Wendell Berry: “It All Turns on Affection”

By now all thoughtful people have begun to feel our eligibility to be instructed by ecological disaster and mortal need. But we endangered ourselves first of all by dismissing affection as an honourable and necessary motive.

Our decision in the middle of the last century to reduce the farm population, eliminating the allegedly inefficient small farmers was enabled by the discounting of affection. As a result, we now have barely enough farmers to keep the land in production with the help of increasingly expensive industrial technology and at an increasingly ecological and social cost.

Wendell Berry is known to many of us in many ways, whether as farmer, poet, novelist, essayist or land activist. I recommend taking the time to listen to his no-holds-barred Jefferson Lecture, in which he urges us to restore affection – for our land, neighbours and community – in order to attend to matters crucial for human survival.

The lecture is a powerful and compassionate analysis of our times. Such words as these struck me:

Now the two great aims of the industrialism, the replacement of people with technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy, seem close to fulfillment. At the same time, the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny.

Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighbourhoods, families, small businesses and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to sustain the health and wealth of nature.

And these:

The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy certainly cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by liberal or conservative tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, home-making and frugality can have no standing.

The possibility of authentic correction comes I think from two already evident causes.The first is scarcity, and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land community.

A positive cause still little noticed by high officials and the media is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose to the extent possible is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighbourhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection and all else, including enough food, that neighbourhood implies.

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