I spent a beautiful Sunday afternoon in December talking with Wendell Berry at the kitchen table of his Henry County farmhouse. He told me he was hard at work on an essay. "I'm in need of a lecture," he said.
America was in need of a lecture, too. On Monday, Berry gave it.
The National Endowment for the Humanities chose the Kentucky farmer, poet, essayist, novelist, activist and philosopher to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It is the federal government's highest honor for scholarly contributions to the humanities.
Berry's selection had not been announced when we met, so he was vague about what he was up to. But I had the sense he was up to something big. As I listened last week to the recording of our interview, Berry's answers to my questions were filled with themes and phrases that found their way into his lecture essay.
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Berry, 77, delivered a searing indictment of corporate domination and the industrial economy, saying it has abused the land and people and threatens our survival. You can — and should — watch the video of Berry's lecture and read the full text of his essay, titled "It All Turns on Affection." Both are online at NEH.gov.
Among Berry's touchstones in the essay are E.M. Forster's 1910 novel Howard's End, an early exploration of the effects of industrialization on society, and the story of his own tobacco-farming grandfather's struggle against the monopolistic power of James B. Duke's American Tobacco Co.
Ironically, Berry said, Duke is remembered now as a philanthropist, the benefactor of Duke University in North Carolina. "If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough small farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of 'philanthropy,'" he said.
Quoting his former teacher, the late writer Wallace Stegner, Berry said Americans have always tended to fall into two camps: boomers and stickers. "The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property and therefore power," Berry said. "Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it."
Boomer ideals dominate America's economy and culture now, he said. Almost everything has been reduced to statistics. Like corporate ownership, as compared to individual ownership, big numbers distance us from the consequences of our actions.
"Now the two great aims of industrialism — replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth in the hands of a small plutocracy — seem close to fulfillment," Berry said. "At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny."
Even the term economy has lost its original meaning, which had to do with household management and husbandry, he said. Most economists now "never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage 'to strengthen the economy.'"
Corporate industrialism, he said, "has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature."
Industrialism's effects are often defended as the "price of progress" or "creative destruction," Berry noted.
"But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect," he said. "There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours."
Who is to blame? "We are all implicated," Berry said. "By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we are all boomers."
How can it be changed? By having more respect for our fellow humans and the land, Berry said. By focusing on long-term sustainability — things like local food, soil conservation and renewable energy. And by rediscovering the importance of affection.
"Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time," he said. "Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. ... And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind and conserving economy. ... We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong."
Since Berry began making these arguments in his 1977 book The Unsettling of America, critics have dismissed him as unrealistic, nostalgic, even anachronistic. But more people are listening. Indeed, this seems to be Wendell Berry's time.
As "local food" and "buy local" movements have sprung up everywhere in recent years, Berry's books have attracted an international following. His lectures are packed, often by young people.
Can America change before it is too late? It can, Berry told me, if sustainability becomes a bigger part of the public conversation. "The only way to do that," he said, "is to make as much sense as you possibly can."