europe. Local power over local resources is increasingly swept aside by money power exercised from a distance. Farmers lured into accepting loans, for machinery, fertilisers and ‘improved’ seeds, face falling financial returns from the sale of cash crops grown for export. Centralisation of financial control is not, however, inevitable. As Wendell Berry indicated three decades ago, for practical change to occur it is necessary for ordinary people in their individual localities to take stock of their resources, both in terms of materials and skills, so that we, each and every one of us, cease to participate in the war against nature and society.

"The economics of our communities and households are wrong. We have failed to produce new examples of good home and community economies, and we have nearly completed the destruction of the examples we once had. ...

"My small community in Kentucky has lived and dwindled for at least a century under the influence of four kinds of organisations: governments, corporations, schools, and churches, all of which are controlled from a distance, centralised, and consequently abstract in their concerns. Governments and corporations (except for employees) have no presence in our community at all, which is perhaps fortunate for us, but we nevertheless feel the indifference or the contempt of governments or corporations for communities such as ours. [Here Berry fails to take account of the crucial fact that the global financial system is a constant presence in every community without exception.]

"We have had no school of our own for nearly thirty years. The school system takes our young people, prepares them for 'the world of tomorrow' — which it does not expect to take place in any rural area — and gives back 'expert' (that is, extremely generalised) ideas. We have two churches. But both have been used by their denominations, for almost a century, to provide training and income for student ministers, who do not stay long enough to become disillusioned.

"For a long time, then, the minds that have most influenced our town have not been of the town so have not tried even to perceive, much less to honour, the good possibilities that there are. They have not wondered on what terms a good and conserving life might be lived there. in this my community is not unique but is like almost every other neighbourhood in our country and in the 'developed' world.

"The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet's millions of human and natural neighbourhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one which is in some precious way different from all others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence — that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighbourhoods.

"We must have the sense and the courage, for example, to see that the ability to transport food for hundreds or thousands of miles does not necessarily mean that we are well off. It means that the food supply is more vulnerable and more costly than a local food supply would be. It means that consumers do not control or influence the healthfulness of their food supply and that they are at the mercy of people who have control and influence. It means that, in eating, people are using large quantities of petroleum that other people in another time are almost certain to need.

"We have an economy that depends not on the quality and quantity of necessary goods and services, but on the moods of a few stockbrokers. We believe that democratic freedom can be preserved by people ignorant of the history of democracy and indifferent to the responsibilities of freedom."

So wrote Wendell Berry, legendary farmer poet, in his 1990 book entitled "What Are People For". Very little has changed since he made those observations about the central importance of locality and community wherever we live on the planet. Nevertheless, questions are being raised about the relationship between the Real and the Financial economies. See Blog for 28th April in this series.

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