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Idea of a Local Economy

Wendell Berry “Idea of a Local Economy,” chapter in The Ecologist, which originally appeared in Orion (Winter 2001), also in Thoughts in the Presence of Fear: Three essays for a changed world (pp. 11-33) CYS Categories: Globalization, Economics, Environment

OVERVIEW

That the entire world is in the middle of an “environmental crisis” is a widely accepted fact.  As these issues gain more publicity, there is a parallel tendency towards an oversimplification that will only compound the crisis.  In fact, the reason we are in the crisis is because of an overly simplified view of the human economy (or household) and its relationship to nature’s household.  We have assumed that nature is simple and can be used simply—we can simply take raw materials and crops from the earth.  As the scale of our work and technology has increased our ability to take “raw materials”, our reverence, care, gratitude and local knowledge have decreased, leading to bad work that damages the earth.  Our environmental problem is at its heart an economic problem.

Our Complicity in the Environmental and Economic Crisis: When individual families allow corporations to produce all of their food, clothing, and shelter and opt to delegate the care of the sick and elderly and the education of the youth, they consent to a passively consumptive form of life that is controlled by supranational corporations.  The only governing principle of this “free market” economy is this: “commodities will be produced wherever they can be produced at the lowest cost, and consumed wherever they can sell for the highest price.” It is this form of life, the life of a “total economy”, where every aspect of life is delegated as a commodity, where the only determinant that matters for a given activity is the price, that is primarily responsible for the destruction of our environment.  A passive change of heart in the face of this systemic evil is yet another consumptive luxury—we must each individually find ways to respond to the global, corporate economy.

Economic Sentimentality: Communism and Capitalism:  Communism and modern Capitalism both suffer from a sentimental delusion:

“Sentimental Capitalism is not so different from sentimental communism as the corporate and political powers claim.  Sentimental capitalism holds, in effect, that everything small, local, private, personal, natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the ‘free market’ and the great corporations, which will bring unprecedented security and happiness to ‘the many’—in, of course, the future.”

Both suggest that people should give up the goods they presently enjoy in anticipation of some sort of impossible “future good”, often by means of a temporary monetary benefit. Both employ “the ends justify the means” thinking.  Both somehow see their actions as pre-determined and inevitable.  Both are devastating to real economic growth.  How did this false economy of oligarchy, where a few politicians or corporations hold all the power, ever foist itself upon us?

“It does so by false accounting.  It substitutes for the real economy, by which we build and maintain our household, a symbolic economy of money… And so we have before us the spectacle of unprecedented ‘prosperity’ and ‘economic growth’ in a land of degraded farms, forests, ecosystems, and watersheds, polluted air, failing families, and perishing communities.”

Another lie of the false economy is that competition will inevitably result in efficiency, higher bids to small producers, and lower prices to consumers.  In reality, “competition destroys competition”.  It is the law of war—eventually we are left with only one competitor before whom we are completely exposed. 

The false economy is built on a fantastic fiction: a corporation is legally “a person”.  In fact, a corporation is not a person and cannot feel remorse, repent, or concern itself with the future of its children. Quasi-governmental organizations, especially the World Trade Organization, allow these corporate “people” the status of a super-government, that can economically over-rule small governments by force and control the destinies of large nations through stealth and pull.

Berry lists 14 assumptions of the “free” market that lead to a total economy, an economy where everything in creation has a price and is for sale:  Half are listed below, in no particular order:

1.     That stable and preserving relationships between people and things do not matter…

2.     That cultures and religions have no legitimate practical or economic concerns.

3.     That there is no conflict between economic advantage and economic justice

4.     That there is no conflict between self-interest and public service

5.     That the loss or destruction of the capacity to produce goods does not matter…

6.     That an economy is a machine, of which people are merely the interchangeable parts…

7.     That, therefore, vocation is a dead issue.  Any work is all right as long as one gets paid for it.

Ultimately, the loss of vocation means the loss of justice in a society.  The sense that each member is particularly suited to some particular role within society is the heart of civilization that allows sanctity and reverence to enter every aspect of the human economy.  Without the lynch pin of vocation, the economy becomes a machine without a driver and what it means to be human is fundamentally reduced to dollars and cents, which is why industrialization has been referred to as “the mammon of injustice.”

What is to be done: the Idea of a Local Economy

The antidote to a total economy is to put into practice a local economy.  First, we must understand our vulnerability, spiritually and physically, under the thumb of the total economy.  As passive consumers, we have no knowledge of the history of what we use, and no say in how products are made.  Where did they come from? Who produced them? What injustices were done to land, to sky, to sea, and to my far away neighbors to make this?  What toxins, what genetic tinkering, what scientific hubris does this apple really contain?  Although the “free market” gives us a wide variety of products, we are denied a host of critical choices and pieces of information.  We have no economic power—no power to influence the system for the better—we are mere passive consumers, “totally dependent on distant and self-interested suppliers”. 

The local economy, on the other hand, rests on two principles: “neighborhood and subsistence”.  Neighborhood means sharing a place with justice and charity.  It means asking finding out from neighbors: what can we provide for one another?  What can we and our land afford to provide for one another?  Subsistence means a community of people who share a particular place and alike cherish and protect what they have in common.  They protect their own capacity to produce: they do not import what they can make, and only export what they cannot use.  A local economy must not allow cheap foreign labor to destroy local capacity for production.  Likewise, it cannot in charity import goods that are produced by human or ecological exploitation.  A local economy is a human economy—an economy rooted in the fundamental (Christian) value of loving neighbors.  It is also the only way to resist the ever encroaching power of big government and big corporations.  “Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.”

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION AND DISCUSSION

1.      Are Berry’s views on the dangers of globalization wisdom or does he overstate the case against globalization?  What are some of the benefits of the free-trade global economy that Berry critiques?

2.      In what areas of your life do you see yourself passively complicit in a “total economy”?  How might you actively regain control over aspects of your economic life (family, food, transportation, care of elderly parents, etc.)?

3.      Do you think of your economic life as totally separate from your spiritual life?  What do you think of Barry’s definition of economy as “building a household”?  How do economic and spiritual dynamics relate—do you see parallels within the church to what Berry sees in the economy?

4.      What is a “total economy”?  What are the dangers that accompany this type of economy?  What are concrete steps that can be taken to move from a total, global economy to a local economy?

5.      What is wealth?  How is it possible for “wealth creation” to occur while land, families, and communities are destroyed?  What is the wealth of a nation?

6.      Do you know of any situations where desire for foreign commodities has led to war or covert military actions?  Is it ever acceptable to wage war for economic reasons?  Conversely, is it acceptable to wage economic war (sanctions) for political reasons?

7.      What steps will you take in your life to move from a global to a local economy?  How can we move from an economy where “the ends justify the means” to an economy of vocation, where creation is respected and each individual has a sense of being “called by God” to do their work?  How will you personally move from an economy of greed to an economy of charity?

IMPLICATIONS

1.      Our environmental problem is fundamentally an economic problem.  The hubris of the industrial-scientific mentality has led to an oversimplification of our relationship to the earth (mere resources) and to one another (mere money).  We must escape from the modern tendency to de-integrate through specialization and insist on taking responsibility for our families and their education, our parents and elderly, and our food, shelter, and clothing.

2.      If we fail to do these things, we do so to our peril.

3.      The tendency towards globalization in the economic world is paralleled by a tendency towards ministry in the church that is non-local (pastors and parishioners commuting long distances to church) and celebrity centered (national celebrity pastors).  This cutting off from the earth has led to a superficiality in the Church.  Instead, we must seek to cultivate a sense of place and of the land, with leaders living and laboring in a specific place with a local people, seeing the Kingdom make in-roads in a neighborhood setting. 

4.      Church leaders must teach on responsible economics and also set an example by seeking to be more and more rooted in a location economically and in ministry.  This does not preclude any traveling, but this should be the exception rather than the norm.

5.      It is vital to have a local neighborhood of people who are committed to establishing and investing in the local economy—start talking to people.

Jonathan Friz c.CYS