The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture

Just finished reading “The Unsettling of America, Culture and Agriculture” by Wendell Berry. His writings make so much sense as to make a complete mockery of what commercial agriculture has become in our modern age. I doubt anyone has done such a thorough job of explaining just how deep the erosive fissures run in industrial agriculture, or “agri-business” as it is known in his book. He weaves together the failed policies and practices of the “get big, or get out” era of farm consolidation during the ‘70s which caused a landslide in the numbers of small farmers and a consequential detriment to the quality of the farms and food they produce. His book is a scathing account of how farms have been forced into our cultural impression of a succesful capitalist business, to take any means necessary to gain the highest possible profit margins at the expense of all else; health of the land, health of the food, health of the people. In order to survive the pressures of the political policies and capitalism - and because farmers where advised by virtually every agricultural “authority”, farmers began using machinery to do the work of human hands and horses. They were sold these devices to “save labor” while Berry argues that these “labor saving” devices where actually just putting thousands upon thousands of people out of work, and they were not asked if they wanted their labor to be replaced by machines in the first place. The work which machines have replaced on the farm was hard work, but it was also good work, work which many people earned their living by and which some even enjoyed doing. The machines have also caused harm to the land; when tractors replaced horses and the means of cultivating a field, the incredible weight of the tractor and the type of plow used causes severe compaction of the soil. He notes interestingly that the when the Amish (who use only traditional horse-drawn chisel plows) begin farming on land which was formerly tractor plowed, their harvests increase dramatically year after year as the land is restored from the damage caused by the tractor plowing.

Of course his book also includes critical essays on the abuse of chemical fertilizers - their negative impact on the land, and the pollution they cause from runoff. Also included is the astronimical harm caused by leaving fields barren and the consequential erosion of top soil, and a chapter on the abuse of energy, specifically fossil fuels, but more interesting to me are how he ties together these problems with our inherant social and cultural ideals. For instance, he makes a point of critiquing the modern human concept of “the future” as a utopian fantasy brought true by the saving graces of technological advancement. He insists that our culture is obsessed with “the future” as a space age place of ultra convenience where no one has to work and all of our needs are met by technology. Another example is the modern human interpretation of “nature” as now being a place to “get away to” a place to “go view the scenery”, we (mass culture, not you and I!) now consider ourselves to be apart from nature and not a part of nature.

Although a bit of a stretch, he delves right into such topics as body and soul, and romance and marriage as related to agriculture, he certainly has a way of relating just about anything…his ultimate point being: Everything is connected.

I recommend this book to anyone deeply interested in how agriculture relates to American culture, but I caution also that this book is thick reading chock full of 1970’s political policies and the long drawn out raving rants of a man who cares deeply for the land and can’t stand to see it being destoyed through ignorance. His viewpoints and solutions may be highly idealized, but also insightful and best utilized as a manual to teach a new generation of farmers and re-educate our current farmers worldwide.