Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wisdom vs. Progress

This vintage interview, circa 1973, just came whizzing through my RSS feed from Mother Earth News. It's with Wendell Berry, the Port Royal, Kentucky author, farmer, and activist. I am not as familiar with Berry's work as I *should* be- I say that based on both his reputation and the few items he's written that I have had the opportunity to enjoy. The interview itself is quite remarkable, and touches on some themes that I found noteworthy enough to comment on here. He is deeply critical of modern America, to the point of sounding nearly old-fashioned. It seems clear, though, that he isn't coming from a reactionary desire to return to the days of yore, but is instead commenting on the rather impatient nature of progress unmoored from the rhythms and cycles of life. The value of devotion to a task, for instance, is presented as a lost tradition- replaced by an unquenched desire for instant gratification and quick fixes.

I think that this is a particularly important criticism to spend time with, and to differentiate between what this critique of modernity is and is not. The attitude expressed in this interview, and echoed throughout the food and agriculture reform movement today, is sometimes written off as romantic and Luddite- more concerned with form at the expense of function. That is not what I hear as I read through this interview, it isn't what I hear in the voices that have come to represent those of us interested in a safe and just system of food production, distribution, and consumption.

The advancement of human knowledge is a profound and important task. There can be no mistake about that- this is a changing world, with a changing ecology and constantly changing human societies. Reverting our techniques to those of the days of yore is neither practical or desirable. But advancing knowledge can be done selectively, with wisdom and discrimination. Without attention and systemic thinking, our focus can become monomaniacal, such as trying to produce 180 bushel an acre corn. Certainly, we can engineer incredible technology to boost yield and decrease labor, but is it serving the needs of the land and of society? Are we being mindful of the systemic effect of overproduction of monoculture crops? In the face of a growing health crisis, should our primary focus be on producing commodity crops that form the backbone of highly processed, refined food products that are correlated with metabolic syndrome and obesity?

Slowing down does not mean going into reverse. Taking time to observe- the basis for all scientific inquiry- is not a reactionary suggestion. What do we, as individuals and society, value? Are our current dominant modes of production in sync with these values? We need a bigger lens with which to view these questions, beyond the bottom line and the bottom dollar.

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