I come from a long line of physical workers, people that have spent their entire lives on farms, construction sites, and mechanical workshops. And up to this point I’ve avoided that life as if it were a black hole, sucking you in forever. For some reason, I envisioned life presenting me with a binary choice – Either choose a life of intellectual labor or physical labor, and once you choose, you’re stuck.
After observing the world around me in a superficial way, I quickly realized pursuing a life of abstract intellectual labor would lead me to a comfy office job, a high-paying salary, and affirmation from “society” that I made the “right” decision – Ultimately leading to happiness, right? Currently, our economy monetarily values the strategy consultant over the small-town farmer… Sadly, for many of us, we default to what is “secure”, high paying, and “admired” (e.g. the strategy consultant). Luckily, over the past couple of months I realized this is complete bullsh**.
There is no such thing as a binary choice in your life, everything sits on a spectrum… It’s possible to intellectually and physically challenge yourself throughout your life journey – This is my ambition. To live a life off-grid homesteading, while intellectually challenging myself and others on topics that most of “society” wouldn’t associate with an “off-grid homesteader”. The inspiration for this choice originated through an urge to be more independent from others for my essentials… Not always needing to pay people for what makes life livable – food, shelter, water, electricity, sewage, etc.
This baby seedling of inspiration (e.g. independence) has grown into a much more meaningful pursuit, thanks to this week’s book – “The Unsettling of America”.
I intentionally chose this book because I wanted to better understand why people are so attracted to this life of labor, of moving back to “the land”, and building a more “meaningful” life.
Thankfully, Wendell Berry delivers! – I know that being a small-town farmer or off-grid homesteader isn’t appetizing for everyone, but nurturing the planet that created us, instead of exploiting it should be… And that’s what sits at the center of Wendell’s philosophy.
TLDR for “The Unsettling of America”
If you’re into conservation and live in America, I’m assuming you’ve come across Wendell’s writing… If you’ve not personally encountered Wendell, I’m betting those that you admire in the conservation space have – he’s basically one of the original gangstas of conservation.
This book is one long philosophical argument, which means that when ten people read this book, they walk away with ten different perspectives. Meaning, the summary below is probably different for each person, but if you’re not willing to read it yourself, you’ll have to settle for my butchered understanding. Ha! 😉
Wendell comes from a small-town farming background based in Kentucky, so his argument sticks to what he knows – Small-town farming. Throughout the entire book, he argues against “Agribusiness”, which is the industrialization of agriculture. This kind of farming, not only costs a ridiculous amount of money, but it uses huge amounts of fossil fuels, ruins the soil, creates mainly low-quality food, and in Wendell’s eyes has eroded our culture. He explains his argument through the lens of societies – culture, economics, impact on the planet, spiritual connection, and overall health. In the end, he makes a good case for the direct and indirect benefits of creating more small farm communities.
Specialization + Abstraction (my personal favorite)
The below sentence is my favorite from this book…
“The disease of the modern character is specialization.”
The argument to decide which is better a generalist or specialist is one that’s been happening for centuries, but Wendell takes a very interesting perspective. As society has scaled through industrialization and capitalism, we’ve simultaneously become specialists. Each of us offers the other some kind of service or product in return for money, so we’re able to pay others for their services or products – Turning into an ecosystem of specialists all relying on each other for survival. We have lawyers, marketers, investment bankers, product designers, architects, chefs, politicians, conservationists, etc. all focusing on their little circle, without realizing our reliance on the system we’ve created. By specializing, we’re depriving ourselves of independent access to the staples of life: clothing, shelter, food, and water via other specialists. We’re outsourcing the responsibility of our food to agriculture, health to doctors, education to teachers, conservation to conservationists, entertainment to entertainers, and the list goes on – “A person who can do only one thing can do virtually nothing for himself”.
Our critical interdependence on each other and our inability to do anything for ourselves isn’t the only issue… Through specializing and industrialization we’ve unintentionally separated work and home, leading to indirect impacts we’re unaware of or don’t care about. Traditionally, most people worked and lived in the same place, so if they ever polluted, ruined the land, or f***** up in some other way there was a direct feedback loop into their quality of life. This is no longer the case. Today it’s easier than ever to make a decision thousands of miles away from the community being affected by that decision without you personally feeling the impact (e.g. deforestation, strip-mining, war, etc.). This abstraction has removed the direct pain that comes with making these decisions.
Exploiter vs. Nurturer
In this book, Wendell creates two kinds of people – Exploiters & Nurturers. The examples are a strip-miner (e.g. exploiter) and a small farmer (e.g. nurturer), here’s a short section from the book explaining the difference…
The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order—a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.
As you can tell we’ve found ourselves running into another binary decision between joining the Darkside or the Lightside of the Force. This isn’t realistic. Instead of seeing this as being one person or the other, what we can practically consider is how many “Nurturer” choices we make a day – Hoping to become more nurturing over time. This is easy to say, but ridiculously hard to do… We (society) have created an ecosystem revolving around exploitation, which focuses on growing at all costs, increasing efficiency and convenience wherever possible. Taking a step back to question our purchases, behaviors, and decisions through the lens of an ideal “Nurterur” seems to be a good place to start.
There’s a lot more to this book, but these are the points that resonated with me… I’ll be honest it’s a tough read due to Wendell packing so much meaning into every sentence, but if you’re at all interested in conservation or an alternative lifestyle of living off the land, then it’s worth the read.
Finding a compromise
With most arguments, there’s going to be idealists on both sides and neither person is willing to budge – In Wendell’s case, he’s pretty stuck on reversing time back into the traditional forms of farming and living off the land.
I’m too much of a science and technology geek to throw everything away… This is where considerate compromise comes into play.
Advancements in genetic engineering, machine learning, robotics, 3D printing, and big data collection all deserve to stay. What should be reconsidered is society’s overall approach to advancing and the use of this tech… Instead of strictly focusing on productivity, profits, and the exploitative mindset, we should instead take a more nurturing mindset. Asking what the second-order effects of leveraging a specific piece of tech are… Or considering the tradeoff between optimal productivity and sustainable action.
At the end of the day, there is no binary choice, life sits on a spectrum, so it’s important we’re open to new perspectives and remove our previous dysfunctional beliefs.
Until next time my fellow Wanderers!