Out Of Your Car, Off Your Horse by Wendell Berry

This “essay” is set up in point-form with the sub-title, Twenty-seven Propositions About Global Thinking and the Sustainability of Cities.  It’s going to be difficult to review, not only because of the structure, but also because Berry is such an original thinker and has so much of value to say.  It is almost a shame to leave anything out.

  1.  Global thinking is not possible; those who claim to be global thinkers have
       done so in a manner too simplistic and oppressive to merit the word
       “thinker”.  Global thinkers are dangerous (national ones too) and he gives
       the example of his state of Kentucky being used as a garbage dump.
       Apparently it’s okay with everyone except those who live in the state.

  2.  Global thinking is only based on statistics and can only do something if it is willing to
       be destructive on a large scale, however, conversely, one is able to make a positive
       impact locally.  Global thinking takes you so far from your neighbourhood, soon you
       are unable to recognize it.  Instead, get out of your spaceship, car, or horse and
       walk on the solid earth to discover its wonder.

   3.  If we really thought locally, we would make better choices and those choices would
        make a positive impact globally.

  4.  By making the local community independent, self-sufficient and capable, and do it
       with creativity, mercy and endurance, we ensure the community is seen in “proper
       relation” to the rest of the world, instead of employing “presumptuous abstractions
       of ‘global thought'”.

  5.  We must ensure that we don’t demand too much of the globe, and therefore help
       destroy it, and to accomplish this desire, we must live at home as independently
       and self-sufficiently as we are able.  The earth’s limitations should be constantly
       kept in mind.

  6.  A sustainable city can only exist if the city and countryside are in balance.

  7.  Our current cities are “out of balance”, living off the “principal” of ecology without
       adding to it, and their faulty assumptions will lead to their downfall.

  8.  Industrial machinery has contributed to the destruction of this balance, by providing
       cheap production and transportation.

  9.  Since the Civil War, and more since WWII, the fossil-fuel industries regulate the
       patterns of productivity.

10.  Fossil fuel sources are rural and historically have been produced at the expense of
       the community and local ecosystems, because care of these does not profit the
       producer.  “It assigns no value to local life, natural or human.”

11.  When industrial principles are applied to field and forest, both die.

12.  Industrial principles forced onto the countryside make people dependent and the
       corporations powerful.  A small number of people own land, and the workers are
       hostages of their employers.

13.  Our leaders, most of whom have wealth, do not understand how to make
       community function well because they must be ready at any time for power and
       wealth to destroy community.

14.  Ecological sense is in conflict with economic entities because it requires reduction
       or replacement of those entities.  Only the work and will of the people can further
       this “sense”.

15.  Because now all institutions have adopted industrial methods of organizational
       patterns and quantitative measures, both sides of the ecological debate are
       alarmingly abstract.

16.  The abstraction is what’s wrong.  The evil of either capitalist or communist industrial
       economy is its inability to distinguish one place or person or creature from another.

17.  The abstractions of sustainability can destroy the world, the same as the
       abstractions of industrial economy.  Even those who want to save the plant can ruin
       it by abstractions and central organization because they cannot know the local
       nature or community.

18.  You must make ecological good sense locally.  You can’t act locally and think

19.  No one can make ecological good sense for the planet; everyone can make
       ecological good sense locally, if the scale, knowledge, tools and skills are right.

20.  “The right scale in work gives power to affection”.  When when one works beyond a
       love for a place, destruction results, and an adequate local culture is needed for
       balance.  (I didn’t quite understand this point.  Sorry, Wendell!)

21.  How do we make a local culture that will preserve our community?  We need a
       knowledge that comes from or with affection, but is unavailable to the unaffectionate
       or to anyone simply as “information”.

22.  What is the economic result of a local affection?  We may never know as love can
       be enigmatic and unfathomable, and the answer would never satisfy a corporate

23.  The steps to saving the planet are small steps, which are humbling and rewarding.
       Its jobs and successes will be many but rarely noticed, nor will they make anyone
       wealthy or eminent.

24.  Many people are motivated by fame instead of greed, but this sort of attitude will
       never truly be a benefit to the planet.

25.  Good workers are persons willing to enter the daunting and humbling local
       presence of a problem and tackle it one life at a time.

26.  Some cities will never be sustainable because they don’t have countryside
       surrounding them or near them.  For example, New York or Phoenix will never be

27.  To make a city sustainable, start small by increasing local food brought in by
       farmers, then as the demand for local food grows, farming could become more
       diverse, the farms smaller yet more complex in structure and production, and also
       provide more jobs.  As the intimacy of city and countryside grow, their thought
      would become more unified towards sustainability.

Lately, I’ve been reading Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent, and I was surprised to see Berry’s words in this essay echoed back in a Christian context.

“In this respect, Christian love is sometimes the opposite of ‘social activism’ with which one so often identifies Christianity today.  To a ‘social activist’ the object of love is not ‘person’ but man, an abstract unit of a not less abstract ‘humanity.’  But for Christianity, man is ‘loveable’ because he is person.  There person is reduced to man; here man is seen only as person. The ‘social activist’ has no interest for the personal, and easily sacrifices it to the ‘common interest.’  Christianity may seem to be, and in some ways is, rather sceptical about that abstract ‘humanity,’ but it commits a mortal sin against itself each time it gives up its concern and love for the person. Social activism is always ‘futuristic’ in its approach; it always acts in the name of justice, order, happiness to come, to be achieved.  Christianity cares little about that problematic future but puts the whole emphasis on the now — the only decisive time for love.  The two attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but they must not be confused.  Christians, to be sure, have responsibilities toward ‘this world’ and they must fulfil them.  This is the area of ‘social activism’ which belongs entirely to ‘this world.’  Christian love, however, aims beyond ‘this world.’ …… “

I hope that I’ve done Berry’s words justice with my review.  I’ve tried to keep his ideas and words as close to his own as possible for clarity.  It’s a great essay and I encourage you to read it.  Once again, with his clear insight, Berry brings to light many problems with the structure of our world today and the callous, ineptness of those in power to even attempt to set it right.  However, his words to bring hope.  When we think ‘big’ often the problems seem too overwhelming to solve, but when we think small, or locally, everyone has a purpose and change is possible, one life at a time.

All images from Wikipedia or Wikimedia Commons

Deal Me In Challenge #7 

Christianity and the Survival of Creation by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry is an American essayist, novelist, poet, fifth-generation farmer, and environmental activist.  He has written copious numbers of short stories, essays, novels and poems during his rather interesting life.  Berry argues that the breakdown of communities has been aggravated by large corporate farming and that living in harmony with nature is a necessity, as its destruction will lead to our own.

Swiss Alps
source Wikipedia

Berry essentially first gained recognition as a poet, but his hard-hitting essays have earned him notoriety and a wider audience.  This essay was delivered as a lecture at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Berry hits hard right from the beginning of the essay, immediately punching home his topic:

“I want to begin with a problem: namely, that the culpability of Christianity in the destruction of the natural world and the uselessness of Christianity in any effort to correct that destruction are now established clichés of the conservation movement.”

He establishes on one hand, that the “indictment is just” in that Christian priests, missionaries, organizations, etc. have been “largely indifferent to the rape and plunder of the world and of its traditional cultures” and that Christians are often as complicit as anyone else “to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation,” yet there is a problem with the conservationists’ indictment; the anti-Christian conservationists dismiss the Bible, without having an understanding of it.  In effect, they “have not mastered the first rule of the criticism of books: you have to read them before you criticize them.”  The error is not that the Bible has not given Christians a tradition of respect, stewardship and love for the earth, they have simply chosen to ignore it.

Kauai, Hawaii
source Wikipedia

Berry then examines Biblical tenants with regard to the earth, stating that the world is not owned by humans, but by God: “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein. (Ps. 24:1)”   John 3:16 states that God loves the world, not as it might be but as it is, and He “continues to love it and find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us  ……..  Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God …….  Creation is God’s presence in creatures.”

Not only does Berry use the Bible to support his thesis, but he draws from Dante, William Blake, Thoreau, and others to support his views on the importance of nature and our human interaction with it.

“The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world.  We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy.  Some people know this, and some do not.  Nobody, of course, knows it all the time.  But what keeps it from being far better known than it is?  Why is it apparently unknown to millions of professed students of the Bible?  How can modern Christianity have so solemnly folded its hands while so much of the work of God was and is being destroyed?”

Tornado, Oklahoma
source Wikipedia

Berry urges us on to a re-thinking of our ideals.  We think we can contain God within what we create, but God is much bigger. “He is not to be fenced in, under human control, like some domestic creature; He is the wildest being in existence.  The presence of His spirit is us in our wildness, our oneness with the wilderness of Creation.  That is why subduing the things of nature to human purposes is so dangerous and why it so often results in evil, in separation and desecration.  It is why the poets of our tradition so often have given nature the role, not only of mother or grandmother, but of the highest early teacher and judge, a figure of mystery and great power.”

Outdoors we encounter the miraculous, indoors we meet the common.

source Wikipedia

Berry continues the thread of his argument through religious issues, through economy, or the ways humans live in relation to nature, then finally reaches the question of art in the context of what we, as humans, create.

“If we think of ourselves as livings souls, immortal creatures, living in the midst of a Creation that is mostly mysterious, and if we see that everything we make or do cannot help but have an everlasting significance for ourselves, for others, and for the world, then we see why some religious teachers have understood work as a form of prayer”

Berry offers some astute observations as to the traditions of art:  “Traditionally, the arts have been ways of making that have placed a just value on their materials or subjects, on the uses and the users of the things made by art, and on the artists themselves.   They have, that is, been ways of giving honor to the works of God.  The great artistic traditions have had nothing to do with what we call ‘self-expression.’  They have not been destructive of privacy or exploitive of private life.  Though they have certainly originated things and employed genius, they have no affinity with the modern cults of originality and genius.”

The end of the essay is comparatively weak, contrasting the villainies of modern Christianity with the (probably more traditional), truly biblical focussed Christianity, where man is encouraged to root out and work on his weaknesses in the scope of a broader community base, and for the good of, not just oneself, but for all.

What I love about Berry is that he is not wholly on the side of any one group. He has developed his own personal thoughts and ideals through reading, discussion, experience, and observation and is quite adept at targeting strengths and weaknesses accordingly.  Though I’ve been meaning to read Berry for ages, this is my first taste of his writing and it was quite delicious.  I can’t wait to jump in for another bite!

The complete essay can be found here.

Essay found in:

Deal Me In Challenge #13 – Four of Spades

Further reading: