Book Report: The Unsettling of America


In The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Wendell Berry strings together a series of essays touching on the state of the culture in 1977 as it related to agriculture, the environment, energy use, and even the human body. After hearing many farmers and other agriculturally-minded folks reference Wendell Berry as a major influence, I decided it was time to go back to the source and see what I could glean firsthand. Instead of going online and ordering a book from a major retailer, I just started keeping an eye out for Berry in the many used bookstores I seem incapable of avoiding. Finally, at The Dawn Treader in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they had one book in stock, and this was it. It seems people don't get rid of Berry very lightly. In looking at Berry's bibliography, I didn't exactly start at the beginning in terms of his agrarian writing. I approached the book, however, as a long, well-written postcard from the nascent sustainable farming movement as it was in 1977. Thirty-five years later, some chapters resonate more than ever, while some of his social philosophy is in need of a 21st Century update. Ignoring his diatribes about birth control and the importance of the marriage bed, I'd like to go into some of the things I found more relevant than ever.

First, his insistence on the need for good farming rings more true than ever. A few days ago, I posted this excerpt on Berry's ideal farm. My feeling upon reading that passage for the first time was "I couldn't have said it better myself." His insistence that the diversified farm is the healthiest farm is something that I feel is somewhat lacking in today's sustainable farming movement. To be fair, it seems extremely difficult to run a diversified farm profitably. For each enterprise to be big enough to make sense financially, a diversified farm requires more than one or two dedicated farmers. He further goes into the political and agro-academic pressure for farmers to "get big or get out" that has resulted in fewer and fewer farmers every year farming more and more land in monoculture systems. While the tide is starting to turn in some corners of agricultural academia, he makes the still-valid point that research and development in farm technology and farm machinery has so far been focusing on removing as many humans from farming as possible, ignoring almost entirely tools that would make farming on a smaller (human) scale easier for the modern farm family without mortgaging it to the hilt.

Another still-relevant point that Berry makes is the inescapable impact one's choices have on the earth:

" matter how general may be a person's attitude towards the world, his impact upon it must become tangible at some point. Sooner or later on his behalf - whether he approves or understands or not - a strip-miner's bulldozer tears into a mountainside, a stand of trees is clear-cut, a gully washes through a cornfield.
    The conservation movement has never resolved this dilemma. It has never faced it. Until very recently - until pollution and strip-mining became critical issues - conservationists divided the country into land they wished to preserve and enjoy (the wilderness areas) and that which they consigned to use by other people. With the increase of pollution and mining, their interest has become two-branched, to include, along with the pristine, the critically abused. At present the issue of use is still in its beginning.
    Because of this, the mentality of conservation is divided, and disaster is implicit in its division. It is divided between intentional protection of some places and some aspects of "the environment" and its inadvertent destruction of others. It is either vacation-oriented or crisis-oriented. For the most part, it is not yet sensitive to the impact of daily living upon the sources of daily life. The typical present-day conservationist will fight to preserve what he enjoys; he will fight whatever directly threatens his health; he will oppose any ecological violence large or dramatic enough to attract his attention. But he has not yet worried much about the impact of his own livelihood, habits, pleasures, or appetites. He has not, in short, addressed himself to the problem of use. He does not have a definition of his relationship to the world that is sufficiently elaborate and exact." (pp. 27-28)

In the 35 years since Berry characterized conversationists, some things has changed in the environmentalist movement: pollution and strip-mining continue to be problems, but global warming, fossil fuel dependency, and fracking have replaced them as the "large and dramatic" issues of the day. We have become more aware about the everyday "problem of use," but few of us have done much in the way of major change. Just as in 1977, there are select few of us living "off the grid," creating our own fuel and food. There is a certain portion of highly educated liberals who have made a series of small lifestyle changes: reusable bags, water bottles and coffee mugs; energy efficient light bulbs and appliances; hybrid cars; compost bins, rain barrels and even shares in a local CSA. But cumulatively, a small segment of Americans making small lifestyle changes doesn't add up to much progress toward the hyper-awareness of our relationship with the world that Berry idealizes. At the same time, I don't think this same segment of people is entirely ignorant of their impact on the earth. They are too comfortable in their "livelihood, habits, pleasures [and] appetites" to make any drastic changes, and so comfort themselves with these small changes, for which they are in turn rewarded with cultural capital from their own set. Right now, though, the vast majority of Americans live just as Berry describes us 35 years ago, without a thought for our very real and tangible impact on the earth. I certainly don't know how to change that, and people far more powerful than I have tried.

Overall, I enjoyed Berry's writing style, which made even the most dated portions of the book worth reading. If nothing else, this book provided me a peek into the state of the sustainable agriculture movement ten years before I was born, which adds just a tiny bit more context to every other book I've read on the subject. I'll be seeking more Berry out eventually, working my way through his vast bibliography of essays, books, poetry, and even fiction. The next time I need a literary lift after an agricultural clunker, I know what the antidote will be! In the meantime, I have quite a few books waiting for me on my shelf.

Read this if: you are a Berry completist; you are curious about the way the world looked in 1977; you need a little inspiration to be a better farmer or person in the world.