Local Economies to Save the Land and the People

Wendell Berry

Johnny Noble, 9, sits in his uncle's trailer, which has no electricity or running water, in Owsley County, Kentucky, on April 12, 2012. According to the 2010 census, 56 percent of the children in Owlsey County live in poverty, which is the second highest level of child poverty of any county in the United States. (Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota has the highest level, at 60 percent.) Coal mines that once provided jobs in Owsley County have disappeared. A government "buy-out" to reduce the number of tobacco producers hurt local farmers. Timber remains essential to the local economy.

As often before, my thoughts begin with the mod­ern his­to­ry of rur­al Ken­tucky, which in all of its regions has been deplorable. In my coun­ty, Hen­ry Coun­ty, for exam­ple, as recent­ly as the mid­dle of the last cen­tu­ry, every town was a thriv­ing eco­nom­ic and social cen­ter. Now all of them are either dying or dead. If there is any con­cern about this in any of the state’s insti­tu­tions, I have yet to hear about it. The peo­ple in these towns and their trib­u­tary land­scapes once were sup­port­ed by their use­ful­ness to one anoth­er. Now that mutu­al use­ful­ness has been removed, and the peo­ple relate to one anoth­er increas­ing­ly as ran­dom particles.

To help in under­stand­ing this, I want to quote a few sen­tences of a let­ter writ­ten on June 22, 2013, by Anne Caudill. Anne is the wid­ow of Har­ry Caudill. For many years she was involved in Harry’s study of con­di­tions in East­ern Ken­tucky and in his advo­ca­cy for that region. Since Harry’s death, she has main­tained on her own the long inter­est and devo­tion she once shared with Har­ry, and she is always worth lis­ten­ing to. She wrote:

The Lex­ing­ton Her­ald Leader last Sun­day … pub­lished a major piece on the effects of the cur­rent down­turn in the coal indus­try … Per­haps the most telling state­ment quot­ed came from Karin Slone of Knott Coun­ty whose hus­band lost his job in the mines … final­ly found a job in Alaba­ma and the fam­i­ly had to leave their home. Karin said, There should have been greater efforts to diver­si­fy the econ­o­my ear­li­er.” [Fifty] years ago and more Har­ry tried … every­thing he could think of to encour­age diver­si­ty. My heart goes out to those fam­i­lies who yet again are being bat­tered by a major slump in avail­able jobs. … Again they are not being exploit­ed, but discarded.

This is a con­cise and use­ful descrip­tion of what Anne right­ly calls a tragedy, and tragedy” right­ly applies, not just to the present con­di­tion of East­ern Ken­tucky, but to the present con­di­tion of just about every part of rur­al Ken­tucky. The tragedy of East­ern Ken­tucky is the most dra­mat­ic and obvi­ous because that region was so exten­sive­ly and rapid­ly indus­tri­al­ized so ear­ly. The indus­tri­al­iza­tion of oth­er regions (mine, for exam­ple) began with the accel­er­at­ed indus­tri­al­iza­tion of agri­cul­ture after World War II, and it has accel­er­at­ed increas­ing­ly ever since. The sto­ry of indus­tri­al­iza­tion is the same sto­ry every­where, and every­where the result is ruin. Though it has devel­oped at dif­fer­ent rates of speed in dif­fer­ent areas, that sto­ry is now pret­ty ful­ly devel­oped in all parts of our state.

To know clear­ly what indus­tri­al­iza­tion is and means, we need to con­sid­er care­ful­ly some of the lan­guage of Anne Caudill’s let­ter. We see first of all that she is speak­ing of a region whose econ­o­my is depen­dent upon jobs.” This word, as we now use it in polit­i­cal clichés such as job cre­ation,” entire­ly dis­so­ci­ates the idea of work from any idea of call­ing or voca­tion or voca­tion­al choice. A job” exists with­out ref­er­ence to any­body in par­tic­u­lar or any place in par­tic­u­lar. If a per­son los­es a job” in East­ern Ken­tucky and finds a job” in Alaba­ma, then he has ceased to be unem­ployed” and has become employed,” it does not mat­ter who the per­son is or what or where the job” is. Employ­ment” in a job” com­plete­ly sat­is­fies the social aim of the indus­tri­al econ­o­my and its indus­tri­al government.

Per­haps there have always been jobs” and employ­ees” to fill them. The point here is that the sto­ry of indus­tri­al­iza­tion rad­i­cal­ly enlarges the num­ber of both. It also enlarges the num­ber of the unem­ployed and the unem­ploy­able. I can tell you con­fi­dent­ly that the many own­ers of small farms, shops, and stores and the self-employed crafts­peo­ple who were thriv­ing in my coun­ty, Hen­ry Coun­ty, in 1945, did not think of their work as a job.” Most of those peo­ple, along with most skilled employ­ees who worked in their home coun­try or home town, have now been replaced by a few peo­ple work­ing in large chain stores and by a few peo­ple using large machines and oth­er human-replac­ing indus­tri­al tech­nolo­gies. Local economies, local com­mu­ni­ties, even local fam­i­lies, in which peo­ple lived and worked as mem­bers, have been bro­ken. The peo­ple who once were mem­bers of mutu­al­ly sup­port­ive mem­ber­ships are now human resources” in the labor force,” whose fate (to return to the lan­guage of Anne Caudill’s let­ter) is either to be exploit­ed” by an employ­er or dis­card­ed” by an employ­er when the econ­o­my fal­ters or as soon as a machine or a chem­i­cal can per­form their job.” The key word in Anne’s let­ter is dis­card­ed,” which denotes exact­ly the mean­ing and the sor­row of our tragedy.

How can it be that the peo­ple of rur­al Ken­tucky can first become depen­dent upon offi­cial­ly favored indus­tries, the job-cre­at­ing indus­tries” that their politi­cians are always talk­ing of bring­ing in,” and then by those indus­tries be dis­card­ed? To answer that ques­tion, I need to refer again to East­ern Ken­tucky and some­thing I learned there —or began con­scious­ly to learn there —near­ly 50 years ago.

In the sum­mer of 1965 I paid a vis­it of sev­er­al days to my friend Gur­ney Nor­man, who was then a reporter for the Haz­ard Her­ald. At that time a for­mi­da­ble old man, Dan Gib­son, armed with a .22 rifle, stopped a strip miner’s bull­doz­er. The land Mr. Gib­son was defend­ing belonged to his step­son, who was serv­ing with the Marines in Viet­nam. Gibson’s defi­ance and his arrest caused a con­sid­er­able dis­tur­bance, and a crowd of trou­bled peo­ple gath­ered on a Fri­day night in the court house in Hind­man, Ky. Gur­ney and I attend­ed the meet­ing. That night Har­ry Caudill made a speech that recalled cer­tain meet­ings in Philadel­phia in the sum­mer of 1776, for he spoke against the domes­tic suc­ces­sors of the British colo­nial­ists: The mind­less oafs who are destroy­ing the world and the glee­ful yahoos who abet them.”

I am indebt­ed to anoth­er speech of the same night. That speech was made by Leroy Mar­tin, chair­man of the Appalachi­an Group to Save the Land and the Peo­ple. Mar­tin bore wit­ness to the sig­nif­i­cance of Dan Gibson’s act, his loy­al­ty, and his courage. He spoke impres­sive­ly also of the for­est that stood on the moun­tain­side that Dan Gib­son had defend­ed. He spoke the names of the trees. He remind­ed his hear­ers, many of whom were local peo­ple, that they knew the char­ac­ter and the val­ue of such woodlands.

Three lines of thought have stayed with me pret­ty con­stant­ly from that time until now.

The first con­cerns the impos­si­bil­i­ty of mea­sur­ing, under­stand­ing or express­ing either the eco­log­i­cal cost or the human heart­break of the per­ma­nent destruc­tion of any part of our only world.

The sec­ond con­sists of repeat­ed returns to the impos­si­bil­i­ty, at least so far, of per­ma­nent­ly stop­ping this per­ma­nent dam­age by con­fronting either actu­al machines or polit­i­cal machines. Dan Gibson’s unlaw­ful weapon was answered by the law­ful weapons of 13 state police, a sher­iff, and two deputies. Our many attempts to con­front the polit­i­cal machine that autho­rizes the indus­tri­al machin­ery have real­ly not been answered at all. If mon­ey is speech, as our dom­i­nant politi­cians believe, then we may say that all our lit­tle speech­es have been effec­tive­ly answered by big mon­ey, which speaks pow­er­ful­ly though in whispers.

The third line of thought, the one I want to fol­low now, has to do with the hope­ful­ness, and the cor­rec­tion, implied in the name of the Appalachi­an Group to Save the Land and the Peo­ple. The name of that orga­ni­za­tion — and, if I have remem­bered it cor­rect­ly, Leroy Martin’s speech — assumed that we must not speak or think of the land alone or of the peo­ple alone, but always and only of both togeth­er. If we want to save the land, we must save the peo­ple who belong to the land. If we want to save the peo­ple, we must save the land the peo­ple belong to.

To under­stand the absolute right­ness of that assump­tion, I believe, is to under­stand the work that we must do. The con­nec­tion is nec­es­sary of course because it is inescapable. All of us who are liv­ing owe our lives direct­ly to our con­nec­tion to the land. I am not talk­ing about the con­nec­tion that is implied by such a term as envi­ron­men­tal­ism.” I am talk­ing about the con­nec­tion that we make eco­nom­i­cal­ly, by work, by liv­ing, by mak­ing a liv­ing. This con­nec­tion, as we see every day, is going to be either famil­iar, affec­tion­ate and sav­ing, or dis­tant, uncar­ing and destructive.

The loss of a sav­ing con­nec­tion between the land and the peo­ple begins and con­tin­ues with the destruc­tion of local­ly based house­hold economies. This hap­pens, whether in the Unit­ed States after World War II or in present day Chi­na, by poli­cies more or less forcibly mov­ing peo­ple off the land. It hap­pens also when the peo­ple remain­ing on the land are per­suad­ed by gov­ern­ment or aca­d­e­m­ic experts that they can’t afford” to pro­duce any­thing for them­selves, but must employ all their land and all their effort in mak­ing mon­ey with which to buy the things they need or can be per­suad­ed to want. Lead­ers of indus­try, indus­tri­al pol­i­tics, and indus­tri­al edu­ca­tion decide, for exam­ple, that there are too many farm­ers,” and that the sur­plus would be bet­ter off” work­ing at urban jobs.” The move­ment of peo­ple off the land and into indus­try, away from local sub­sis­tence and into the econ­o­my of jobs and con­sump­tion, was our nation’s pol­i­cy after World War II, and it has succeeded.

This divi­sion between the land and the peo­ple has hap­pened in all the regions of rur­al Ken­tucky, just as it has hap­pened or is hap­pen­ing in rur­al places all over the world. The prob­lem, invis­i­ble equal­ly to lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives, is that the forces that destroy the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a sav­ing con­nec­tion between the land and the peo­ple destroy at the same time essen­tial val­ues and prac­tices. The con­ver­sion of an enor­mous num­ber of some­what inde­pen­dent pro­duc­ers into entire­ly depen­dent con­sumers is a rad­i­cal change that in many ways is imme­di­ate­ly cat­a­stroph­ic. With­out a sav­ing con­nec­tion to the land, peo­ple become use­less to them­selves and to one anoth­er except by the inter­ven­tion of mon­ey. Every­thing they need must be bought. Things that can­not be bought they do not have.

This great change is the sub­ject of Har­ri­ette Arnow’s nov­el The Doll­mak­er. In the ear­ly pages of this book we rec­og­nize its hero­ine, Ger­tie Nevels, as an entire­ly com­pe­tent woman. Her com­pe­tence does not come from any suc­cess,” polit­i­cal or social or eco­nom­ic. She is pow­er­ful because, with­in the cir­cum­stances of her agrar­i­an life in the moun­tain com­mu­ni­ty of Ballew, Ken­tucky, she is emi­nent­ly prac­ti­cal. Among the var­ied resources of her native place, she is resource­ful. She has, from her own strength and will­ing­ness and from her her­itage of local knowl­edge, the means of doing what­ev­er needs to be done. These are the means, for her, of being con­tent in Ballew where she is at home. Her hus­band, Clo­vis, is not con­tent or at home in Ballew. He is an off-and-on mechan­ic and coal hauler whose aspi­ra­tion and frus­tra­tion are embod­ied in a decrepit truck. This is dur­ing World War II. The world is chang­ing, and peo­ple are being changed. Phys­i­cal­ly unfit for the draft, attract­ed to mod­ern life and big mon­ey,” Clo­vis goes to Detroit and finds a job as a machine repair man.” Ger­tie and their chil­dren fol­low him to the city where, to Ger­tie, the cars seem to be dri­ving them­selves through a world not meant for peo­ple.” They find that Clo­vis has rent­ed a dis­heart­en­ing, small, thin-walled apart­ment, and is already in debt for a used car, a radio, and oth­er things that he has bought on credit.

In these cir­cum­stances, Gertie’s prac­ti­cal good sense is depre­ci­at­ed near­ly to noth­ing, except for the mean­ing it gives to her grief. Back home, she had dreamed of buy­ing, and had almost bought, a small farm that would have giv­en greater effi­ca­cy to her abil­i­ties and greater scope to her will. As her dras­ti­cal­ly nar­rowed life in Detroit clos­es upon her, she thinks: Free will, free will: only your own place on your own land brought free will.” (And now we should notice that those who have lived in the sav­ing way pre­ferred by Ger­tie Nevels — and some have done so — are sol­vent still, and Detroit is bankrupt).

It is a small log­i­cal step from under­stand­ing that self-deter­mi­na­tion for an indi­vid­ual depends on your own place on your own land” to under­stand­ing that self-deter­mi­na­tion for a com­mu­ni­ty depends on the same thing: its home ground, and a rea­son­able mea­sure of local ini­tia­tive in the use of it. This gives us a stan­dard for eval­u­at­ing the influ­ence of an out­side inter­est” upon a region or a com­mu­ni­ty. It gives us a stan­dard for eval­u­at­ing the pol­i­cy of bring­ing in indus­try” and any indus­try that is brought in. Out­side inter­ests do not come in to a place to help the local peo­ple or to make com­mon cause with the local com­mu­ni­ty or to care respon­si­bly for the local coun­try­side. There is noth­ing at all to keep a brought-in indus­try in place when the place has become less invit­ing, less exploitable or less prof­itable than anoth­er place.

We may not want to oppose any and all bring­ing in or com­ing in of indus­try, but local­i­ties and com­mu­ni­ties should insist upon deal­ing for them­selves with any out­side inter­est that pro­pos­es to come in. They should not per­mit them­selves mere­ly to be dealt for by state gov­ern­ment or any oth­er offi­cial body. This of course would require effec­tive, unof­fi­cial local orga­niz­ing, and I believe we are devel­op­ing the abil­i­ty to do that.

But the most effec­tive means of local self-deter­mi­na­tion would be a well-devel­oped local econ­o­my based upon the use and pro­tec­tion of local resources, includ­ing local human intel­li­gence and skills. Local resources have lit­tle local val­ue when they are indus­tri­al­ly pro­duced or extract­ed and shipped out. They become far more valu­able when they are devel­oped, pro­duced, processed and mar­ket­ed by, and first of all to, the local peo­ple — when, that is, they sup­port, and are sup­port­ed by, a local econ­o­my. And here we real­ize that a local econ­o­my, sup­ply­ing local needs so far as pos­si­ble from local fields and wood­lands, is nec­es­sar­i­ly diverse.

As things now stand, the land and peo­ple of rur­al Ken­tucky are not going to be saved by the state and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ments or any of their agen­cies and insti­tu­tions. All of those great offi­cial forces are ded­i­cat­ed pri­mar­i­ly to the per­pet­u­a­tion of the cor­po­rate econ­o­my, not to new life and liveli­hood in small Ken­tucky com­mu­ni­ties. We must not make of that a rea­son to give up our efforts for bet­ter pol­i­tics, bet­ter pol­i­cy, bet­ter rep­re­sen­ta­tion, bet­ter offi­cial under­stand­ing of our prob­lems and needs. But to quit expect­ing the help we need from gov­ern­ment bureaus, uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions and the like will give us an increase of clar­i­ty and free­dom. It will give us back the use of our own minds.

For the fact is that if the land and the peo­ple are ever to be saved, they will be saved by local peo­ple enact­ing togeth­er a prop­er respect for them­selves and their places. They can do this only in ways that are neigh­bor­ly, con­vivial and gen­er­ous, but also, and in the small­est details, prac­ti­cal and eco­nom­ic. How might they do this? I will offer a few suggestions:

1. We must reject the idea — pro­mot­ed by politi­cians, com­men­ta­tors, and var­i­ous experts — that the ulti­mate real­i­ty is polit­i­cal, and there­fore that the ulti­mate solu­tions are polit­i­cal. If our project is to save the land and the peo­ple, the real work will have to be done local­ly. Obvi­ous­ly we could use polit­i­cal help, if we had it. Most­ly, we don’t have it. There is, even so, a lot that can be done with­out wait­ing on the politi­cians. It seems like­ly that pol­i­tics will improve after the peo­ple have improved, not before. The lead­ers” will have to be led.

2. We should accept help from the cen­ters of pow­er, wealth and advice only if, by our stan­dards, it is actu­al­ly help­ful. The aim of the cor­po­ra­tions and their polit­i­cal and aca­d­e­m­ic dis­ci­ples is large, stan­dard­ized indus­tri­al solu­tions to be applied every­where. Our aim, to bor­row lan­guage from John Todd, must be ele­gant solu­tions pred­i­cat­ed on the unique­ness of [every] place.”

3. The rul­ing ideas of our present, very destruc­tive nation­al or inter­na­tion­al econ­o­my are: com­pe­ti­tion, con­sump­tion, glob­al­ism, cor­po­rate prof­itabil­i­ty, mechan­i­cal effi­cien­cy, tech­no­log­i­cal progress, upward mobil­i­ty — and in all of them there is the impli­ca­tion of accept­able vio­lence against the land and the peo­ple. We, on the con­trary, must think again of rev­er­ence, humil­i­ty, affec­tion, famil­iar­i­ty, neigh­bor­li­ness, coop­er­a­tion, thrift, appro­pri­ate­ness, local loy­al­ty. These terms return us to the best of our her­itage. They bring us home.

4. Though many of our worst prob­lems are big, they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly have big solu­tions. Many of the need­ed changes will have to be made in indi­vid­ual lives, in fam­i­lies and house­holds, and in local com­mu­ni­ties. And so we must under­stand the impor­tance of scale, and learn to deter­mine the scale that is right for our places and needs

5. Brought-in indus­tries are like­ly to over­whelm small com­mu­ni­ties and local ecosys­tems because both the brought-in and the bringers- in ignore the issue of scale.

6. We must under­stand and reaf­firm the impor­tance of sub­sis­tence economies for fam­i­lies and communities.

7. For the sake of cul­tur­al con­ti­nu­ity and com­mu­ni­ty sur­vival, we must recon­sid­er the pur­pose, the worth and the cost of edu­ca­tion — espe­cial­ly of high­er edu­ca­tion, which too often leads away from home, and too often grad­u­ates its cus­tomers into unem­ploy­ment or debt or both. When young peo­ple leave their col­lege or uni­ver­si­ty too much in debt to afford to come home, we need to think again. There can nev­er be too much knowl­edge, but there cer­tain­ly can be too much school.

8. Every com­mu­ni­ty needs to learn how much of the local land is local­ly owned, and how much is avail­able for local needs and uses.

9. Every com­mu­ni­ty and region needs to know as exact­ly as pos­si­ble the local need for local products.

10. There must be a local con­ver­sa­tion about how best to meet that need, once it is known.

11. The high costs of indus­tri­al land-using tech­nol­o­gy encour­age and often enforce land abuse. This tech­nol­o­gy is adver­tised as labor-sav­ing,” but in fact it is peo­ple-replac­ing. The peo­ple, then, are gone or unem­ployed, the prod­ucts of the land are tak­en by vio­lence and export­ed, the land is wast­ed, and the streams are poi­soned. For the sake of our home places and our own sur­vival, we need many more skilled and care­ful peo­ple in the land-using economies. The prob­lems of achiev­ing this will be dif­fi­cult, and prob­a­bly they will have to be solved by unof­fi­cial peo­ple work­ing at home. We can’t expect a good land-based econ­o­my from peo­ple who wish above all to con­tin­ue a land-destroy­ing economy.

12. The peo­ple who do the actu­al work and take the most imme­di­ate risks in the land economies have almost always been the last to be con­sid­ered and the poor­est paid. And so we must do every­thing we can to devel­op asso­ci­a­tions of land own­ers and land users for the pur­pose of land use plan­ning, but also of sup­ply man­age­ment and the main­te­nance of just prices. The near­est, most famil­iar mod­el here in Ken­tucky is the fed­er­al tobac­co pro­gram, which gave the same eco­nom­ic sup­port to the small as to the large pro­duc­ers. If we are inter­est­ed in sav­ing the land and the peo­ple of rur­al Ken­tucky, we will have to con­front the issue of prej­u­dice. Too many rur­al Ken­tuck­ians are prej­u­diced against them­selves. They have been told and have believed that they are provin­cial, back­ward, igno­rant, ugly and thus not wor­thy to stand in the way of progress,” even when progress” will destroy their land and their homes. It is hard to doubt that good places have been destroyed (as in the coal fields) or appro­pri­at­ed by hos­tile tak­ing (as in Land Between the Lakes) because, in offi­cial judg­ment, nobody lived there but a bunch of coun­try peo­ple — hicks” or hill­bil­lies.” But prej­u­dice against oth­er dis­fa­vored groups still is alive and well in rur­al Ken­tucky. This is iso­lat­ing, weak­en­ing, and dis­tract­ing. It reduces the sup­ply of love to our needs and our work.

To end, I want to say how grate­ful I am to have this audi­ence for this speech. I remem­ber when there was no orga­ni­za­tion called (or like) Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth, and so I know its worth. I am proud to be one of you. In speak­ing to you, I’ve felt that I could reach, beyond sev­er­al false assump­tions, toward our actu­al neigh­bor­hoods and the actu­al ground under our feet. If we keep faith­ful to our land and our peo­ple, both togeth­er, nev­er apart, then we will always find the right work to do, and our long, nec­es­sary, dif­fi­cult, hap­py effort will continue.

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Our Only World: Ten Essays (Coun­ter­point). It is based on a speech to Ken­tuck­ians for the Com­mon­wealth in Car­roll­ton, Ken­tucky, on August 16, 2013. Copy­right © Wen­dell Berry, from Our Only World. Reprint­ed by per­mis­sion of Counterpoint.

Wen­dell Berry, author of more than 40 books of fic­tion, poet­ry and essays, has farmed a hill­side in his native Hen­ry Coun­ty, Ken­tucky, for 40 years. He has received numer­ous awards for his work, includ­ing the T.S. Eliot Award, the Aiken Tay­lor Award for poet­ry and the John Hay Award of the Ori­on Society.
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