Thursday, May 22, 2008

Current Light Reading: Wendell Berry on Limits and limitlessness

We now have less than one month to go to "Blackoutsabbath." Hopefully, you're gearing up for this day of voluntary self-limitation. In case you haven't been following my (admittedly sporadic) coverage of this event, know that on this day (Saturday, June 21) we are voluntarily turning off all of our electricity/electricity-consuming items for the space of 12 hours, from 12 noon to 12 midnight, and then using this time to contemplate what we can do in the upcoming year in support of our Earth.

With Blackoutsabbath on my mind, it was fortuitous that I happened upon an essay by Wendell Berry in the May 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine titled "Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits." The basic thesis of Berry's article is that we (Homo sapiens) are seriously mistaken in assuming we can continue full tilt, without limitation. The development of the modern world has been an experiment based on the hypothesis of "limitlessness," and it's being falsified, in a big way. Essentially, we have made a "Faustian" bargain: Like Doctor Faustus, we have made a bargain with the devil -- obtain (seemingly) endless knowledge and power in exchange for our souls -- and, in all likelihood, our planet.

Berry's basic argument is not new, but rather one that serious environmentalists have put forth at least since Thoreau voiced his reverberating motto "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" Humans, as part of the Terran ecosystem, are by nature limited. Limitlessness is a dream and a delusion. It's like a baby magically thinking that his cry creates the bottle at his lips. The sooner we learn to recognize, appreciate and work within our natural limits, the better. Berry does a nice job of bringing forth this biological fact, and also tying it into the essence of the great spiritual and religious traditions of humanity.

A few quotes will help illustrate his points.
Our national faith so far has been: "There's always more." Our religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine.

Berry characterizes our economy as "predatory." (A very apt term, I think.) When questioned by several young veterinarians about whether they, as [animal and farmer] healthcare providers could practice without serious economic damage to their clients, Berry responded:

No. And that is because there is an absolute discontinuity between the economy of the seller of medicines and the economy of the buyer, as there is in the health industry as a whole. The drug industry is interested in the survival of patients, we have to suppose, because surviving patients will continue to consume drugs.

The predatory economy idea may be sort of ancillary to Berry's main point, but his notion is that it is our fantasy of limitlessness that makes this sort of economy plausible and acceptable. Getting back to the core idea of limits, Berry writes:

I know that the idea of such limitations will horrify some people, maybe most people, for we have long encouraged ourselves to feel at home on "the cutting edges" of knowledge and power or on some "frontier" of human experience. But I know too that we are talking now in the presence of much evidence that improvement by outward expansion may no longer be a good idea, if it ever was.

I know some people are horrified by the idea of doing without any electricity for a mere 12 hours! Nevermind that humanity survived for millenia without it.

What Berry proposes instead is voluntary self-limitation, preferably before Mother Earth enforces harsher austerities:
To deal with the problems, which after all are inescapable, of living with limited intelligence in a limited world, I suggest that we may have to remove some of the emphasis we have lately placed on science and technology and have a new look at the arts. For an art does not propose to enlarge itself by limitless extension but rather to enrich itself within bounds that are accepted prior to the work.

I love this bit about the arts. He says more, but for brevity's sake, I'll refer you to his essay. Berry concludes with this advice:
... we will have to re-examine the economic structure of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and best of what we have.

Voluntary self-limitation makes perfect sense, especially in this inflationary time. Being "green," or helping the Earth shouldn't cost more money. It should cost less. If not, you are doing something wrong. Re-examine. More on that topic later. In the meantime, check out Berry's thought-provoking essay: Harper's Magazine, May 2008. Read it online here, or try to find it at the library, or borrow it from a friend.

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