Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Resettling of America

Wendell Berry is a national treasure. He's a productive writer, and is also known for his environmental activism based on a strong moral sense and unique ability to state deeper truths. He is by far known for his poetry and fiction, but his nonfiction essays are what are most compelling to me. (Though I do need to read more of his fiction)

Wendell Berry's book "The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture" was written in 1977, the year I was a junior in college. I read the book three years ago, at age 58, after having just bought 44 acres and returned to the land after decades of urban/suburban life.

In this book, he critiqued the long term trend here in America of urbanization. As more people moved from the land, farming changed into a fossil fueled industrial model.  People's connection to the land was no longer central, and a sense of stewardship was replaced by profit at all cost. He argued that the very fabric of our society became torn. He pointed out several governmental and institutional enablers for the trend. The great urbanization, and decline of family farms and rural America is still where we are today.

The wikipedia article on Wendell gives more info on his views and impact on our culture, so go there for more of that. My point here is to follow up on his observations in the Unsettling book.  He felt that the land grant colleges had become beholden to industrial ag, and no longer helped innovate and research ways for small farms to succeed. He also felt that the government itself was captured by corporate interests, and had abandoned the family farm.

I was part of the urbanization trend, and not so much by choice. Small family farms were going bankrupt in the late seventies, early eighties, and it looked like a dead end trap to many of us farm kids. None of my brothers or I stayed on the farm.  

But now, in 2016, I think we are beginning to see a reversal of the urbanization trend, and I do not mean white flight to the suburbs. While the rural/urban split is still the norm, I have begun to notice that young folks are recognizing the suburban lifestyle feels like something is missing.

As our economic empire slowly declines, there are less opportunities for them in the "knowledge economy", and the service sector is a rigged game and a poverty trap. Living where I do, I have met many young folks who have moved to the area with no more to their names than a car, some clothes, and a glimmer of an idea. They are determined to figure out how to make an intentional living by growing food, and reconnect with the land.

Of course, long term ( two to four hundred years, give or take? ) , resettling the land as a more agrarian culture and economy will be inescapable as fossil fuel enabled mechanization will become more expensive, and eventually very minimal. Human and animal labor will replace hydrocarbons to an uncertain extent over time. We should recall that at one time, well over 50% of the population worked at farming, and they fed the rest of the population. It's not like human scale farming is an unknown thing. It will be fascinating to see what blend of traditional ways and more recent knowledge our future farming will become.

In the coming years, we will once again learn the true cost of food. 

Now is the time to get back through the learning curve of farming without diesel fuel or synthetic fertilizers. Much of the knowledge is still out there, ( I live near Amish, who farm with horses, as well as some homesteaders who are off grid and making a go of it) with a few practitioners already leading the way, but it needs to be spread and shared, and above all, practiced. I find that leafing through the books gives me a good start, but real hands on experience is irreplaceable. I personally am only early in my journey, but know where I am headed.

We are at the very early start of another great transition, and in some ways, it is exciting, but no mistake, weaning off of fossil fuels will be painful and a hardship. The earlier we start, ( with the training wheels on, so to speak) the easier it will be. While inescapable, the reestablishment of community and local connections will be I think a positive result.

( As a post script, I am aware that this reflection is only about the European experience, and does not address the fact that the continent was already fully settled and in equilibrium with the land before we arrived. I may post thoughts on that sad genocide some other time)