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.

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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