Every time I pick up a Wendell Berry book, I want to change the way I live. The Unsettling of America was first published in 1977 and in it Berry, more than forty years ago, warned of the damage being done not only to the environment, but also to our communities and to ourselves by big agriculture. He explains, dissects and offers hope against the damage done by agribusiness that puts short term yields and profits first and the health, well-being and futures of people and planet right at the bottom.
His writing is diverse, covering academic argument, anecdotal storytelling, fiction and poetry, but its impact is always the same. He points to the intrinsic connection between people and place that many of us have lost sight of as we push relentlessly into faster and bigger consumerist lifestyles. Our disconnection from place has taken us away from the land, from food, from the essential cycle of life and death, from meaningful, worthwhile work and from the satisfaction of being what we are supposed to be.
The best thing that we can do with our lives is to live in a place and care for our patch of land. That is the core theme that I take away from Berry’s teaching and it is hugely countercultural. In our culture we value mobility, rarely live where we grew up, often work in a different place to where we live and pepper our lives with holiday escapes from them. Berry highlights the problems that this creates as we lose local knowledge and culture in our settings and how work away from where we live inevitably devalues what we do.
Perhaps even worse is the tendency for people to be able to profit from their use, or misuse, of a place they do not have to live in. There are no consequences as corporations destroy habitats and communities in the pursuit of profit and then move on, extracting their profits and leaving devastation behind them.
Several of the chapters are very specific arguments with leading agricultural leaders and policymakers of the time, but at its heart the book is really about questioning our values and what really matters in the brief time that we spend on this earth. What is truly striking about it is how strongly Berry’s words still speaks into our culture decades after their first publication. His is a prophetic voice with much to offer us as individuals and as a species.