From The Herald-Leader, May 3, 2004
Wendell Berry: People can't survive if land is dead
Since the beginning of the conservation effort in our country, conservationists have too often believed that we could protect the land without protecting the people. This is changing now, and I am proud that some of my fellow Kentuckians are leading the way.
But for a while yet, we will have to reckon with the old assumption that we can preserve the natural world by protecting wilderness areas while we neglect or destroy the economic landscapes and the people who use them.
That assumption is still entrenched in the conservation movement, and understandably so in view of the worsening threats to wilderness areas, but it is wrong. If conservationists hope to save even the wild lands and wild creatures, they are going to have to address issues of economy, which is to say issues of the health of the landscapes and the towns and cities where we do our work, and the quality of that work, and the well-being of the people who do that work.
Governments seem to be making the opposite error, believing that the people can be adequately protected without protecting the land. Sooner or later, governments will have to recognize that if the land does not prosper, nothing else can prosper for very long. We can have no industry or trade or wealth or security if we don't uphold the health of the land and the people and the people's work.
It is merely a fact that the land, here and everywhere, is suffering. We have the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico and undrinkable water to attest to the toxicity of our agriculture. We know that we are carelessly and wastefully logging our forests. We know that soil erosion, air and water pollution, urban sprawl, the proliferation of highways and garbage are making our lives always less pleasant, less healthful, less suitable and our dwelling places more ugly.
Nearly 40 years ago, our state government began an effort to regulate strip mining. While that effort has continued and has imposed certain requirements of reclamation, strip mining has become steadily more destructive of the land and the land's future. We are now permitting the destruction of entire mountains and entire watersheds.
No war, so far, has done such extensive or such permanent damage. If we know that coal is an exhaustible resource, whereas the forests over it are, with proper use, inexhaustible, and that strip mining destroys the forest virtually forever, how can we permit this destruction? If we honor at all that fragile creature the topsoil, so long in the making, so miraculously made, so indispensable to all life, how can we destroy it?
If we believe, as so many of us profess to do, that the whole Earth is God's property and is full of his glory, how can we do harm to any part of it?
In other parts of our state, and again at great public cost, we have allowed the establishment of the confined animal feeding industry, which exploits and abuses everything involved: the land, the people, the animals and the consumers. If we love our country, as so many of us profess to do, how can we so desecrate it?
But the economic damage is not confined just to our farms and forests. For the sake of job creation, we have given public money to corporations such as Sykes Enterprises to come in and stay only so long as they can exploit people here more cheaply than elsewhere.
Can we actually suppose that we are wasting, polluting and making ugly this beautiful land for the sake of patriotism and in the name of God? Perhaps some of us would like to think so, but in fact this great destruction is taking place because we have allowed ourselves to believe, and to live, a mated pair of economic lies: that nothing has a value that is not assigned to it by the market and that the economic life of our communities can safely be handed over to corporations.
We citizens have a large responsibility for our delusion and our destructiveness, and I don't want to minimize that. But I don't want to minimize, either, the large responsibility that is borne by government.
It is commonly understood that governments are institutes to provide certain protections that citizens individually cannot provide for themselves. But governments have tended to assume that this responsibility can be fulfilled mainly by the police and the military. They have used their economic and regulatory powers reluctantly and often poorly. Our governments have only occasionally recognized the need of land and people to be protected against economic violence.
It is true that economic violence is not always as swift, and is rarely as bloody, as the violence of war, but it can be devastating nonetheless. Acts of economic aggression can destroy a landscape or a community or the center of a town or city, and they routinely do so.
This sort of economic behavior is justified by its political abettors as freedom, but it is a freedom that makes greed the dominant economic virtue, and it destroys the freedom of other people along with their communities and livelihoods.
There are such things as economic weapons of massive destruction. We have allowed them to be used against us, not just by public submission, governmental connivance and regulatory malfeasance, but also by public subsidies, incentives and sufferances impossible to justify.
It appears, in short, that we have fallen into the habit of compromising on issues that should not, and in fact cannot, be compromised. I have an idea that a large number of us, including even a large number of politicians, believe that it is wrong to destroy the Earth. But we have powerful political opponents who insist that an Earth-destroying economy is justified by profit. And so we compromise by agreeing to permit the destruction only of parts of the Earth, or to permit the Earth to be destroyed a little at a time -- like the famous pig that was too valuable to eat all at once.
The logic of this sort of compromising is clear, and it is clearly fatal. If you become economically dependent on destroying parts of the Earth, then eventually you must destroy it all.