Wendell Berry's book, Another Turn of the Crank, takes us well beyond the sustainability of agriculture as such. This is a book about community and, necessarily then, it is a book about economics. John Dewey wrote, "Natural associations are the conditions for the existence of a community, but a community adds the function of communication in which emotions and ideas are shared as well as joint undertakings engaged in. Economic forces have immensely widened the scope of associational activities. But it has done so largely at the expense of the intimacy and directness of communal group interests and activities." (Freedom and Culture, pp. 159-160) The context of the present discussion is the disappearance of agrarian communities throughout America and, hence, the death of agrarian culture. Forest culture has been another victim. Part of this story is about access to fresh, healthy foods and good local timber. But most of the story is about much more.
What is economics? On the basis of most college courses in economics, it would be most appropriate to say something about supply and demand, those familiar curves that mysteriously set the price of goods and services. Close in relation to this are the "marginal propensity to consume" and various graphs that demonstrate the relationship between savings and investment, as mediated by the prevailing interest rates, or price of money. Contemporary economists are also fascinated by "the multiplier effect," the fact that the "effective money supply" is always much larger than its foundation in reserves, such as gold. The answer, in other words, is always that money lies at the heart of economics. Value equals price; that is, the value of anything is determined by market conditions. In this mentality, the answer to the disappearance of family farms is very simple; the marketplace depressed the value of the family farm to the point where it just disappeared. The agrarian culture was valuable only in so far as it could maintain a presence in the market. For economists, this is the only way that we can rationally talk about value. Everything else is an "externality," something that does not fit into their system of thought. Unfortunately, for some economists who refuse to deal with anything outside of their theoretical system, there can be no rational conversation about externalities.
One of the issues that economists fail to discuss, then, is the fact that market-oriented economics is merely an artifact of our own social structure and that the grounding concepts of economics are quite different. Indeed, the grounding concepts of economics deal with the fact that people need to produce food, shelter, and clothing for their survival and that "economics" is born within the formation of any arrangement to solve the survival problem. The essential factors are production and distribution by and within the community. Economics, in other words, is part of the culture of any surviving community.
Consider the economics of indigenous hunter-gatherer communities in the Western United States. These communities were virtually always sized and positioned in harmony with the "productive character" of the land. In the Great Basin, which is an arid region of the West, the community was usually little more than an extended family unit with only a few unrelated associates. Communities were well distanced from each other because they needed to avoid overly taxing the sparse plant and animal resources. The Chumash, of Southern California, on the other hand, were inclined to live in large communities that occasionally rose to a thousand, or so, since they were ocean-going people who found an abundance of fish and shell animals in the region between the coast and the Channel Islands.
Hunter-gatherer cultures tended to regulate production and distribution through ritual performances. Thus, "first fruit" rituals kept people of the community from jumping ahead and appropriating foods before the community was completely organized and before the food source was ready for harvest. Because these rituals held spiritual significance also, they kept people in a respectful relationship with the natural sources of foods, as well. There were also rituals and taboos that controlled food distribution. Often, a hunter could not eat something that he had killed. In this way, the food supply required sharing and everyone participated in some way. The "chief," "headman," or "captain" was often an icon of the food production-and-distribution culture, being a leader in hunting and the community's principal medium of redistribution of resources. More than anyone else in the community, the chief had to identify the young, the old, and the sick and make sure that they were provided sufficient resources for survival. This was possible because ritual demanded that a share of whatever came into the community should be given to the chief. Periodic feast days were also occasions for ritual giving across community lines. It has been observed, for instance, that the Cahuilla survived in the precarious conditions of desert life because they possessed a highly intricate system of intermarriages across "township" divisions that encouraged ritual giving across great distances so that resources were distributed widely. While it is true that indigenous people accumulated and held "money," this was used mainly to purchase from outside the community and to purchase mainly non-food items. The "money" itself was a product --- shell beads from several locations along the Pacific Coast --- that was redistributed throughout much of the West.
Agriculture enabled larger numbers of people to live in communal life with each other. Community size was limited only by the amount of land that could be farmed --- given terrain, soil, and water supply. Even in the relatively arid Southwest, pueblo people lived in communities that included several hundred men, women, and children. Farming was achieved either in the lowland arroyos or on the mesa above their apartment structures. Crops included corn, squash, and beans in varieties that were compatible with the low humidity and low rainfall of the areas. Agriculture was always supplemented by hunting and gathering. The distribution and redistribution of foods was controlled by custom and ritual. Productivity was enhanced through a spiritual relationship with the powerful forces of nature. Thunderheads, lightening, and rain are common symbols on native pots, clothing, and other designs.
These are all quite properly "economies" even though they have little or nothing to do with money, markets, or price setting. They are communities that require food, clothing, and shelter; hence, they organize the production of these things and see to it that the products are distributed to community members. Everyone serves a role of some kind that is meaningful to the culture, but not all roles have to be integral to the economy. Work is common; but not everyone works. Nevertheless, every member of the community is provided for; provision comes with community membership.
Agricultural communities in America are similar to indigenous communities. There is a strong sense of community and a genuine feeling that survival lies in cooperation. My cousin, for instance, is a fireman in Davenport, Iowa, so he spends only about 50% of his working time on the family farm which he has taken over. But out of that 50%, I would estimate that he spends at least 30% helping other farmers. The issue seems not to be mine-and-yours; rather it seems to be stewardship of the land, getting the most out of what they collectively have. Giving is done freely because what is given comes back. That is the principle of sharing, and it stands at the center of the agrarian community. It is a central value in agrarian culture.
In contrast to this, Capitalist industrial urban culture values individuation, mobilization, competition, appropriation, exploitation, and profit taking. The chief tension in Capitalism is the "mark up" or "added value." This requires a marketing scheme so that the Capitalist can stand between the market and the resources. The dearer the market, the farther removed from the resources, and the more vulnerable the resources are, the larger mark up value the Capitalist can hope for. Marx observed that this separation between market value and use value inherently alienated the worker from his/her product. Put in a somewhat different way, Capitalism inserts a new "product," which might be called "market organization," which the Capitalist contributes and demands a high price for it. In fact, the Capitalist can appropriate the demanded price while the worker or resource owner is always left in the position of accepting what the market will bear.
How did farming become a capitalist undertaking? We can see that local food economies are relatively safe from the phenomenon since market and resource are close at hand. The two largest factors of change, in America, were heavy urbanization and the development of farm machinery. Urbanization gradually separated the sustaining market from the farmer and required an increasing number of Capitalist middle men. Remoteness of marketing also meant unfavorable competition and drove prices down. As the cultural difference between city and farm increased, farmers wanted more of the products of city manufacturing, including modern farm machinery. The requirement of cash or credit with which to purchase from the cities quickly threw farmers into production capitalism, that is, the need to make profits on farm produce. Especially after World War II, this encouraged farmers, as Wes Jackson has described, to expand yields on reduced costs; it also pushed them toward profit-making "cash crops." Farming, in other words, became a money-making business and left the concept of local food economies in the dust. My cousin, for instance, raises soy beans and feed corn to feed to beef cattle and hogs. His farm is really a "feed lot" and his business is really fattening animals for food. Meanwhile, in the little farm community of Eldridge, they buy their food from supermarkets that bring in produce from all over the nation.
The step from small-farm enterprise to corporate take-overs is easy. It is clear that small farmers are fighting a losing battle once they decide to compete for cash crops. Economics well teaches the "economies of scale." As farming communities become disconnected from the farms, through the collapse of local food economies, their banks become more oriented to profit and security and less friendly to the small farmer. Loans are foreclosed and farmers sell their land. Large corporate absentee "farmers" hire labor to run huge farming enterprises. There is no rural community left. It is questionable to what degree the cities ever offered anything like community. Hence, the culture of community has little or no place left in America.
If this is the case, however, it may be that preservation of the environment has no place left in America. For Berry, community and environment seem to be inherently linked to each other. In the concept of the "commons," a community established rules of use and preservation for land that was held available for the common good. Land use was essential to survival; hence, sustaining the usability of the land was essential to the long-term survival of the community. As Berry suggests, this is something that people can achieve when they know the land and know their needs; it is not something that governments can achieve, especially not distant governments. The concept of a commons which is attached to a community is profoundly different from public lands that are held in trust by a state or federal government. In this respect, all giant landholders, corporate or government, suffer the same blindness to details of the land and have no real gauge for determining needs. For them, sustainability is an abstraction. Corporations exhaust resources and simply move on; governments are rarely answerable to anything, including economic realities. For Berry it is only the survival needs of a community that can protect the environment and that is done best when the community members are small landholders themselves.
This leads us to the final theme of Berry's book, the theme of human health. When we speak of survival, we are really talking about humans achieving and enjoying "health." But what is health? Clearly, for Berry, the last place we would go asking is to the so-called "health professionals." Health is wholeness, in some sense. But what does that mean? And can we possess wholeness without good food, clean air, a thriving and diverse environment, and human warmth. Is health living in a society that cares? And what really does that word mean? Maybe a hug, when it is sincerely given.
What does Wendell Berry want? In the end, I think he wants us to consider what we are doing to ourselves by destroying communities. He wants us to imagine what it will be like to live in the global world without any community. (Let there be no mistake, the idea of a "global community" is pure fantasy and propaganda! A slick idiom.) And he wants us to move in the direction of restoring human communities. It is the culture that comes with community that is important -- the ways in which people behave toward each other and the values that they collectively entertain.
One medium that seems to suggest itself is to restore community relations around a local food supply and timber supply. Following the rules suggested in his second essay, one can ask how much of one's survival needs could be achieved by reciprocal productivity and distribution within a locality. How much of the rest does one consider a necessity? What would the community have to do in order to provide its members with those necessities? It is clear, of course, that this locality-oriented community would look very different from what we now possess.
The real question, however, is what the balance of values achieved might be if the local community were chosen over the global one. Indeed, what are the values favored by this kind of community? Autonomy is clearly one. Genuine face-to-face contact with people is another. Stewardship of the local environment is another.
Copyright 1997 by Tad Beckman, Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, CA 91711
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