The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

In Distrust of Movements

I have been pondering about the necessity of get­ting out of movements even movements that have seemed necessary and dear - when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements so readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a “Peace Movement” becomes violent. They often become too specialized. They almost always fail to be radical enough, dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical enough. The movements, which deal with single issues or sin­gle solutions, are bound to fail because they cannot control effects while leaving causes in place.

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil conservation or clean wa­ter or clean air or wilderness preservation or sustain­able agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals may be, they can not be achieved alone.  I am dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the trouble is caused by other peo­ple; they would like to change policy but not behavior.

Let us suppose that we have a Movement for Better Land Use.

What we must do above all, I think, is try to see the problem in its fuIl size and difficulty. If we are con­cerned about land abuse, then we must see that this is an economic problem. Every economy is by defini­tion, a land using economy. If we are using our land wrongly, then something is wrong with our economy. If we are concerned about land above, we have begun a profound work of economic criticism. Study of the his­tory of land use (and any local history will do) informs us that we have had for a long time an economy that thrives by undermining its own foundations. Industrial­ism, which is the name of our economy, and which is now virtually the only economy of the world, has been from its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely upon the principle of violence toward everything-on which it depends, and it has not mattered whether the form of industrialism was communist or capitalist or whatever; the violence toward nature, human communities, tradi­tional agriculture and local economies has been con­stant. The bad new is coming in, literally, from all over the world. Can such an economy be fixed without be­ing radically changed? I don’t think it can.

The Captains of Industry have always counseled the rest of us to be “realistic”. Let us, therefore, be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poison­ing the air and water, or if only it would stop soil ero­sion, or if only it would stop degrading watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or if only it would quit buying politicians. Real­ism, I think, is a very limited programme.

We can show the hopelessness of single-issue causes and single-issue movements by following a line of thought such as this: we need a continuous supply of uncontaminated water. Therefore, we need (among other things) soil-land-water conserving ways of agri­culture and forestry that are not dependent on monoculture, toxic chemicals, or the indifference and violence that always accompany big-scale land econo­mies that are dependent on people. Therefore, we need people with knowledge, skills, motives attitudes re­quired by diversified small-scale land economies. But where are the people?

Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural land­scapes of the United States know that most people are available to those landscapes only recreationally. We see them bicycling or boating or hiking or camping or hunting or fishing or driving along and looking around. They do not, in Mary Austin’s phrase, “summer and winter with the land”/ they are unacquainted with the land’s human and natural economies. Though people have not progressed beyond the need to eat food and drink water and wear clothes and live in houses, most people have progressed beyond the domestic arts – the husbandry and wifery of the world – by which those needful things are produced and conserved. In fact, the comparative few who still practise that necessary hus­baiidry and wifery often are included to apologize for doing so, having been carefully taught in our education system that those arts are degrading and unworthy of people’s talents. Educated minds, in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth food?

I AM NOT SUGGESTING, of course, that every­body ought to be a farmer or a forester. I am suggest­ing that most people now are living on the far side of a broken connection, and that this is potentially cata­strophic. Most people are now fed, clothed and shel­tered from sources toward which they feel no gratitude and exercise no responsibility. There is no significant urban constituency, no formidable consumer lobby, no noticeable political leadership, for good land-use prac­tices, for good farming and good forestry, for restora­tion of abused land, or for halting the destruction of land by so-called “development”.

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagi­nation. Most of us can not imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people can not imagine the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their obligations.

Money does not bring forth food. Neither does the technology of the food system. Food comes from na­ture and from the work of people. If the supply of food is to be continuous for a long time, then people must work in harmony with nature. That means the people must find the right answers to a lot of hard practical questions. The same applies to forestry and the possi­bility of a continuous supply of timber.

One way we could describe the task ahead of us is by saying that we need to enlarge the conscious­ness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs to know – and care – what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolu­tion, but it is also a matter of common sense.

Undoubtedly some people will want to start a movement to bring this about. I will agree to this, but on three conditions.

My first condition is that this movement should begin by giving up all hope and belief in piecemeal, one­-shot solutions. The present scientific quest for odour­less hog nature should give us sufficient proof that the specialist is no longer with us. Even now, after centu­ries of reductionist propaganda, the world is still intri­cate and vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where we can not do one thing without doing many thing, or put two things together without putting many things together. Water quality, for example, can not be improved without improving farming and forestry, but farming and forestry can not be improved without im­proving the education of consumers – and so on.

The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves and this world. To make in to a practical wholeness with the land under our feet is may be not altogether possible – how would we know? – But, as a goal, it at least carries us beyond hubris, beyond the utterly groundless assumption that we can subdivide our present great failure into a thou­sand separate problems that can be fixed by a thousand task forces of academic and bureaucratic spe­cialists. That programme has been given more than a fair chance to prove itself, and we ought to know by now that it won’t work.

My second condition is that the people in this movement should take full responsibility for themselves as members of the economy. If we are going to teach the economy what it is doing, then we need to learn what we are doing. This is going to have to be a private movement as well as a public one. If it is unrealistic to expect wasteful industries to be conserves, then obvi­ously we must lead in part the public life of complain­ers, petitioners, protesters, advocates and supporters of stricter regulations and sneer policies. But that is not enough.

If it is unreasonable to expect a bad economy to try to become a good one, then we must go to work to build a good economy. It is appropriate that this duty should fall to us, for good economic behaviour is more possible for us than it is for the great corporations with their miseducated managers and their greedy and ob­livious stockholders. Because it is possible for us, we must try in every way we can to make good economic sense in our own lives, in our households, and in our communities. We must do more for our neighbours and ourselves. We must learn to spend our money with our friends and not with our enemies. But to do this it is necessary to renew local economies and revive the domestic. arts,

In seeking to change our economic use of the world, we are seeking inescapably to change our lives. The outward harmony that we desire between our economy and the world depends finally upon an inward harmony between our own hearts and the originating spirit that is the life of all creatures, a spirit as near us as our flesh and yet forever beyond the measures of this obsessively measuring age. We can grow good wheat and make good bread only if we understand that we do not live by bread alone.

My third condition is that this movement should content itself to be poor. We need to find cheap solutions, solutions within the reach of everybody, and the availability of a lot of money prevents the discovery of cheap solutions. The solutions of modern medicine and modern agriculture are all staggeringly expensive, and this is caused in part, and may be altogether, because of the availability of huge sums of money for medical and agricultural research.

Too much money, moreover, attracts administra­tors and experts as sugar attracts ants – look at what is happening in our universities. We should not envy rich movements that are organized and led by an alter­native bureaucracy living on the problems it is supposed to solve. We want a movement that is a movement because it is advanced by all its members in their daily lives.

NOW HAVING COMPLETED this very formida­ble list of the problems and difflculties, fears and fearful hopes that lie ahead of us. I am relieved to see that I have been preparing myself all along to end by saying something cheerful. What I have been talking about is the possibility of renewing human respect from it.  I have made it clear, I hope, that I don’t think this respect can be adequately enacted or conveyed by tipping our hats to nature or by representing natural loveliness in art or by prayers of thanks giving or by preserving tracts of wil­derness – although I recommend all those things. The respect I mean can be given only by using well the world’s goods that are given to us. This good use, which renews respect – which is the only currency, so to speak, of respect – also renews our pleasure. The callings and disciplines that I have spoken of as the domestic arts are stationed all along the way from the farm to the prepared dinner, from the forest to the dinner table, from stewardship of the land to hospitality to friends and strangers. These arts areas demanding and gratifying, as instructive and as pleasing, as the so-called “fine arts”. To learn them is, I believe, the work that is our profoundest calling. Our rewardship is that they will enrich our lives and make us glad.

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