Richard Moore

I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote
soil conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness
preservation or sustainable agriculture or community health
or the welfare of children. Worthy as these and other goals
may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am dissatisfied
with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are
not comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they
virtually predict their own failure by implying that we can
remedy or control effects while leaving causes in place.

Original source URL:

Ecology : Wendell Berry

Traubenbrot (Swiss) photo: Pierre Ginet

The movements which deal with single issues or single solutions are bound to 
fail because they cannot control effects while leaving causes in place.

I  HAVE HAD WITH MY friend Wes Jackson a number of useful conversations about 
the necessity of getting out of movements ‹ even movements that have seemed 
necessary and dear to us ‹ when they have lapsed into self-righteousness and 
self-betrayal, as movements seem almost invariably to do. People in movements 
too readily learn to deny to others the rights and privileges they demand for 
themselves. They too easily become unable to mean their own language, as when a 
³peace movement² becomes violent. They often become too specialized, as if 
finally they cannot help taking refuge in the pinhole vision of the 
institutional intellectuals. They almost always fail to be radical enough, 
dealing finally in effects rather than causes. Or they deal with single issues 
or single solutions, as if to assure themselves that they will not be radical 

And so I must declare my dissatisfaction with movements to promote soil 
conservation or clean water or clean air or wilderness preservation or 
sustainable agriculture or community health or the welfare of children. Worthy 
as these and other goals may be, they cannot be achieved alone. I am 
dissatisfied with such efforts because they are too specialized, they are not 
comprehensive enough, they are not radical enough, they virtually predict their 
own failure by implying that we can remedy or control effects while leaving 
causes in place. Ultimately, I think, they are insincere; they propose that the 
trouble is caused by other people; they would like to change policy but not 

The worst danger may be that a movement will lose its language either to its own
confusion about meaning and practice, or to pre-emption by its enemies. I 
remember, for example, my naïve confusion at learning that it was possible for 
advocates of organic agriculture to look upon the ³organic method² as an end in 
itself. To me, organic farming was attractive both as a way of conserving nature
and as a strategy of survival for small farmers.

Imagine my surprise in discovering that there could be huge ³organic² 
monocultures. And so I was not too surprised by the recent attempt of the United
States Department of Agriculture to appropriate the ³organic² label for food 
irradiation, genetic engineering, and other desecrations of the corporate food 
economy. Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to 
mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say. When ³homemade² ceases to mean 
neither more nor less than ³made at home², then it means anything, which is to 
say that it means nothing.

AS YOU SEE, I have good reasons for declining to name the movement I think I am 
a part of. I am reconciled to the likelihood that from time to time it will name
itself and have slogans, but I am not going to use its slogans or call it by any
of its names.

Let us suppose that we have a Nameless Movement for Better Land Use and that we 
know we must try to keep it active, responsive and intelligent for a long time. 
What must we do?

What we must do above all, I think, is try to see the problem in its full size 
and difficulty. If we are concerned about land abuse, then we must see that this
is an economic problem. Every economy is, by definition, a land-using economy. 
If we are using our land wrongly, then something is wrong with our economy. This
is difficult. It becomes more difficult when we recognize that, in modern times,
every one of us is a member of the economy of everybody else.

But if we are concerned about land abuse, we have begun a profound work of 
economic criticism. Study of the history of land use (and any local history will
do) informs us that we have had for a long time an economy that thrives by 
undermining its own foundations. Industrialism, which is the name of our 
economy, and which is now virtually the only economy of the world, has been from
its beginnings in a state of riot. It is based squarely upon the principle of 
violence toward everything on which it depends, and it has not mattered whether 
the form of industrialism was communist or capitalist or whatever; the violence 
toward nature, human communities, traditional agricultures and local economies 
has been constant. The bad news is coming in, literally, from all over the 
world. Can such an economy be fixed without being radically changed? I don¹t 
think it can.

The Captains of Industry have always counselled the rest of us to be 
³realistic². Let us, therefore, be realistic. Is it realistic to assume that the
present economy would be just fine if only it would stop poisoning the air and 
water, or if only it would stop soil erosion, or if only it would stop degrading
watersheds and forest ecosystems, or if only it would stop seducing children, or
if only it would quit buying politicians, or if only it would give women and 
favoured minorities an equitable share of the loot? Realism, I think, is a very 
limited programme, but it informs us at least that we should not look for bird 
eggs in a cuckoo clock.

OR WE CAN SHOW the hopelessness of single-issue causes and single-issue 
movements by following a line of thought such as this: We need a continuous 
supply of uncontaminated water. Therefore, we need (among other things) 
soil-and-water-conserving ways of agriculture and forestry that are not 
dependent on monoculture, toxic chemicals, or the indifference and violence that
always accompany big-scale industrial enterprises on the land.

Therefore, we need diversified, small-scale land economies that are dependent on
people. Therefore, we need people with the knowledge, skills, motives and 
attitudes required by diversified, small-scale land economies. And all this is 
clear and comfortable enough, until we recognize the question we have come to: 
Where are the people?

Well, all of us who live in the suffering rural landscapes of the United States 
know that most people are available to those landscapes only recreationally. We 
see them bicycling or boating or hiking or camping or hunting or fishing or 
driving along and looking around. They do not, in Mary Austin¹s phrase, ³summer 
and winter with the land². They are unacquainted with the land¹s human and 
natural economies. Though people have not progressed beyond the need to eat food
and drink water and wear clothes and live in houses, most people have progressed
beyond the domestic arts ‹ the husbandry and wifery of the world ‹ by which 
those needful things are produced and conserved. In fact, the comparative few 
who still practise that necessary husbandry and wifery often are inclined to 
apologize for doing so, having been carefully taught in our education system 
that those arts are degrading and unworthy of people¹s talents. Educated minds, 
in the modern era, are unlikely to know anything about food and drink, clothing 
and shelter. In merely taking these things for granted, the modern educated mind
reveals itself also to be as superstitious a mind as ever has existed in the 
world. What could be more superstitious than the idea that money brings forth 

I AM NOT SUGGESTING, of course, that everybody ought to be a farmer or a 
forester. Heaven forbid! I am suggesting that most people now are living on the 
far side of a broken connection, and that this is potentially catastrophic. Most
people are now fed, clothed and sheltered from sources toward which they feel no
gratitude and exercise no responsibility. There is no significant urban 
constituency, no formidable consumer lobby, no noticeable political leadership, 
for good land-use practices, for good farming and good forestry, for restoration
of abused land, or for halting the destruction of land by so-called 

We are involved now in a profound failure of imagination. Most of us cannot 
imagine the wheat beyond the bread, or the farmer beyond the wheat, or the farm 
beyond the farmer, or the history beyond the farm. Most people cannot imagine 
the forest and the forest economy that produced their houses and furniture and 
paper; or the landscapes, the streams and the weather that fill their pitchers 
and bathtubs and swimming pools with water. Most people appear to assume that 
when they have paid their money for these things they have entirely met their 

Money does not bring forth food. Neither does the technology of the food system.
Food comes from nature and from the work of people. If the supply of food is to 
be continuous for a long time, then people must work in harmony with nature. 
That means that people must find the right answers to a lot of hard practical 
questions. The same applies to forestry and the possibility of a continuous 
supply of timber.

One way we could describe the task ahead of us is by saying that we need to 
enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs 
to know ‹ and care ‹ what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you 
have a taste for revolution, but it is also a matter of common sense.

Undoubtedly some people will want to start a movement to bring this about. They 
probably will call it the Movement to Teach the Economy What It Is Doing ‹ the 
mtewiid. Despite my very considerable uneasiness, I will agree to this, but on 
three conditions.

My first condition is that this movement should begin by giving up all hope and 
belief in piecemeal, one-shot solutions. The present scientific quest for 
odourless hog manure should give us sufficient proof that the specialist is no 
longer with us. Even now, after centuries of reductionist propaganda, the world 
is still intricate and vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery, where 
we cannot do one thing without doing many things, or put two things together 
without putting many things together. Water quality, for example, cannot be 
improved without improving farming and forestry, but farming and forestry cannot
be improved without improving the education of consumers ‹ and so on.

The proper business of a human economy is to make one whole thing of ourselves 
and this world. To make ourselves into a practical wholeness with the land under
our feet is maybe not altogether possible ‹ how would we know? ‹ but, as a goal,
it at least carries us beyond hubris, beyond the utterly groundless assumption 
that we can subdivide our present great failure into a thousand separate 
problems that can be fixed by a thousand task forces of academic and 
bureaucratic specialists. That programme has been given more than a fair chance 
to prove itself, and we ought to know by now that it won¹t work.

My second condition is that the people in this movement (the mtewiid) should 
take full responsibility for themselves as members of the economy. If we are 
going to teach the economy what it is doing, then we need to learn what we are 
doing. This is going to have to be a private movement as well as a public one. 
If it is unrealistic to expect wasteful industries to be conservers, then 
obviously we must lead in part the public life of complainers, petitioners, 
protesters, advocates and supporters of stricter regulations and saner policies.
But that is not enough.

If it is unreasonable to expect a bad economy to try to become a good one, then 
we must go to work to build a good economy. It is appropriate that this duty 
should fall to us, for good economic behaviour is more possible for us than it 
is for the great corporations with their miseducated managers and their greedy 
and oblivious stockholders. Because it is possible for us, we must try in every 
way we can to make good economic sense in our own lives, in our households, and 
in our communities. We must do more for ourselves and our neighbours. We must 
learn to spend our money with our friends and not with our enemies. But to do 
this it is necessary to renew local economies and revive the domestic arts.

In seeking to change our economic use of the world, we are seeking inescapably 
to change our lives. The outward harmony that we desire between our economy and 
the world depends finally upon an inward harmony between our own hearts and the 
originating spirit that is the life of all creatures, a spirit as near us as our
flesh and yet forever beyond the measures of this obsessively measuring age. We 
can grow good wheat and make good bread only if we understand that we do not 
live by bread alone.

My third condition is that this movement should content itself to be poor. We 
need to find cheap solutions, solutions within the reach of everybody, and the 
availability of a lot of money prevents the discovery of cheap solutions. The 
solutions of modern medicine and modern agriculture are all staggeringly 
expensive, and this is caused in part, and maybe altogether, because of the 
availability of huge sums of money for medical and agricultural research.

Too much money, moreover, attracts administrators and experts as sugar attracts 
ants ‹ look at what is happening in our universities. We should not envy rich 
movements that are organized and led by an alternative bureaucracy living on the
problems it is supposed to solve. We want a movement that is a movement because 
it is advanced by all its members in their daily lives.

NOW, HAVING COMPLETED this very formidable list of the problems and 
difficulties, fears and fearful hopes that lie ahead of us, I am relieved to see
that I have been preparing myself all along to end by saying something cheerful.
What I have been talking about is the possibility of renewing human respect for 
this Earth and all the good, useful and beautiful things that come from it. I 
have made it clear, I hope, that I don¹t think this respect can be adequately 
enacted or conveyed by tipping our hats to nature or by representing natural 
loveliness in art or by prayers of thanksgiving or by preserving tracts of 
wilderness ‹ although I recommend all those things. The respect I mean can be 
given only by using well the world¹s goods that are given to us. This good use, 
which renews respect ‹ which is the only currency, so to speak, of respect ‹ 
also renews our pleasure. The callings and disciplines that I have spoken of as 
the domestic arts are stationed all along the way from the farm to the prepared 
dinner, from the forest to the dinner table, from stewardship of the land to 
hospitality to friends and strangers. These arts are as demanding and 
gratifying, as instructive and as pleasing, as the so-called ³fine arts². To 
learn them is, I believe, the work that is our profoundest calling. Our reward 
is that they will enrich our lives and make us glad.

This article is reprinted from Orion magazine.
Wendell Berry is a farmer, a poet and a novelist.
from Resurgence issue 198 - January / February 2000

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