Wendell Berry on the Economy

December 10, 2008

My parents have a lot of books. I’m lucky in that it helped me in my varied interests, and even now when I go home I’ll siphon one or two from them. Looking at my shelves I’d say up to a quarter of the books actually belong to my parents. One author who I’ve finally gotten around to reading is Wendell Berry, he is a brilliant essayist and sounds the alarm about a number of our cultural norms that aren’t so normal.

What I’ve been realizing from reading him is that many of us are completely unaware of how tied to the land we are. It is so easy to forget our dependence on Agriculture when food comes from the Grocery store, not the farm.  This is dangerous because we don’t think about sustainable agriculture.  So long as the food is there now we don’t worry about whether it will be there tomorrow.  The most important line of his I’ve read is:

Every economy is, by definition, a land using economy.  If we are using our land wrong, then something is wrong with our economy.

Our economy is so divorced from reality that we assume it is better to buy fair-trade or organic without thinking about the meanings of these terms and who decides to use them.  An issue raised in Wendell Berry’s essay “In Distrust of Movements.”

I’m not sure if I’ve linked to it before, but in the past week reading Wendell Berry I’ve realized just how poignant the study “Quantifying Overextension,” which measured American consumption in terms of acres used per person, really is.  The most important part of the study is where it says the average American (and I think we can probably lump Canadians in there) uses 23.7 acres of land to have their lifestyle, while the amount of land America has available per capita is 11.7 acres.  So where is the other ten acres coming from?  The more I think about it the more I realize that the western consumer culture is dependent on two things: Environmental Destruction and Impoverishing other parts of the world.  We have to rethink how we do things.


  1. To think I was looking for that book at some point recently.

  2. Which Berry book is the essay in?

    My oldest son does the same thing, btw. Right before he moved to Colorado, I walked into my home office, and found a stack of books that had borrowed. Then, as he loaded his truck to move West, I saw that he had a box of books and half of them were mine. Hey, that’s fine, just as long as he gives me credit when his book is published.

  3. Hi Ed, It is from citizenship papers. I love reading, so having access to my parent’s library has been a significant part of my life as well.

    Hi Dad,
    What were you looking for from it? I could scan it and send it, or just bring it back with me on Tuesday.

  4. Great stuff Liam. It’s amazing how many believers don’t know this, and how many just ignore it when they find out. It’s not just this either, but the way that the people who used to work those other ten acres are displaced by big agri-businesses and the instability this causes for populations.

    • Hey Andy,
      Thanks, I think a lot of believers think that Jesus will come back before anything seriously goes wrong. But when you have a basic understanding you realize that some pretty terrible things have happened since Jesus’ time. I also think there is a complete disregard for stewardship, and I’m as much to blame as anyone. But hopefully not for long. Anyway, this is all another post.

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