Back to previous page


Post Most

‘The future of food is not distinguishable from the future of the land’

Remarks from the Washington Post Live Future of Food Conference, held May 4 at Georgetown University:

Our fundamental problem is world destruction, caused by an irreconcilable contradiction between the natural world and the engineered world of industrialism. This conflict between nature and human interest may have begun with the first tools and weapons, but only with the triumph of industrialism has it become absolute. By now the creaturely world is absolutely at the mercy of industrial processes, which are doing massive ecological damage. How much of this damage may be repairable by economic and cultural changes remains to be seen.

Industrial destructiveness, anyhow, is our disease. Most of our most popular worries — climate change, fossil fuel addiction, pollution, poverty, hunger and the various forms of legitimated violence — are symptoms. If, for example, we were somehow granted a limitless supply of cheap, clean energy, we would continue and even accelerate our destruction of the world by agricultural erosion, chemical poisoning, industrial war, industrial recreation and various forms of “development.”

And there is no use in saying that if we can invent the nuclear bomb and fly to the moon, we can solve hunger and related problems of land use. Epic feats of engineering require only a few brilliant technicians and a lot of money. But feeding a world of people year to year for a long time requires cultures of husbandry fitted to the nature of millions of unique small places — precisely the kind of cultures that industrialism has purposely disvalued, uprooted and destroyed.

Hard as it may be for a dislocated, miseducated, consumptive society to accept and for its pet economists to believe, the future of food is not distinguishable from the future of the land, which is indistinguishable, in turn, from the future of human care. It depends ultimately on the health not of the financial system, but of the ecosphere. In the interest of that health, we will have to bring all the disciplines, all the arts and sciences, into conformity with the nature of places.

Like other species, we will have to submit to the necessity of local adaptation. I am sure that somebody will wish to remind me of the migrations of birds, animals and insects, and also of migrations by humans from earliest times. Did these involve local adaptation? Yes; except for those of industrial humans using fossil fuel, all of these migrations have been made under the rule of local adaptation. The hummingbird successfully crossing the Gulf of Mexico is adapted, mile by mile, to the distance; it does not exceed its own mental and physical capacities, and it makes the trip, exactly like pre-industrial human migrants, on contemporary energy.

For humans, local adaptation is not work for a few financiers and a few intellectual and political hotshots. This is work for everybody, requiring everybody’s intelligence. It is work inherently democratic.

What must we do?

First, we must not work or think on a heroic scale. In our age of global industrialism, heroes too lightly risk the lives of people, places and things they do not see. We must work on a scale proper to our limited abilities. We must not break things we cannot fix. There is no justification, ever, for permanent ecological damage. If this imposes the verdict of guilt upon us all, so be it.

Second, we must abandon the homeopathic delusion that the damages done by industrialization can be corrected by more industrialization.

Third, we must quit solving our problems by “moving on.” We must try to stay put and to learn where we are geographically, historically and ecologically.

Fourth, we must learn, if we can, the sources and costs of our own economic lives.

Fifth, we must give up the notion that we are too good to do our own work and clean up our own messes. It is not acceptable for this work to be done for us by wage slavery or by enslaving nature.

Sixth, by way of correction, we must make local, locally adapted economies, based on local nature, local sunlight, local intelligence and local work.

Seventh, we must understand that these measures are radical. They go to the root of our problem. They cannot be performed for us by any expert, political leader or corporation.

This is an agenda that may be undertaken by ordinary citizens at any time, on their own initiative. In fact, it describes an effort already undertaken all over the world by many people. It defines also the expectation that citizens who, by their gifts, are exceptional will not shirk the most humble service.

Berry is a much-honored poet and Kentucky farmer who was awarded the National Humanities Medal. His books include “The Unsettling of America” and “Whitefoot.”

© The Washington Post Company