I recently began reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a contemplation on the exodus from the American countryside and consequent detachment of the American people from their land, and arguably from material reality. Berry wrote it in 1977, but the commentary remains dishearteningly salient today.
The concept of country, homeland, dwelling place becomes simplified as “the environment” – that is, what surrounds us. Once we see our place, our part of the world as surrounding us, we have already made a profound division between it and ourselves. We have given up the understanding – dropped it out of our language and so out of our thought – that we and our country create one another; that our land passes in and out of our bodies just as our bodies pass in and out of our land; that we and our land are part of one another, so all who are living as neighbors here, human and plant and animal, are part of one another and so cannot possibly flourish alone; that, therefore, our culture must be our response to our place, our culture and our place are images of each other and inseparable from each other, and so neither can be better than the other.
The paragraph first struck me because I happened to make some art in college, for which I had to write an artist’s statement, and I literally could have stuck this quote on the wall instead of this, and sounded a lot smarter. Moral of the story, whatever sage thing you had to say about society and the environment, Wendell Berry said it decades ago, much more forcefully and eloquently. I wonder if God is still kicking Himself for not stalling a couple thousand years so he could call this guy to write the Bible.
Anyhow. The passage also struck me because of its relation to the other book I’m reading right now, Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Discipline. Brand, also an environmentalist, takes the complete opposite tack as Berry in many ways. Whereas Berry entreats us to personally keep in touch with our landscape and the skills of self-reliance, Brand embraces and promotes urbanization and high-tech solutions for responsible fulfillment of our modern demands. Brand also promotes viewing nature and civilization as a single unit, and does so by terming ecosystem services (the cycles and functions of the Earth that make life possible) “natural infrastructure.” As he puts it, “The bridge is infrastructure, and so is the river under it. Both support our life, and both require maintenance…” That idea doesn’t seem far from Berry’s thoughts on how land and technology must be considered holistically and used responsibly. The key difference is in the semantics – but I don’t think we can ignore the semantics.
Berry’s point about viewing the environment as “surrounding” us instead of being a part of us has one very big philosophical implication. If your environment surrounds you, you are in the middle of it, at the center. You are likely to view everything in terms of you, and your purposes. That is exactly what Brand does when he terms natural features “infrastructure,” categorizing them alongside things that are human-made for a specific human purpose. While viewing the river as infrastructure just like the bridge is far better than viewing the river as only an obstacle to be crossed, I have to wonder if viewing ourselves as surrounded by our environment rather than as an integral piece of it constitutes a fundamental flaw in environmentalist thinking. This viewpoint has of course been discussed at length by those who rail against the evil of “anthropocentrism,” but I’m not so interested in whether or not the idea is immoral (it may well be) as whether or not it will work. Will starting from that philosophical point ever get us where we want to go? Can we build a sustainable future on that philosophical foundation?
I think the answer is no, because “centrism” of any sort runs contrary to how ecosystems operate. An ecosystem has nothing at its center. It is an enormous fabric in which everything is connected to everything, or as John Muir so famously put it, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything else in the Universe.” It stands to reason that if we are to bring civilization into harmony with natural limits, we will have to think like nature. Nature favors diverse, interdependent networks and tends to tear down energy-intensive centers. The longer a single crop is grown on a piece of farmland, the greater the pressure of pests and disease against that crop. A population boom of one species in an ecosystem is quickly taken down by predation and starvation. Life thrives on balance. In light of that knowledge, the idea that urbanization will save the environment of the countryside by concentrating human impact seems questionable. Berry’s vision of our interconnectedness with the landscape is not just poetic, but more ecologically sound than the viewpoint of environmentalists like Brand. We won’t save our environment by leaving it, but by consciously and responsibly inhabiting it. We will only create diverse, ecologically responsive, resilient civilization by allowing our homeland to create us.