October 22, 2013

It’s been one year since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the eastern coast of the United States, affecting 24 states and devastating parts of New Jersey and New York. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Millions were left without power. As many as 100 people died; most of whom drowned as the storm surged in Staten Island and Queens. At $65 billion, Sandy was the second costliest storm in U.S. history.

Today, communities that were reduced to rubble are steadily recovering. And yet, one year later, policymakers have yet to address climate change, which undoubtedly contributed to the strength, magnitude and danger of Sandy. There is little discussion of rebuilding in a way that better prepares us for the ravages of future storms. And after Washington’s most recent shameful display of deadlock and dysfunction, it would be wishful thinking to presume that Congress will act on this issue anytime soon.

That’s why last week’s Roosevelt Institute Four Freedoms awards ceremony was all the more significant for honoring someone who has devoted his life to the stewardship of our planet — legendary humanist, poet, essayist, novelist, fifth-generation Kentucky farmer and activist Wendell Berry.

Over the course of his life, Berry has written and spoken about a number of issues, including war, corporate corruption and the death penalty. But it is his work as an environmental activist and advocate of small-scale sustainable agriculture that has, perhaps, had the greatest impact on our national conversation.

Berry picked up where Thoreau left off, providing, as Michael Pollan has written, “a sturdy bridge over the deep American divide between nature and culture.” And in teaching us to cultivate our own gardens, and reap the wild in our own backyards, Berry “marked out a path that led us back into nature, no longer as spectators but as full-fledged participants.”

Decades before farmers markets were an urban ubiquity and DIY chicken coops dotted the roofs of Williamsburg lofts, Berry revolutionized our thinking on food and farming. He pioneered our understanding of the importance of sustainable agriculture, of eating local, of the connection between “a hamburger and the price of oil” — that is, between the land we till and the food we eat, and the physical and moral health of our people. By clearly and consistently illuminating those connections, Berry became not just the prophet of the food movement but also a powerful voice in the fight against global warming.

Today, too much of the climate change discussion is framed in terms of sacrifice and competition. From the personal — recycle more, waste less — to the national — regulate more, drill less — there’s a kind of temperance, a buzzkill, associated with protecting our planet. This restrictive ethos has been thoroughly absorbed and repurposed by resentful tea partyers who warn, in apocalyptic terms, that environmentalists are elevating “nature above man.” These climate deniers are, in effect, pitting the (free-range) chicken against the egg.

To Berry, however, there’s no sacrifice to be made, no competition at all; it is, in fact, fulfilling and even fun to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the planet. Rather than choosing between human and wild, he reminds us of our inseparability from all that surrounds us — in spite of modern culture’s efforts to persuade us otherwise, to permit us to unconsciously destroy the very earth that sustains us. This, he says, is “one of our worst national failings; our refusal to admit the need to be conscious . . . our refusal to admit that unconsciousness, in our time, is almost inevitably destructive.”

Nowhere do we more plainly see the consequences of that inevitable destruction than after a disaster, natural or man-made, lays waste to whole communities. Indeed, Berry became an early and avid opponent of mountaintop removal mining after witnessing mining companies strip his beloved Kentucky hills bare, which he described in a landmark 1966 piece for the Nation.

And yet, whether a disaster of our maker or of our making, after the dust settles, after the floodwaters recede, after we comfort the survivors and bury the dead, very little changes. Our leaders pour billions of dollars into rebuilding the same homes and businesses on increasingly vulnerable coastlines but refuse to invest in fortifying them against the volatile elements. Many refuse to acknowledge that global warming contributes to extreme weather events. They refuse to admit that the cumulative effects of these catastrophes cannot be sustained.

But, as Berry has said, “Whether we and our politicians know it or not, nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.”

If there’s any good news, it’s that while our politicians may ignore reality, more and more Americans understand that our responsibility to the earth is an existential one. From the growth of the sustainable food movement to groups like 350.org to a rising generation of youth across party lines concerned about climate change, people are embracing the lessons of Wendell Berry. Now, the challenge is to take that energy and generate enough political pressure to spur action.

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