The contemporary agrarian thought of Wendell Berry, Alan Carson, and others seeks to discredit modern industry, capitalist economics, and even technology for reducing humans to cogs in a machine, a means to a quick profit, and to a destructive end. Berry, in particular, champions the idea of the local economy, and of a symbiotic relationship between humanity and the natural environment. For Berry, life must be reduced in scale if it is to be lived properly. Men and women must return to the soil to learn once again what it is to use and not abuse what God has given them.
The argument has a subtle appeal for anyone who claims a rural upbringing. Berry’s emphasis on the mystery that is God holds a doubly subtle appeal for a Christian of certain ilk. In “The Agrarian Standard,” Berry says,
If we believed that the existence of the world is rooted in mystery and in sanctity, then we would have a different economy. It would still be an economy of use, necessarily, but it would be an economy also of return.
But for Berry, the double-sided economy of use and return—an economy built on principles of stewardship—can only unfold within the context of the local:
Agrarian farmers see, accept, and live within their limits. They understand and agree to the proposition that there is “this much and no more…” This is the understanding that induces thrift, family coherence, neighborliness, local economies.
Accepting human limitation before the face of a transcendent, mysterious God. Thus, the appeal. (Cf. Berry in “The Idea of the Local Economy“).
My first nineteen years were spent living on my parents’ farm, an experience which I value. There are a number of times that I could recount here that left deep impressions on a little boy’s thoughts of life, love, and liberty, and everything else besides. I remember working side by side with my father, brother, uncle, and grandfather late in the afternoon on a summer’s day to bring in the rest of the straw as rain clouds moved in quickly from the east. The pace we worked at was quick, the clouds loomed ever-larger, and I distinctly remember my surprise when I realized that my father wasn’t worried or frustrated in the slightest. He had other things on his mind, a view of a bigger picture. There was more at stake than a little straw: the corn needed moisture. The moral of the story: life is bigger than any one of us, and it is ultimately beyond our control.
Proponents of contemporary agrarianism point out that their ideas about a return to the soil are not a novel response to the extravagances of modern western civilization, but find precursors in many historical periods. The problem is a perennial one. History has not taught us well. The mid-second century B.C. agrarian reforms proposed by Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus were intended to address social problems faced by the late Roman Republic. These two men recognized that the past strength of the Republic had been built on the small, land-owning farmer-soldier. Many of these men, however, had been dispossessed, the land swallowed up by latifundia—large plantations worked by slaves. Their solution was to resurrect an old law barring any Roman from owning more than 312 acres and to redistribute the excess.
We shall never know what beneficial results might have come from the Gracchan reforms. Both brothers met untimely deaths at the hands of a senatorial class with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The Gracchi’s agrarian ideas died with them. Less than a century later, Julius Caesar would lay the foundation on which his adopted son, Augustus, would build an empire.
Agrarians will cringe at “empire,” too. Empires, they would say, sap the strength of the citizenry. Simply through expansion the Roman Republic outgrew the farmer-soldier, who made up the loyal core of the army. The farmer-soldier became impractical as fields lay unused for years while their owners were defending increasingly distant borders against the incursions of barbarian tribes.
Agrarians might find telling parallels between the Roman Empire with modern industry. The two are comparable because both transcend the local. Berry notes, “Industrial humans relate themselves to the world and its creatures by fairly direct acts of violence”—his way of discrediting modern industry entirely as a basis of civilization—while Rome became an empire through conquest.
In contemporary discourse it is not kosher to speak of the blessings of empire. A century ago people proclaimed the civilizing blessings of the glorious British Empire upon which the sun never set. Today, colonization per se has come under heavy fire for implicitly condoning violence done to indigenous, local cultures behind the guise of the blessings of civilization.
It has become very difficult to speak of the blessing of empire—as difficult as it is for Berry to speak of the blessings of industry. Herein lies a problem. First, there is a practical aspect to consider. Last week Wilma van der Leek brought Wendell Berry together with Max Weber to lament the demise of the family farm. She writes:
We all need to think ‘little,’ be willing to pay the local farm a fair price, reconsider the value of physical labour, and reduce waste. We all must tame our desires to the scale of the earth for there is simply no dependable safety founded on greed, ignorance and waste.
Taken at face value, each of us should affirm the need to steward our resources wisely. Most people would recognize the value of things local.
It is possible, however, to over-emphasize the value of things local. My father, who was interviewed for Ms. Van der Leek’s article, reflected on Berry’s perspective, saying, “It sounds like an argument for every farmer having two sheep on their little hill. Today, that won’t feed world.”
Cities rely on food imports to feed their populations. Even if every square inch of available space were cultivated for growing vegetables and the like—agrarianism applied to an urban setting—a city could not sustain itself. Encouraging urban dwellers to grow food in their own gardens is not a bad idea. But, proposing to do away with infrastructure that transcends localities is potentially urban suicide.
There is the moral aspect. Giving farmers a fair price, recognizing the value of physical labour, and reducing waste are important. Affirming the dignity of human life and the inherent value of a person’s work are a must for any Christian who thinks seriously about the shape of a faithful, Christian response to culture. These considerations all form part of the cultural mandate to cultivate and care for God’s creation. It remains for human beings to cultivate what transcends the local economy. Unfortunately, Berry identifies this reality with the abuses of modern industry.
There is also a historical point to consider. The blessings of economy that transcend the local are evident in improvements to quality of life, medical innovations, and ready availability of the life’s daily necessities. These blessings have been gained through much human pain and suffering. This entails a responsibility to our fellow human beings, but it does not make them blessings any less.
Finally, there is a theological point to be made. Berry appears to locate the source of evil in any social configuration that transcends the local. The Bible locates the source of evil in the human heart itself. As a philosopher once wrote in response to the question:
“What is wrong with the world?”
“I am. Yours truly, G.K. Chesterton.”
Seen through this lens, modern industry and the trans-local reality it represents is not inherently evil, as Berry would have it, but an area of human activity problematized by the Fall into sin.
Some might claim that this is the meaning Berry intends for his readers to take from his work. But even if this were the case, we would still be forced to ask why he did not say so himself.
The Apostle Paul says that Christ came in the fullness of time. The meaning we can draw from this is that the world had been prepared for his coming. Ultimately, it is in Christ that we consider the blessings of industry and empire. Historians point to the presence of a single political authority in the Mediterranean region, that built roads and kept them free of robber bands, and that aided in the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. So much so that if the Romans were not in power, Christianity might have been born into Judean obscurity.
The Roman Empire was not a blessing, but there were blessings nevertheless to be found within it. The same can be said about modern industry. By valuing local economies to the extent of insisting that industry must be done away with, Berry risks unnecessarily turning off so many involved in agri-industry with his arguments. I take the spirit of agrarianism to be a critique of an overgrown industrial world obsessed with profit as its chief end, and a recognition of human limitation.
But Berry’s agrarian solution found in local economies as a response to the mystery of God doesn’t satisfy. He wants to quash what is a natural response to mystery: exploration, discovery, and, even, creativity. God will forever remain a mystery. His creation carries within it so much potential.
The independent farmer, a steward of a limited amount for God-given resources—of lands, of crops and animals, and of a finite number of hours in the working day, is not an ideal to be sought after: “Enough is enough. Don’t bother trying to keep up with the Joneses. They probably don’t know where they are going either.” No, the independent farmer is a reminder that each and every one of us is to steward—to cultivate and care for—wisely the limited means God has given us. To do otherwise is folly.