An Analysis of Culture and Agriculture in Wendell Berry's Book "The Unsettling of America "

Categories: Environmental Ethics

My first impression of Wendell Berrys book, The Unsettling of America; Culture & Agriculture was What could this possibly have to do with me? I first thought that Berry wanted us all to be farmers, but then I realized this book argues that the way our society behaves is directly related to the decline of small farms and the state of our ecological system. Berry wanted the people who read this book to realize they are responsible for the land and the decisions they make pertaining to it can help or hurt the future of the land.

Today, we are too involved with our own lives to remember that we need the land to survive, and every one of us takes part in keeping it healthy and functional.

Everyone takes their quality of life for granted. We assume there will always be energy and fuel. No one takes into account what happens when they drive around a parking lot for 20 minutes looking for the closet spot instead of walking an extra 50 feet.

What happens is there is fuel wasted, meaning more gasoline needs to be produced. It also means that this person also missed out on exercise that would make them healthier. In our society, people do only what is convenient, not what is responsible. Berry says The only possible guarantee of the future is responsible behavior in the present (58)

Part of responsible behavior is being a part of the land by becoming a producer. Todays families do not grow their own vegetables in gardens, and do not even cook their own meals on a regular basis.

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Berry quotes Jules B. Billard as saying Of the 6,000 to 8,000 items in the typical supermarket, 40 percent were not there a dozen years ago (qtd in Berry 60). Instead of canning our own applesauce, we now buy it at the supermarket in jars, with different flavors. Instead of squeezing our own orange juice, we buy it in cartons with pictures of Donald Duck on them. All this leads to more waste and sometimes less nutrition. By not producing some of our own goods, we lose sight of our tie to the land and take for granted products on supermarket shelves.

If the earth is not healthy, all those things that are taken for granted will not exist. Berry states We must understand what the heath of the earth requires, and we must put that before all other needs(66). This statement is the backbone of the problem in our society. The underlying problem goes back to the fact that everyone is so self involved that they do not see what is happening. They are too concerned with what is convenient that they forget that we are a part of the land, and need it to survive.

From the very beginning of this country, we have relied on the land for our well being. We need to remember our past and where we come from. Future generations will need to rely on the land as well, therefore it is up to us to make sure it is not destroyed. Berry states three reasons why we need to think about the land and what we are doing to it. (1) Our biological roots are well as our cultural roots lie in nature (29). This means that we come from the land and could not survive without it. (2) If we are to be properly humble in our use of the world, we need places we do not use at all (30). We cannot use every bit of the land because then we will leave nothing for future generations. (3) We need wilderness as a standard of civilization and as a cultural model (30). For further explanation he adds, Only if we know how the land was, can we tell how it is. (30). Only by having untouched land can we see the effects our lifestyle is having on it.

There are parts of the land that we will have to use, but they should be used in moderation. Berry states in any biological system the first principal is restraint- that is, the natural or moral check that maintain a balance between use and continuity (29). Its all right to use the things that have been put on this earth, but we need to know when to stop, and to make sure that what we are using is being replaced. For example, every time a tree is cut down, one could be planted. Preservation takes a large role in securing our future and the future of our children.

The Sierra Club is a widely recognized group of conservationists. Their slogan reads in part …to explore, enjoy, and protect the nations scenic resources… (qtd in Berry 25). Most people have the explore and enjoy parts down, the problem occurs with protect. We all understand that nature is beautiful and we love to travel the country in search of national parks and wildlife, we just do not understand that if we do not start protecting the places we love, they will not be there for our children and grandchildren to enjoy. We assume that no matter how we treat things, they will always be there because they have always been there. We do not pay attention to what happens to the land when it is overused. There is a passage in the book in which Berry talks about the river rising and becoming muddy as he is looking out the window. Most people will notice the river rising, and some will even notice that it is becoming muddy. Very few people will contemplate why the river is becoming muddy. When we can teach society to notice and contemplate these things, then we are making progress.

Getting the message out is the key to solving this problem. Although this book is very eyeopening, not very many ordinary people are going to read it. We need to reach them in different ways. There are resources out there that anyone can access. When I typed Sierra Club into the search engine Yahoo on the Internet, it came up with 103 related sites. However, I was inspired to look for them. They have always been there, but it took this book to encourage me to look for them. We can help by talking about what we have learned and incorporating it into our everyday lives.

One of the problems I have with this book, is that Berry uses such extreme examples to support his point, that you are left feeling that the problem is just too big, and there is nothing you can do about it. There is a solution that we can all participate in, even in very small levels. Just talking about this book will help open peoples eyes. It starts with turning out the light the next time you walk out of a room. It continues when you are walking down the street and see a piece of garbage and pick it up and put it in a garbage can. These seem like very small things, but if everyone starts to realize the small things, they will have a greater awareness of the other things they are doing in their lives that hurt the environment.

Berry gives a dozen solutions to the problems with family farms and the environment. In my opinion, the most important is …we must address ourselves seriously, and not a little fearfully to the problem of human scale. What is it? How do we stay within it? What sort of technology enhances our humanity? What sort reduces it? The reason is simply that we cannot live except within limits, and these limits are of many kinds: spatial, material, moral, spiritual. The world has room for many people who are content to live as humans, but only for a relative few intent upon living as giants, or as gods (222). Basically what he is saying is that we need to know when to say when, and that we are not the only ones that are ever going to use this land. We need to preserve it for future generations and not hand our problems down to them.

So, should we all be farmers? In a sense, yes. In some ways we should all think like farmers. No one has a greater respect for the land than farmers, and no one knows how to keep the earth healthy like farmers. If we all thought just a little bit like farmers, then we are making progress. By keeping parts of the earth untouched and using only what we have to, we can insure the earth will be here for many generations to enjoy.

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An Analysis of Culture and Agriculture in Wendell Berry's Book "The Unsettling of America ". (2021, Oct 31). Retrieved from

An Analysis of Culture and Agriculture in Wendell Berry's Book "The Unsettling of America "
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