Questions for a New Agrarianism

Around July 2014, I somehow stumbled across the work of Wendell Berry. He’s hard to describe accurately so I’ll just grab the first line of his Wikipedia entry: “American novelist, poet, environmental activist, cultural critic, and farmer.” The first book of his I read was actually a collection of essays, The Art of the Commonplace, and I more recently read What Are People For? Berry is what you would call an agrarian. He believes that… well just skim this thing or Wikipedia itself.

I wish I could remember how I happened on this unlikely source of inspiration. As far as I can reconstruct from my records, it may have been just from browsing Goodreads and viewing some Berry quotes there. When I started The Art of the Commonplace, I had just moved from a Harlem studio apartment to a midtown Manhattan two-bedroom in a high-rise, in with my then-boyfriend (now husband) who I’d met a few months before on the internet. The closest nature was Central Park, of course, but I hardly went there except to drink a cup of coffee from time to time. I have no real experience in farming, or even with ~the land~ more generally. I am a happy beneficiary of industrialization, urbanization, and the knowledge economy.

Retrospectively, it is hard to judge whether change in beliefs result in changes in action, or whether actions already in progress bootstrapped the belief change. Since we’d like to see ourselves as rational and reasons-driven agents, the former explanation is overused. Probably mostly it’s a bit of both processes, a self-reinforcing cycle.

That is all to say that I don’t know whether I became convinced of the value of a settled, coherent life before or after I began to have one. However, for whatever reason, the agrarianism of Wendell Berry grabbed me. Reading Berry helped me appreciate the inherent particularities of places and lives. His talk of local knowledge sounds vaguely Hayekian (but for their radically different economic views, of course). Berry’s world is full of people and things with well-considered and well-executed functions. I am especially moved by the truth of his observation that the happy home is necessarily a site of production, not of mere consumption. Berry champions investedness, and the magic of the quotidian.

On the other hand, I don’t share Berry’s skepticism towards computers, or all of his concerns regarding the integrity of physical environments. Agrarianism is certainly wrong about some things, or at least generally outdated, but interestingly so. A self-aware recognition of its archaic character is almost build into agrarianism (don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?)

Humans today are indeed stuck with essentially the bodies of hunter-gatherers, plus many of the institutions and belief systems of farmers. Something will come next,  but it is not our responsibility to usher in the future at great personal cost. Each of us must decide in what ways we wish to look forward and in what ways we’d prefer to look back. The aggregation of these individual choices produces social change, but almost no one lives a completely new wave life or a completely “traditional” one.

I have more questions about neograrianism than answers, though. It is time to unload them and dash.

  • What do we gain when various associations (like familial relationships and friendships) are generally experienced as voluntary rather than being dictated by geographical relatedness? What do we lose?
  • What does it mean to have permanence or rootedness in an urban environment? Are urban dwellers just doomed? What are the real benefits of cities? If cities really do offer often-unnoticed environmental benefits, but they impose certain types of social costs, how do those trade off? (Are the social downsides of cities even real?)
  • What forms of production (as opposed to mere consumption) succeed in lending purpose and meaning to households? To what extent is the production of workers itself a properly productive activity of a home? Is working from home (as remotely, for an employer) importantly different than working at home? Why?
  • To what extent is neoagrarianism consistent with, or confirmable by, empirical observations? For instance, time use surveys that show Americans work less and sleep more than they tend to report, and surveys show that many people are satisfied with their bullshit-type jobs. Many Americans watch huge amounts of television.
  • What does it really mean for largely non-landowning consumers in an industrialized world to practice good stewardship of the earth? Does the fact that the earth is always changing in some way or other (“dynamism” as described by Virginia Postrel in The Future And Its Enemies) mean we are justified in using it in literally any way we please? Can we trust markets and/or governments to solve the related collective action problems for us? Can we even partially fulfill our obligations towards the earth (or to each other, as mediated by shared environments) by purchasing the right things and not purchasing the wrong things?
  • Farming has certainly not solved all of humanity’s problem — arguably, farming has done more damage than good on net. Why, according to agrarianism, is the solution to these problems to just farm harder instead of abandoning the project and/or leaving it only to the efficient experts?
  • If capitalism is a natural offshoot of a settled, property-owning (i.e. agrarian) lifestyle, why must agrarians resist capitalist values so stringently? Can the a balance between agrarian values and capitalist/industrial values be salvaged?
  • To what extent do elites genuinely experiment with new ways of life, and to what extent do they pay lip service to new values while continuing to live an older way? Has the ability to live agrarian values become a trapping of privilege?
  • Short of rapid voluntary depopulation (as predicted or recommended by others concerned with sustainability, such as Lierre Keith), how are we to deal with the brute fact that life as Berry endorses simply cannot be had by all or even most of earth’s humans simultaneously? Is this just a tragic fact? If so, we still need a way to cope with the tragedy.
  • What is the relevance of online communities to our lives? What types of associations and organizations can they meaningfully provide? What are their limitations in terms of wellbeing payoff? In short, is a placeless digital agrarianism possible?

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