“We do not have to live as if we are alone.”

Monday night, the Protestant Christian writer, conservation activist, and farmer Wendell Berry delivered the prestigious 43rd Jefferson Lecture on the Humanities in Washington DC. He was honored the day before with a Creation stewardship award from the National Religious Coalition for Creation Coalition, of which OFT executive director Fred Krueger is national coordinator. In the Jefferson Speech (an earlier giver of which was church historian and Orthodox convert Jaroslav Pelikan), Berry spoke of the hard times of his farmer-grandparents in relation to land conservation issues. Then he concluded:

No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call ‘arts and humanities’ or, for short, ‘culture.’

Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking. I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts.

Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage. But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.

My grandparents were fortunate. They survived their debts and kept their farm—finally, and almost too late, with help from my father, who had begun his law practice in the county seat. But in the century and more since that hard year of 1907, millions of others have not been so fortunate. Owing largely to economic constraints, they have lost their hold on the land, and the land has lost its hold on them. They have entered into the trial of displacement and scattering that we try to dignify as “mobility.” Even so, land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished. But this has not been inevitable.

We do not have to live as if we are alone.

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