Day: December 9, 2013

Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.


Is Population a Threat to the Environment?

[This is a post from Mayra O. Sanchez Gonzalez, a PhD student in the Environmental and Energy Policy program here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

Is population growth a threat to the environment? My first answer to that question without thinking too much about it would be: Yes, because more people means more depletion of natural resources to support them. I am sure Paul Ehrlich will agree with me, because the Earth’s capacity to support a human population is finite (Ehrlich, 2009). I also think that the organization World Population Balance may consider me one of its members because they believe that overpopulation “is a root cause of resource depletion, species extinction, and rising poverty” (WPB, 2013). To support this statement they present some news, articles and a global population number updated every second. Another organization that might consider me as part of its membership is How many?. This organization states that “population growth is a root cause of many environmental and social problems” (HM?, 2013) and presents a long list of many issues caused by population growth, as well as a second-by-second tally of the number of people in the world.  At the moment I write this, we are 7,148,513,537 people on this planet, and by the time I finish writing this line the number will change because we gain 140 new babies every minute. These numbers, statistics and information make me feel overwhelmed and motive me to answer yes to the question that I presented before. However, when I start to think more deeply about the relationship between population and environment, I realize that it is very complex and that my answer cannot be simply Yes or No.

It is a fact that more people consume more natural resources, however not everybody consumes the same way. For instance, people from developed countries consume more resources than people from developing countries. One example of this is the United States. The US has only 5% of the population of the world but it consumes 25% of all world energy (Mazur, 2010). Also, sometimes developed countries go to developing countries to consume or pollute their natural resources because they want to conserve their own or because they have almost exhausted them.

It is not just the amount of natural resources that people consume, it is also about the reasons behind this consumption. These are important because they are shaped by different needs, values and beliefs. People from developing countries might consume resources because they need them to survive, whereas people from developed countries might consume resources not only to survive, but also to have more luxuries or feel more comfortable or to have the newest technological device available, such as cell phones, computers and cars.

I believe that the complex relationship between population and environment should be addressed with different strategies. For instance, we should educate people about the connections between the environment, population, consumption, inequity and human rights, considering different social and cultural contexts. We can emphasize women’s empowerment, so that they can make free decisions and can have free access to services such as contraception. We should also create policies that consider the complexity between the population and the environment. Finally we should support the consumption of local foods, goods and services.

However the most important is to start with ourselves by changing our life styles; it is not enough just to read, discuss, write, and think about these issues if we are not able to change the way we live now. We must think and act in a more sustainable way. We can start by adopting the three R’s strategy in our lives: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. If we are able to do this in our daily life we are definitely contributing to a sustainable present and future for people and the environment.

References

Ehrlich, P. R. & Ehrlich, A.H. (2009) The Population Bomb Revised. The electronic journal of sustainable development, Vol. 1(3), pp. 63-71.

Mazur, L. (ed.) (2010) A Pivotal moment. Washington, DC: Island Press.