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The power of imagination is to see things whole, to see things clearly, to see things with sanctity, to see things with love…

Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Alan Cornett as he discusses Wendell Berry’s thoughts on environmentalism and climate change, wealth and the economy, hope and the imagination. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher

Wendell Berry addressed faith, agrarianism, and why he hates “environmentalism” in a ninety-minute conversation with Centre College Professor Eric Mount. The two men sat in angled wingback chairs before a crowd of more than two hundred listeners in the sumptuous surroundings of Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist Church. In true professorial fashion, Mount made sure everyone had a copy of his ten “Conversation Starters.” What resulted was not a speech or address, but rather a potpourri of topics linked together by larger themes.

Wendell Berry on Environmentalism

Berry began by dismissing the word “environment” as useless to the conservation movement, preferring “ecosphere,” or simply “the world.” Berry argued that in order to have a real effect one needs to embrace the particular, call it by “its proper name: the Kentucky River watershed, something known to its inhabitants.” Berry insists we cast off the abstract and embrace what we know and can define.

The same is true with the idea of “agrarian.” Berry harkened to the “Jeffersonian vision” of “small landholders who had a vested interest in the local place.” “The agrarian vision is old,” pointing to Virgil’s Georgics and the Psalms.

Just as he had dismissed “environmentalism,” so, too, Berry waved off the catchphrase “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Calling it a “linguistic mess,” Berry insisted it was not possible to think globally. He said he would prefer to reduce the slogan simply to “Think!”

Should You Trust Someone With a Billion Dollars?

Dr. Mount brought up the work of The Gates Foundation and its vast amounts of money. Berry conceded that the foundation had the money to accept the world as context, but the question is “whether or not they are competent” to do so: “Nobody knows a billion. If someone came to Henry County with a billion dollars and said ‘I’m here to help,’ I would be very much afraid.”

A Holy Economy

When the issue of religion came up, Berry was highly critical of institutionalized expressions of Christianity. The Amish are the most successful examples of Christianity, Berry maintained. Personally, he found that the Buddhist doctrine of “right livelihood” filled a big hole in his thinking, a corrective to what he found in modern expressions of Christianity.

Berry pulled out a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to read “For Every Man in His Work:”

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who declarest thy glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth; Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Berry said the sentiments of this prayer were “utterly alien” to our own economy. “We have an economy founded foursquare on the Seven Deadly Sins. Just go down the list.”

Wendell Berry on Imagination

Dr. Mount called an Order of the Day, and asked Berry to read his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” It was written at a time when everyone was writing manifestos, Berry said, but also at a time he “felt liberated” by the language he was using, much of it drawing from Biblical precedents.

This led to a discussion of the idea of imagination. “We’ve been taught in our schools to see without imagination.” Berry said, “The power of imagination is to see things whole, to see things clearly, to see things with sanctity, to see things with love.” Berry was describing what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination.

Addressing the issue of neighborly institutions, Berry returned to a Biblical outlook. “The idea of neighborliness is the radicalness of the gospel….Your neighbor is somebody who needs your help, which is just terrible.” Such a responsibility is the imagination in action.

Nature’s Standard

Berry referenced the twelfth-century poem “Complaint of Nature,” by Alain de Lille. Although he declared it a “pretty dull book,” Berry endorsed Alain’s view of “Nature as the vicar of God.” This was something Chaucer and Spencer also knew, he said.

Reading from Sir Albert Howard’s Introduction to the 1943 classic An Agricultural Testament, Berry stated that this expressed the foundational understanding of the sustainable agricultural movement.

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops;
great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

Berry emphasized the point “there is no waste.”

Wendell Berry on Climate Change

The discussion eventually turned to the currently hot topic of “climate change.” Berry conceded that “I take it on faith” that there is man-made climate change. “If some scientists that I respect at a conference didn’t take it seriously I’d have a hard time taking it seriously myself.” But again, Berry said the issue won’t have a big solution, but rather “many, many small solutions.”

He also threw cold water on some of the current solutions offered by many environmentalists. “It’s easy to say ‘wind’ but have you seen those windmills? Monstrous.” Even the solar panels he installed at his own house are ugly. “We have to look at those the rest of our lives.”

Wendell Berry on Journalism

During the question and answer segment Berry also countered a self-identified “environmental journalist” in the audience who asked about environmental advocacy related to water quality and coal ash. Advocacy wasn’t really the role of journalism, Berry said, “Journalists ought to be finding out what’s what. That’s our desperate need for journalism, and it seems we’re getting less and less of it all the time.”

Wendell Berry’s Vision of Hope

Berry concluded with a call for patience even in the face for what many see as an emergency. He countered such gloom with the admonition to “have as much fun as you can.” And there is always hope: “My faith is that it can’t ever get so bad that a person can’t do something to make things a little better.”

That is a profoundly humane vision, and our terrible responsibility.

This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in May 2014. Republished with gracious permission from Pinstripe Pulpit (May 2014). Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

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1 reply to this post
  1. One challenge is that Berry’s approach of “many, many small solutions” does an end run around the entrenched and self-interested bureaucracy of the centralized state. For big government, solutions are not the answer — the answer is ALWAYS to launch a new government program, with no concern whether it will do any good.

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