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Interview with Wendell Berry

The acclaimed author of award-winning poetry, social criticism and novels talks about his faith and the call to resist consumer culture

By Murray MacAdam


Q Too many of us spend too much time indoors, in front of screens, away from nature. Yet, there’s a consistent sense of wonder about nature in your writing. Can you suggest ways to nurture a stronger sense of Creation care?

A I am sure that the children of my generation benefited from their free roaming — without adult supervision — in the woods and fields. I am sure that we learned a great deal about the natural and practical life of work by playing, and then later working, in the company of other adults at work.

Now, I seldom see children or young people outdoors. This seems attributable largely to screen addiction. But also, work itself has changed since the time of my childhood. It has become too mechanical, too toxic and too hurried to be congenial.

Q You write, “Find your hope . . . on the ground under your feet,” reflecting the idea of acting locally. However, in the face of vast environmental threats, can there be enough local action to bring about the dramatic changes we need?

A I’m not sure. I am only sure that great problems cannot be solved by great solutions. No government, no church, no religious denomination is capable of performing an authentic act of stewardship equivalent in scale to the Normandy invasion or the bombing of Hiroshima. The utterly intractable truth of the matter is that the world is made up of a mosaic of small places, each one unique and, in significant ways, unlike any other. To be capably stewarded or husbanded, each of these places must be known and loved, and therefore possibly known by some particular human with the intelligence, knowledge and skill to use it responsibly. The responsibility pertains to the place itself, and to the humans and other creatures who live on and from it now and forever afterward.

Q You’ve said that the world and life in it are conditional gifts, and there seems to be a growing awareness of stewardship in the church with liturgies on Creation care, divestment from fossil fuels and so forth. What more can be done?

A I have little confidence that the ways you mention, even if adopted by many churches, would do much to improve our stewardship of the Earth. That stewardship is now entrusted by all of us to a small minority who do the work of farming, forestry and mining. But nearly that entire minority is working directly under the controlling influence of the industrial economy. At least since the American Civil War, and increasingly from then on, the business of that economy has been to plunder the land and people. The industrialists have attached no value to land stewardship, and they and their employees have performed no stewardship.

I’m particularly troubled by the condition of land use: farmland degraded by soil erosion and toxic chemicals; forests greedily and carelessly logged. These problems are of little or no interest to conservation organizations or the current batch of politicians. To begin to address land stewardship, churches would have to learn, and teach their people, to measure the performance of our so-called economy by the standard set forth in the Bible.

Q You maintain that the current economy basically exists for corporations, not human beings or the land, and have advocated for “economic secession,” whereby people choose to sustain a strong local economy. Can you share some examples of that model?

A Certain Amish communities have economies reasonably local in orientation, starting with the economies of households and neighbourhoods. The Amish are the only Christians that I know about who actually practise the radical neighbourliness of the Gospels. Their extensive use of horses for fieldwork and transportation limits their lives and livelihoods to a neighbourly scale and keeps their work largely dependent on local energy, from sunlight and homegrown forages and grains. The Amish are the true geniuses of technology, insofar as they, almost alone, are able to refuse it when the use of it would be destructive to their community. They are not going to replace their family members and neighbours with technological devices. They make their living by sharing the work of their families, including children and neighbours. Theirs seems a way, perhaps the only way, to have both an economy that is local and a community that is Christian.

Q Some of your writings, such as the book What Matters?, address the theme of vocation, of purpose in life. This is a topic that people of faith should be uniquely qualified to discuss. What are your thoughts?

A The churches I knew as I was growing up acknowledged and honoured only churchly vocations. People could be called to be preachers, music directors or missionaries. People who did other kinds of work weren’t encouraged to think of themselves as called. Their work was merely what they happened to do. It has been a long time since I heard anybody, religious or not, speak of a calling or vocation.

For many years, I have tried to understand my work as a vocation and to take the idea of vocation seriously. I am unable to know the extent to which I have succeeded. But I believe that significant misery is suffered by people who have to do work to which they are not called, and likewise by people who feel called to work that, for economic or other reasons, they are unable to do. I think that the replacement of “vocation” by “job” is an extremely damaging cultural tragedy.

Q In your essay Christianity and the Survival of Creation, written over 20 years ago, you issue an indictment of the church for being complicit in the destruction of nature. Given growing Christian concern about the Earth, do you feel more optimistic?

A I can respond only by pointing out that there is a difference between Christian concern and Christian skill and will in the practical arts of sustainable forestry and agriculture. Few people now possess those skills, or live in circumstances in which those skills can be used. So far as I am concerned, there is never a sufficient reason for optimism, which can only be a naive faith in a better future and is apt to lead to bad surprises. Hope cannot come from the future. The future is a non-existent place in which we deposit our most dangerous wastes, our unpayable debts, our greatest fears and our wishful thinking.

But there is always sufficient reason to be hopeful. Hope can come from critical knowledge of our history and critical understanding of our present selves. And hope must rest on the knowledge of the good work that has been done in the past, and is being done in the present. 

This interview has been condensed and edited.



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