A pencil rather than a computer

The World-Ending Fire, Wendell Berry, Allen Lane

The Amish have been something of a joke among the non-Amish for many years – examples of backward-looking, technophobic eccentrics who will eventually be eclipsed by modern life. Or so the theory goes, but it is becoming more apparent that the joke is on the rest of us. The Amish are starting to seem like the sensible ones, as they are operating in a manner that is, importantly, among other things, sustainable (that contemporary buzzword).

In a similar fashion, novelist, poet and essayist Wendell Berry has been preaching his brand of back-to-basics philosophy, a mix of what we might crudely call conservative and radical, for decades. A self-described ‘crank’, a critic of technology and the idealism that comes with it, a Kentucky farmer who uses horses instead of a tractor, and a writer who uses a pencil rather than a computer, he has been criticised as an unrealistic Luddite, but the problems of the Western lifestyle that he has articulated for so long are becoming so increasingly obvious, despite the willful blindness of some, that the solutions he proposes, or at least the lifestyle that he advocates, can be the only answer.

It is somewhat depressing to note how long he has been writing on the same subjects. Far beyond the disputed issue of global warming, he has been writing about issues of pollution, extinction, large scale farming, pointless materialistic waste, urban ugliness, the tyranny of corporations and their lackey politicians, and the hollowing out of communities. If this sounds like an indictment of the Right and their followers – and make no mistake, it largely is – he is also a critic of radical causes of the Left that, he says, aren’t radical enough. He is critical of calls for widespread change that eschew personal responsibility, or focus too narrowly on one issue, or end up in self-righteous pontification. And he critiques a modern libertarianism that confuses freedom with individualism, at the expense of tradition, culture and family.

Berry is a conservationist, but for the places where people live, and this book collects decades of essays that amount to, as he says, more-or-less one argument: we depend on nature, which is not something that can be sealed off in order to be preserved. A national park, good in itself, surely, does unfortunately give the impression that we have to reserve pristine countryside as a trade-off for the ability to inevitably pollute and exploit the countryside where human beings live. The hopeful side of Berry’s prophetic writings is that he insists human beings can, have and must live in harmony with their surroundings. Nature is something with which human beings must interact with reverence and care. We must be able to produce food and shelter, in our local communities and in a way that means our descendants will be able to do the same. He is a critic of an economy based on false premises. He criticises economics where economic rationalisations are the final arbiters. He is critical of agribusiness that is reliant on long-distance fossil-fuelled transportation, of quick fix chemicals, of the myth of endless growth, of profit and greed ‘debited to the future’. He doesn’t blindly reject technology, but proposes a more sceptical approach: asking if the technology is necessary, and environmentally sound.

There are alternatives. Unfortunately, they involve hard work, giving up particular pleasures, recognising that our present Western lifestyle is unsustainable. I say ‘unfortunately’, but part of Berry’s point is that a return to slower, more local, more meaningful ways of doing things actually increases our health and wellbeing.

It is an insight that is being recognised in the West; in pockets, unfortunately not widely enough, but it is there nevertheless, in unlikely places such as inner suburbs where recycling, growing your own vegies, buying less, appreciating craft rather than mass-produced junk, are embraced. Berry agrees that change begins at home, that too often movements based on ideology become wayward and dictatorial. That if we are to have hope for the future, we must start with ourselves. And starting with ourselves, we need to look to our neighbours to collaborate with, and to counter the individualism and sense of hopelessness in the face of enormity that modern society presents.

(A shorter version of this review appears in the August issue of Crosslight magazine.)

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