Home Economics

Wendell Berry, poet farmer

Wendell Berry, poet farmer

Spring is coming and I’m turning (back again) to Wendell Berry. It’s been months (or years – I’m starting to measure time that way – it’s very strange) since I’ve given him any sincere attention. It’s easier, more convenient, not to. He writes so plainly. He makes so much sense. His work is simple, and good, and hard to ignore. I have more Wendell Berry / Dr. Jason Peters guilt than I do raised-up-Lutheran guilt. He’s a less complicated barometer. A barometer I can believe in!

So I’m back to Home Economics, with underlined passages from college freshman year. I don’t have anything profound to say about it; no synthesis of his words into something immediate or more personally meaningful. He does it all himself, and I’m just struggling to figure out what it means, what it should mean, for me. But it feels good.

A passage, from “Two Economies,” on what we include and exclude when measuring value:

It is possible to make a little economy, such as our present one, that is so short-sighted and in which accounting is of so short a term as to give the impression that vices are necessary and practically justifiable. When we make our economy a little wheel turning in opposition to what we call “nature,” then we set up competitiveness as the ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy; we make of it, willy nilly, a virtue. But that competitiveness, as a ruling principal and a virtue, imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control. That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our “wastes” are toxic, and why our “defensive” weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between “free enterprise” and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised?

If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as living within the Great Economy, under the necessity of making our little human economy within it, according to its terms, the smaller wheel turning in sympathy with the greater, receiving its being and its motion from it, then we see that the traditional virtues are necessary and are practically justifiable. Then, because in the Great Economy all transactions count and the account is never “closed,” the ideal changes. We see that we cannot afford maximum profit or power with minimum responsibility because, in the Great Economy, the loser’s losses finally afflict the winner. Now the ideal must be “the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption,” which both defines and requires neighborly love. Competitiveness cannot be the ruling principle, for the Great Economy is not a “side” that we can join nor are there such “sides” within it.

These essays, along with UU church on Sunday, have inspired the following additions to my reading list:

I’m tired of “green,” but land, integrity, and scale feel good.


One thought on “Home Economics

  1. I like scale! Scale = Geography! Another important aspect to this is the conception of “nature” and the danger in separating ourselves as humans from this “outside environment.” Oh Wendell. I am definitely with you on the neglect and guilt! I was just thinking the other day about how I haven’t read him in…why yes, maybe years. Human-environment relations are HUGE in the geog. department here. The department head (an interesting character) is friends with Wes Jackson. In case you want to stay up-to-date with academic buzzwords, the new fad is “resilience” (sustainability is soooooo 2007) Oh, and I have a DELICIOUS RECIPE for quinoa muffins that I have to send you, if I can find it.

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