Wendell Berry and John Cobb
Parallel Reflections on the Wisdom of Community, Human and Ecological
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
Quotes from Wendell Berry
"Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup."
"I am not bound for any public place, but for ground of my own where I have planted vines and orchard trees, and in the heat of the day climbed up into the healing shadow of the woods."
"The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it and to foster its renewal is our only hope."
"The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it."
"To cherish what remains of the Earth and to foster its renewal is our only legitimate hope of survival."
"We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?"
The Man Born to Farming
The Grower of Trees, the gardener, the man born to farming,
whose hands reach into the ground and sprout
to him the soil is a divine drug. He enters into death
yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn.
His thought passes along the row ends like a mole.
What miraculous seed has he swallowed
That the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth
Like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water
Descending in the dark?
The longer we are together
the larger death grows around us.
How many we know by now
who are dead! We, who were young,
now count the cost of having been.
And yet as we know the dead
we grow familiar with the world.
We, who were young and loved each other
ignorantly, now come to know
each other in love, married
by what we have done, as much
as by what we intend. Our hair
turns white with our ripening
as though to fly away in some
coming wind, bearing the seed
of what we know. It was bitter to learn
that we come to death as we come
to love, bitter to face
the just and solving welcome
that death prepares. But that is bitter
only to the ignorant, who pray
it will not happen. Having come
the bitter way to better prayer, we have
the sweetness of ripening. How sweet
to know you by the signs of this world!
Like The Water
Like the water
of a deep stream,
love is always too much.
We did not make it.
Though we drink till we burst,
we cannot have it all,
or want it all.
In its abundance
it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill,
while it flows
through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us,
except we keep returning to its rich waters
willing to die,
into the commonwealth of its joy.
Dear relatives and friends, when my last breath
Grows large and free in air, don’t call it death –
A word to enrich the undertaker and inspire
His surly art of imitating life; conspire
Against him. Say that my body cannot now
Be improved upon; it has no fault to show
To the sly cosmetician. Say that my flesh
Has a perfect compliance with the grass
Truer than any it could have striven for.
You will recognize the earth in me, as before
I wished to know it in myself: my earth
That has been my care and faithful charge from birth,
And toward which all my sorrows were surely bound,
And all my hopes. Say that I have found
A good solution, and am on my way
To the roots. And say I have left my native clay
At last, to be a traveler; that too will be so.
Traveler to where? Say you don’t know.
But do not let your ignorance
Of my spirit’s whereabouts dismay
You, or overwhelm your thoughts.
Be careful not to say
Anything too final. Whatever
Is unsure is possible, and life is bigger
Than flesh. Beyond reach of thought
Let imagination figure
Your hope. That will be generous
To me and to yourselves. Why settle
For some know-it-all’s despair
When the dead may dance to the fiddle
Hereafter, for all anybody knows?
And remember that the Heavenly soil
Need not be too rich to please
One who was happy in Port Royal.
I may be already heading back,
A new and better man, toward
That town. The thought’s unreasonable,
But so is life, thank the Lord!
So treat me, even dead,
As a man who has a place
To go, and something to do.
Don’t muck up my face
With wax and powder and rouge
As one would prettify
An unalterable fact
To give bitterness the lie.
Admit the native earth
My body is and will be,
Admit its freedom and
Dress me in the clothes
I wore in the day’s round.
Lay me in a wooden box.
Put the box in the ground.
Beneath this stone a Berry is planted
In his home land, as he wanted.
He has come to the gathering of his kin,
Among whom some were worthy men,
Farmers mostly, who lived by hand,
But one was a cobbler from Ireland,
Another played the eternal fool
By riding on a circus mule
To be remembered in grateful laughter
Longer than the rest. After
Doing that they had to do
They are at ease here. Let all of you
Who yet for pain find force and voice
Look on their peace, and rejoice
What We Need Is Here
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
Reflections by John Cobb
Excerpted from Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet
The economy should be directed to the flourishing of the biosphere.
The most important revolution in history is the industrial one. Prior to it, there had been many important changes in the way of life of masses of people, but the capacity of people to produce goods and services in an agricultural economy had not varied greatly over time. In almost all societies the masses of people lived on the land at a subsistence level, while a few gained wealth by siphoning off what was more than needed for the subsistence of the farmers. This surplus supported life in towns and even cities, where a middle class of artisans, merchants, and professionals developed alongside an urban proletariat. A few lived in great luxury. In general, the limited availability of food for the poor played a primary role in preventing rapid population
What was discovered in the eighteenth century was that the same number of workers could produce a great deal more. The early focus was on the production of clothing and furniture and household goods and tools and machines. It turned out that by organizing workers in assembly lines and supporting them with energy from coal, production per hour of work could be vastly increased. There could be abundance of goods that had formerly been scarce and their price could be greatly reduced. What had formerly been luxuries for the rich could now be made available to the masses.
From the beginning there was a price to pay. The satisfaction artisans felt in their work was denied to assembly-line workers. Factories brought with them pollution of a type not previously known. The aim at profit for the investors in a factory led to exploitation of labor that was in some ways more vicious than the exploitation of peasants in the countryside. Industrial cities were typically filled with slums. Unemployment became a problem rarely experienced in agricultural societies. The landed nobility saw that its power was passing into the hands of industrial capitalists. Noblesse oblige gave way to a single-minded quest for profit. Not everyone was pleased by the changes effected by industrialization, but there was little prospect of turning back the clock.
Over time the industrial model was applied more and more widely. Eventually agriculture was also industrialized, and features of the industrial method were applied to merchandizing as well. Increasing productivity, defined as production per hour of labor became the norm everywhere.
The industrial economy required larger markets. There were economies of scale; so that one huge factory could often under price several smaller ones. But to sell its product it needed more customers. This affected international relations as industrial powers sought markets all over the world.
Factories often needed natural resources not plentiful locally. Hence nations whose policies were driven by economic concerns were also interested in securing supplies of such resources. There was another great advance of empire building. There was also a drive, especially after World War II to make of the whole globe a single market, so that goods could be produced wherever conditions were most favorable and sold wherever they were in demand.
Modern economic theory beginning with Adam Smith grew up alongside industrialization. The economists explained the benefits of industrialization and sided with industrialists against those who wanted to curtail their freedom.
They saw not only factory production but the whole of the economy as ideally geared to “growth” measured by total production of goods and services per capita. They were strong advocates of the move toward a global market.
Mainstream economists have based their study and theories on industrial society. Today the financial sector has come to dominate the productive one. It clearly dominates government as well. Its control of the money supply is a major source of its power. Economists have far less understanding of this phenomenon than of the industrial economy it supersedes. Markets controlled by banks are not free.
We might expect that economic theorists would be concerned with the ability of the environment to supply all the raw materials needed for a growing industry. However, they have largely dismissed this problem. They note that as a particular resource becomes scarce its price rises. This leads users to be more frugal and efficient with this resource and also to seek more plentiful, and therefore less expensive, substitutes. Such scarcity also leads inventors to find new ways of meeting the need that do not require the scarce item. Economists assure us that economic signals lead to developments that by-pass the problem of scarcity. They do not view resource scarcity as placing any limit on growth. Although there has been less discussion of pollution until very recently, economists try to subsume this under the same type of response. Those few who argue against unlimited growth of the human economy are viewed as outsiders to the community.
The idea of “overshoot and collapse” comes from zoology and, as explained above, has no role in mainstream economic thinking. Today, the acute problem of global warming calls for the application of this concept to human affairs. But thus far it has been excluded from economic theory. Economists remain cheer leaders for economic growth everywhere and under almost any circumstances. They have been deeply misled by the modern worldview in its most harmful form.
Fortunately, largely outside of academic departments and of the economics guild, others are developing an ecological economics that emphasizes the issue of scale. They note that the human economy is a subset of the natural economy and must remain a limited portion. As long as the natural economy is limited, the human economy must also be limited. Herman Daly has long been the leader in this development.
Ecological economists redefine the goal of the economy. One important contribution to this task is the book, “The Economics of Happiness” by Mark Anielski. (New Society Publishers, 2007) We have found that the growth so prized by economists does not, in any regular way, make for the happiness of real people. To pursue growth when it does not contribute to the well being of people is quite mistaken. The task of economists is to find the ways of organizing the economy that contribute most to human well-being. The Kingdom of Bhutan now measures its wellbeing in terms of Gross National Happiness.
A major shift that helps redefine the goal of economics is that from the individualism that underlies all mainstream economic theory to an appreciation for community. We now know that, beyond a very limited level, personal happiness is more a function of human relations than of the quantity of goods and services consumed. Unfortunately, modern thought has led economists astray. They have ignored human relations other than those of contract and exchange. Often the way of benefiting people is to improve the quality of the communities in which they live, but the application of modern economic thought has systematically destroyed communities.
Focusing on community does not mean rejecting economic growth. Many communities are improved by increasing the supply of fresh water, food, improved shelter, education, and medical care. However, forcing people to leave their communities in order to find employment rarely adds to human well being.
Even “economics for happiness” does not go far enough in our time. As Anielski and the rulers of Bhutan fully understand, human happiness cannot be separated from the flourishing of the whole ecosystem. We need an economic theory directed to the regeneration of the global biosphere.
The move toward an ecological economy will require breaking the control of financial institutions over both industry and government. The key to this is recovering for community, at whatever level, the control over the money supply. Nationalizing the “Federal” Reserve system would transform the situation for the United States. State banks, like that in North Dakota, would greatly improve the financial condition of states. Money creation is possible
at still smaller levels.
The present global economy is collapsing. Rather than trying to stave off this collapse, we can use the occasion to build local economies that serve their communities well. This will be a profound reversal of long-term trends. It may include state and municipal banks and local currencies that free the community from subservience to the international banks. Local economies can encourage frugality and sustainability instead of growth. They need not look to growth to solve the problems of the poor. Instead, the local community will accept responsibility for providing work for all who want it and for meeting the essential needs also of those who cannot work. We may exchange the “high” standard of living measured by the surfeit of goods for a secure place in a healthy human community in a healthy ecological context.
Agriculture should regenerate the soil.
Apart from human experience the normal situation is one in which the seasonal cycles gradually build up the soil. It becomes more fertile and thereby accelerates its own
growth. When human beings lived by hunting and gathering, this increase of soil continued. The change came with the rise of agricultural societies. These found that they could produce a great deal more of the desired plant nearby if
they cultivated the soil and planted only that one crop in a particular plot. Farming developed in many contexts and many styles. Some were far more sustainable than others, but all reversed the trend from building up topsoil to using it up, however slowly.
Some ancient civilizations ended when the land they farmed, for one reason or another, lost its capacity to support them. This should have been a warning to others of the applicability to agriculture of the “overshoot and collapse” model. But in general new lands were found to cultivate, and some of the old ones seemed to be inexhaustibly rich. In any case there seemed to be no alternative. Agriculture had produced the food that allowed population to grow. To sustain that population, the damaging cultivation of crops must continue. If that meant moving people to new land, so be it. As long as the global population was small in relation to the amount of cultivable land, the problem seemed minor.
For thousands of years the basic agricultural situation did not greatly change. But in the nineteenth, and especially the twentieth, centuries industrial methods were applied to agriculture. Family farms gave way to agribusiness. Agricultural science studied the chemical needs of plants and the ways that weeds and noxious insects could be killed. Fertilizers and poisons came into more extensive use. The condition of the soil became less important, since the needed nutrients could be supplied artificially. Monocultures became more
Genetic changes of plants were designed to adapt them to the new chemical regime. The wide variety of species of wheat or corn was replaced by the one species able to deal with these chemicals. Huge machines replaced both human and animal labor. Large areas of the countryside were depopulated.
The main gain from all of this was “productivity” as measured by produce divided by hours of human labor. Economic theorists celebrated this gain as releasing farm-workers to do other jobs. Ecologists fretted that soils were losing their natural fertility and eroding more rapidly, while agriculture was becoming more dependent on irrigation and petroleum products. They also worried about the loss of genetic diversity and about the effects of artificial varieties on natural ones, on the environment in general, and on the health of those who consumed them.
From a Whiteheadian perspective, ecologists are right to worry. Farming has kept the human involvement with nature very intimate for thousands of years. Despite human manipulation, agriculture was primarily a process of working with nature. The application to agriculture of modern economic theories developed in relation to industry makes the whole process highly precarious. It also makes it dependent on resources that are becoming scarcer and scarcer: fresh water and oil.
The risk is illustrated in the case of Cuba. In proper modern fashion, Cuba as a protégé of the Soviet Union was assigned a specialized task: produce sugar for the Soviet Union and its satellites. In exchange it would be provided with its other needs, including oil and food. Vast areas of Cuban agricultural lands were given over to industrial production of sugar.
Then came the American blockade. Cuba could not export its sugar and could not import oil and food. The adjustment was difficult. However, there was no massive hunger. The peasants who still had their holdings were able quickly to shift from oil-dependent production of sugar to organic production of food. Fortunately, research and experiments with organic farming were already far advanced, and when the need arose, the peasants learned quickly.
It is noteworthy, however, that the industrialized sugar producers were not helpful in the transition. Those farms were organized for sugar production. Their equipment was for that purpose, and the workers knew nothing about other crops or other forms of farming. In any case there were too few of them to engage in traditional farming. Fortunately for Cuba, peasant farming had not yet been wiped out by
the industrial form.
As Whiteheadians look to the future, we see what is needed as evolving from traditional family and peasant farming, hoping to recover the land now used for agribusiness in a more traditional way. We certainly affirm the organic form of production to which the Cubans were forced by the lack of oil. But we recognize that even organic farming is exploitative of the soil, and as the soil diminishes, the future looks dim. The task is to stop the exploitation and find ways to follow the natural processes that build soil instead.
There have been many positive developments alongside the negative ones involved in agribusiness. No-till agriculture shows that the plowing that exposes the land to the wind can be avoided. Certain combinations of plants can greatly decrease the loss to insects. Irrigation can be accomplished with much less water by systems that use it only where directly needed.
We who are rich have become accustomed to having almost any food at any time of year. This is a luxury afforded to us by the global economy. As we prepare for its collapse, we will think of eating locally-grown food instead. That will reduce variety, but it can also have advantages. Fresh food organically grown has its own excellence.
A movement in this direction is already well advanced. There are thousands of farmers markets all over the country, encouraging this change in eating habits as well as the farmers who are growing the food. There is also a widespread movement of urban agriculture. It may be most fully developed in Detroit where there are many vacant lots and houses and many people unemployed. In the residential area of Los Angeles County in which I live there are efforts to make unused land available to unemployed Immigrants from Mexico who know how to use it. Thus far these movements of local food production are marginal to the food industry as a whole. But their growth will make a great difference with respect to who and how many can survive the collapse of the global
Where land is limited and the need for food is great, extremely intensive food production will be needed. Examples of this already exist. A family of six in Pasadena feeds itself on food from its own quarter-acre lot. It also sells some specialty items to nearby restaurants to earn cash.
Another development may be even more important in the long run. Although intensive labor methods can do much to end the erosion of the soil, we can also learn quite new methods of farming. Wes Jackson at the Land Institute in
Salina, Kansas, has noted that the vast American prairie developed its rich topsoil during millennia in which it was covered by a polyculture of perennials. When European farmers came, they replaced this with a monoculture of annuals. The loss of soil began.
We have generally assumed that the grains that are so essential to our food supply must necessarily be annuals. Jackson notes that there are perennial forms of corn and wheat, but that their yield is far less than that of the annuals we have cultivated. However, he does not believe that perennials are inherently less productive of the seeds that humanity needs. He has set out on a fifty year experiment in developing highly productive perennial grains, and he has made great progress. This is the kind of research to which our universities should
be devoted instead of the study of how to make tomatoes that are better able to withstand shipment over long distances.
Another change in eating habits will enable more people to survive the collapse. Most of us are addicted to eating meat. We eat far more than most people through human history. And we eat far more than we need for health or is
even healthy for us. In many instances ten times as many calories of grain are fed to the animals than are present in the flesh that we eat. Dramatic reduction of meat eating will enable more grains to be available for more people.
When we approach the question of meat-eating with this question alone in mind, the goal will be to end the eating of grain-fed animals, but not complete vegetarianism. There is land that is suited to pasture but not to farming, and producing meat may be its best and most sustainable use. Also, the most fully integrated use of a small farm often includes animals. They can eat what would otherwise be wasted and produce natural fertilizer for use on plants. The consumption of surplus animals is an efficient contribution to our food supply.
A Whiteheadian vision leads many, however, to become vegetarian on other grounds. The animals we kill have their own intrinsic value. Killing them may not be as destructive of value as killing other human beings, but it is the same kind of evil. Such killing, a Whiteheadian may well believe, should be reduced as much as possible. Avoidance of eating meat can be our contribution.
There is yet another Whiteheadian argument. From the Whiteheadian perspective inflicting suffering is inherently evil. Whatever may be theoretically possible, the reality is that today much, probably most, of the meat that is served to us has been raised in ways that are cruel to the animals. Their suffering is often life-long rather than only a matter of the moment of death. Our consumption of meat supports an industry that is brutally indifferent to animal suffering.
Comfortable habitat should make minimal demands for resources.
In the days of cheap land, cheap transportation, and cheap utilities we built millions of large, poorly-insulated homes on large lots in suburbia. We used a lot of lumber in home constructing, sacrificing our forests in the process. Our individualism led to nuclear families replacing extended ones and to separating ourselves even from our neighbors. We typically found our communities with like-minded people elsewhere than in our neighborhoods. Our homes were for ourselves and our children, and we expected others to respect our privacy as we respected theirs.
We are now entering a world in which land will be needed to produce food locally, and transportation and utilities will be expensive. We will need to increase tree cover rather than
further decimate our forests. How will we make the transition?
Obviously, much of our task will be improving what we have. We can greatly reduce our use of utilities by insulation. We can generate some of our own energy with solar panels. We can also work to develop cooperative relations with neighbors to save on the number of separate car trips that are needed and perhaps buy some kinds of equipment for the neighborhood. And we can use some of our land to produce food.
This is important and for some time it may be the best contribution we can make to staving off collapse. However, in this section I want to focus on the kind of construction that should, over time, replace what we now have. Fortunately, there has already been a lot of experimentation with buildings that provide comfortable habitat without requiring the further decimation of forests or extensive use of utilities for heating or cooling.
One example is called superadobe. Traditional adobe was far less demanding on the environment than the kinds of homes we moderns have been building. But it required lumber, and had other limitations. A superadobe building derives more than 90 percent of the building material from the land on which it is built. It uses no lumber. Thus its construction depends only a little on transportation and not at all on increasingly distant forests. Like adobe in general, its thick walls provide excellent insulation. It is built to last. Obviously it has little vulnerability to fire. It uses small steel rods to secure its walls in case of earthquakes. It is the sort of building that can now be constructed as a transition to a very different future.
Replacing contemporary suburban buildings with ones like this will be an excellent move, but it solves only part of the problem of habitat. The inhabitants will still be distant from most places of employment and from many of the services they need. We can hope that bicycles can connect them to some of these, but the need for transportation remains.
Paolo Soleri has been considering this problem for a long time. He has envisioned a profoundly different city from those we have been building. Its construction would require far more resources than the super-adobe building, but it would put an end to most of the current needs for transportation. He calls the cities he proposes “architectural ecologies” or “arcologies.”
He sees the arcologies as the natural development out of what is already happening in the downtown areas of some cities. One may today be in a hotel from which by foot, escalator, and elevator, without crossing any street, one can visit department stores, restaurants, professional offices, commercial establishments, and theaters. Sometimes even an indoor park is included. One can imagine enlarging this complex to include a school and a hospital. One can imagine that in addition to a hotel, or partly in its place, there would be apartments for permanent occupancy.
This is possible in a small area, of course, because of the height of the buildings. A single building of eighty stories covering ten acres will have as much usable space as one story buildings covering eight hundred acres. Indeed it will have a great deal more, because it will use for indoor purposes all the space devoted to streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and filling stations as well as the space between and around buildings. It could contain all the facilities an urban family needs for the greater part of their lives. Within this building there would be no need for motor transportation, indeed, no possibility for it. Everything would be accessible by foot, or, for those who need help, by wheelchair or other equipment.
For some people, this may sound nightmarish. They imagine it as claustrophobic. But it need not be so. Living quarters might all be on the outside walls so that people would have views of what is without. Furthermore, rather than imagining such a building as surrounded by city streets and other buildings, let us imagine it as standing alone with only the great outdoors outside it. From anywhere in the building a short walk could take one outside for gardening or outdoor recreation of many kinds. In other words, one would have far better access to rural areas than do the great majority of city dwellers today. If one just had to drive a car, one would be available for rent. There would also be public transportation to other cities.
Soleri has proposed that an arcology be built on the top of a hill with greenhouses covering the slopes below. Air entering the greenhouses would be heated as it passes through them and would provide energy for heating and other uses in the arcology. Industry would be located in the basement levels with surplus heat used for the rest of the building. The arcology itself would be well insulated and built to take maximum advantage of sun and shade according to the season. Direct and indirect solar energy would supply all the needs of the arcology.
Once built, therefore, an arcology would have no need for fossil fuel. Everyone in the arcology would have access to everything in it without motor transportation. The problem, in comparison with the superadobe house, would be construction. This would be less costly in money and materials than building a city in the present form, but it would still require a wealthy society and elaborate transportation system. Arcologies would have to be built soon, while resources for such things still exist. They could then survive the collapse of the global economy far better than other cities.
Most manufacturing should be local.
It is fairly obvious that when humanity finally decides to end its suicidal burning of fossil fuels, producing goods in one place and shipping them around the world will end. This is one part of the collapse of the current civilization that is readily predictable. Of course, one possibility is that our addiction to fossil energy will persist so strongly that we will turn to fracking and to the tar sands of Canada to keep the global civilization going at whatever cost to human life and the biosphere. If so, we will probably destroy the capacity of the planet to support any human life at all. If we turn to nuclear energy on an ever larger scale, the threat to survival will change its nature but not be removed. This paper is presupposing that the human race will stop short of suicide.
If we do, the question of how we can live in a sustainable way confronts us. Which of the good things we now receive from our global civilization will we be able to continue to enjoy. We have considered thus far only food and shelter. But there is a vast world of manufactured products that we would like to retain. Can we do so?
The answer is that no one knows just what will be possible. We can say, however, that a shift from manufacturing for global distribution to more local production is a given. The ideal would be a rather gradual transition. As transportation becomes more expensive, heavy and bulky items will be increasingly produced nearer their destination. If common sense leads to greater restrictions on burning fossil fuels, this tendency will be accelerated and even smaller and lighter goods will be produced more locally. A transition of this type would be far less disruptive of our lives and societies than was the globalization of production that has caused so many of our problems. It will, of course, be part of the localization of the economy discussed earlier.
However, transportation of goods is not the only problem. Industrial production has been based on fossil fuels. A great deal of thought is now directed to other sources of energy. The most promising are wind and direct solar forms. Small scale local production can be based on wind and solar energy far better than the huge centralized productive facilities now dominating the scene.
The most difficult problem is that many of the natural resources needed for manufacturing are not locally available in most places. To whatever extent their shipment is ended, the goods made from them cannot be produced. This will call for a great deal of ingenuity. As long as this is available, many needs can be met with locally available materials.
Consider, for example, clothing. Cotton and wool are major raw materials for much of this. But there are many parts of the world where neither is available. Fortunately, we have long since learned that clothing can be made from fibers of many sorts. Stores would not carry the vast variety of clothing we now take for granted. But the real need for clothing could be met almost everywhere in the world.
One obvious problem with local production is that it is impractical for many of the things we take for granted. The automobile is an example. A city, even of a million people, could hardly produce automobiles efficiently, if its market was limited to that city. Certainly the city could not support several competing companies.
The ideal response is that cities should be so constructed as to make automobiles unnecessary, and we may indeed hope that they will move in this direction. We can imagine that private cars can be eliminated without disaster, difficult as that will be. But public transportation requires vehicles the local production of which in many places would be even more impractical. It is difficult to imagine a painless transition in transportation from the collapsing global society to a sustainable local one.
Two directions of change in regard to urban transportation may take place. One is the abandonment of public transportation as well as private cars. This would force city dwellers to organize life in relatively self-sufficient neighborhoods within which bicycles would be the major means of transportation. The other is for megacities to develop the capacity to produce what they need for public transportation. Powering this systemof transportation, as well as the factories that manufacture the vehicles, without fossil fuels is a separate problem.
Another broad change can be imagined and encouraged. We have become accustomed to cheap mass produced goods. Most of us Americans have far more goods than we need. Our problem is to store them or clear out our closets to make room for new ones. This flood of goods replaced a situation in which most of the things people really needed were produced by hand. Today handiwork is more of a hobby than a primary occupation, but a shift back in this direction would be a welcome one. If handiwork were prized and its products could be profitably sold, unemployment would cease to be a major problem. We would use fewer resources and own fewer goods, but what we would have would bring us greater satisfaction and its production would be a creative rather than a routine act.
Finally, we may hope that the vast world of electronic communication can survive the collapse of the global economy. In the new order, the travel we have so enjoyed would become a rare luxury. But this would not need to disconnect us with the rest of the world. We could be citizens of the world in touch electronically with likeminded people elsewhere. When successful adaptations to the new global situation are developed in one place they can quickly be shared with people around the world quickly. People in obscure villages could listen to the lectures of the world’s most advanced thinkers. The best knowledge in medicine could be made universally accessible. We need not consider localization of production the enemy of wide horizons of thought and action.
Every community should be a part of a community of communities.
The collapse of the global economy and all the institutions connected with it will force people to make do with local resources. If they approach this task with the same mindset that has created the unsustainable global economy and the overshoot of the earth’s resources, the future for humanity is very bleak indeed. This paper is written to encourage an alternative. Humanity will have the opportunity to construct local communities.
A community is not automatically generated by people living in close proximity. Most suburban neighborhoods today are not communities. A community gives identity to its inhabitants. That is, I identify myself as a “Pilgrim” because my participation in the life of my retirement institution, Pilgrim Place, is part of who I now am. It is a community in which I participate. Pilgrim Place is a community because participation in it means sharing in concern for the well being of other Pilgrims and taking some responsibility for the whole. We work all year to raise money for those whose funds are exhausted. We are committed to preventing anyone from having to leave because of financial problems.
When nation states arose, they intended to be communities. Their citizens identified themselves in large part by their nationality. They expected the nation as a whole to take some responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens and were willing to make some contribution to enabling the nation to do so.
The organization of Europe in terms of nation states was part of the rise of modernity. It weakened local communities and communities based on religious identity for the sake of strengthening the national community. Nevertheless, much of the economy remained local, and local community remained strong. The industrial revolution greatly weakened local economies and increased mobility within the nation. Local communities lost much of their importance and often ceased to function as communities. This whole process was strengthened by the individualism that was encouraged by Enlightenment thinking.
This individualism has now been turned against the national community as well. The economic elite no longer identify themselves particularly as American. If they belong to any community, it is a transnational one of wealth and power.
It is no longer self-evident to many Americans that they should be prepared to contribute to meeting the needs of all Americans. That idea, rooted in the very meaning of community, is dismissed as “socialist” by an increasing, and increasingly influential, segment of the population. They believe the national government should give them freedom and support their interests. It should protect them from interference by other people. But it should not expect any contribution from them for other purposes.
The now developing global crisis can lead to fresh reflection that will make people aware of the importance of community. If it does so, this will express itself most clearly at the local level. Confronted by acute shared problems, we may hope that people will agree that they need to work together for their solution and to build a new life. The preceding sections have sketched, in the most hopeful way, what will be possible.
The major problem with communities is that they are in danger of defining themselves over against other communities. Individuals who identify themselves strongly with one community may perceive others as actual or potential threats. The we/they understanding of the world easily arises, with “they” understood negatively. A world composed of local communities all of which face scarcities of important types is threatened by conflict that can easily become violent. That sort of world is unsustainable.
Hence the goal must be not only to have strong, healthy local communities, but to have also communities of communities. We can see something like this in the world of sports. Consider the high school teams of small towns. The citizens of those towns feel a strong sense of identification with their teams and root for them vociferously. But the teams that compose a particular league also gain some of their identity from their participation in that league and want it to be strong and healthy. Also when wider concerns are in view, those who root for their teams show their concern for the other towns that support the other teams. The rivalry among the teams is contained in a context of sportsmanship, and the teams learn the importance of respecting their rivals.
Healthy local communities will have as part of their basic self-understanding a respect and appreciation for other communities and their citizens. If one community suffers a natural disaster, its neighbors will come to its aid. It is healthy to have competition and rivalry, but this is not healthy unless it is contained within a wider context of respect and cooperation.
Local communities will have their relatively self-sufficient economies, but there will be economic issues that require cooperation with their neighbors. Those that only compete will not survive, and they will destroy others along with themselves. Healthy communities will participate in communities of communities. Although each will have considerable autonomy, any effort to be completely independent will misfire. Communities of communities will also need the authority to make decisions. And the same is true of communities of communities of communities. Even in a world in which the focus is on the local, there will be need for some governance at the global level as well.
A political structure of this sort will be sustainable only if we overcome individualistic ways of thinking. In the modern world this individualism has expressed itself not only in the erosion of community at the local and national levels but in the idea that at one level or another there must be “sovereignty.” That need springs from “substance” thinking. Process thinking is community thinking. Individuals become healthy persons only in community with others. The people are not sovereign, and neither is the community. The community shapes the people and gives them freedom. The people shape the community and give it a measure of authority. Local communities are not sovereign. They can be healthy and strong only through their relation with other communities in a community of communities. That inclusive community is not sovereign. It exists to serve the communities that make it up, but these communities need for it to have its own measure of authority over them.
Substance thinking leads to the idea that if one institution increases in power, other institutions must lose power. Process thinking argues instead that no one can have any significant power except through cooperation.
Increasing the power of the agencies of cooperation increases the power of those who cooperate through them. The most important form of power is that which empowers others. A world in which that is deeply understood can be a sustainable world. It can be a world with community, manufacturing, farming, comfortable habitat, and happiness, nourished by satisfying work, friendship, recreation, a sense of place, and what Wendell Berry calls the peace of wild things.
About John Cobb and Wendell Berry
John B. Cobb, Jr. is one of the most important Christian theologians of the 21st century. Happily, he is also an advisor to JJB. One of the articles has written for our website -- Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet (GO) -- is now being used in colleges and universities around the country, and in some governmental and business circles, to help people recover and reclaim the wisdom of local communities. His work is having a special impact in China.
For John Cobb it is not enough that we think globally and act locally. We must think locally, too, paying attention to the local places where we live, helping them become homes for people, animals, and the earth. He believes that the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead can be immenstely helpful in this return to an apprecation of the local. He explains this clearly in Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet. In the essay below we offer excerpts from Ten Ideas for Saving the Planet as they pertain to matters of public policy: agriculture, economics, manufacturing, and community.
As you read John Cobb, you may be reminded of the poet and farmer Wendell Berry. He is a very humble man, and he does not seek to be elevated to the status of a hero. Still, for many, many people, he is indeed a spiritual guide in an age in need. Arguably is the spiritual mentor of the bioregional movement. He thinks that big problems require small solutions, place by place, among people who are faithful to the bonds of relationship with one another, to the lands entrusted to them, to the animals in their keeping, to the wildness around them. He is much more interested in picking berries than in arguing points in the hallways of academia, and he reminds academics that there's a wisdom in the body -- a wisdom in berry picking -- that adds unparalleled beauty to life. "Better than any argument is to rise at dawn and pick dew-wet red berries in a cup."
Berry is not a theologian, although he is quite influenced by the beauty of biblical writing. But when you read and listen to him, you get the feeling that, for him, fidelity to God and fidelity to the bonds of community are closely connected. John Cobb agrees. Thus we offer you two voices -- one theological and one poetic -- who point in similar directions.
-- Jay McDaniel