Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wendell Berry: Passion v. Fashion

I recently discovered Wendell Berry. After finishing What Are People For? I just had to ask myself why I had not heard of him before I stumbled across a Gourmet magazine article about him. And then, I also had to ask myself what the hell is an article on Wendell Berry doing in a Gourmet magazine?

Some background--Wendell Berry is a farmer, a writer/poet, and a (sort of) environmentalist who, to my great surprise, wrote about the environment before it became cool to be an environmentalist. But then, I wouldn't really call him an environmentalist proper. He is a strong advocate of stewardship and carries that advocacy through a wide range of other topics including religion, feminism, economics, and even technology. What Are People For? is a collection of essays written before 1990. BEFORE 1990. I suppose what really interests me about this fact is that only recently has the science of global warming, land destruction, and pollution come out to the general public, and it has been even more recent that this science was deemed reliable. Even now, though science has enough evidence to make me physically ill, there are still people who doubt or deny that global climate change is an issue.

So, here's a farmer from Kentucky writing about being responsible, reducing consumption as much as possible, and living simply. He writes honestly, but he also writes thoughtfully. He is not abrasive, but he is not tip-toeing around the reader's feelings. For instance, he scolds religion for taking no part in attempting to salvage the environment. And no, he is not an atheist. He scolds farmers who do not use the land properly. He scolds the government, intellectuals, see what I mean. He essentially isolates himself from every group by pointing out their shortcomings. To me, this is endearing. I am sick of fashionable environmentalism. Essentially, this movement, which has the potential to be so powerful, is becoming another capitalist tool for consumption. So, we're still overconsuming, but it's okay because we're buying "green" or "organic" or clothes made out of recycled plastic bottles. This is all fine and good for the fashionista who wants a clear conscience, but the problem's root is not found in the way that things are made. It is found in how much is made. Do we really need serving bowls made of sustainable bamboo that cost $75 apiece when we can go to a thrift store or Goodwill and buy a perfectly acceptable bowl for a dollar? I feel like there's just so much stuff already floating around out there that anything we add to the pile is just another step in the wrong direction. And yes, I think that in the event you really do need to buy something it is best to consider green options, but before we buy we should first consider any possible means of not buying.

This, as Berry implicitly points out, is not a popular idea with any crowd because everyone, environmentalists, conservationists, and the lot, are all conspicuous consumers. "Sustainable" is being seen more and more as an adjective to describe products. So, we can essentially wash our hands of the global warming crisis so long as we buy sustainable. But then, nothing is sustainable once it becomes a mass-produced good. Take bamboo, for instance. Bamboo is very renewable, hardy, and infinitely useful. Bamboo is potentially a good choice for wood flooring as opposed to hardwoods that are being over-harvested. Bamboo can be made into clothing (don't bother to ask me how), kitchenware, etc. So, bamboo must be the obvious choice, right? Umm, well, it does matter how the bamboo was grown, where it was grown, how it was harvested, how it was modified to become fabric or what it was primed with, how it was processed, where it was shipped you can see, bamboo is obviously not a clean, green alternative unless all these considerations are clarified. It is not the product itself that is so often the problem. It is the means of production and the degree of consumption. I daresay replacing valuable farmland or wetlands with acres and acres of bamboo is not at all sustainable even if the bamboo itself happens to be renewable.

Now we're just getting into my cynical way of looking at things (which, I happen to think is not just cynical but also honest--take it or leave it), but my point is that Wendell Berry gets this, and he got it long before most people were even thinking about the environment as something other than a tool for human consumption. I have a class to go to...

1 comment:

green with a gun said...

I agree. We're not going to buy our way out of these problems. "Let's go shopping!" is not a helpful plan of action.

And yes, there are often much simpler suggestions than we commonly think.

Recently I was at a friend's house, he had the airconditioning going full-blast, and a fan sitting there unused. He was saying how because he was renting he couldn't put in insulation and other things to save power, and how it was a real problem the declining rate of home ownership, if we could only own all our own homes then we could spend the several thousand dollars to... etc.

I smiled, and reached over and picked up the fan and put it on the table and turned it on. Then I reached over to the AC unit and pulled the plug out at the wall.

"There we go," I said, "we just saved 10kWh a day, and we didn't have to spend a cent."

He stopped talking and laughed.