Full transcript: http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture
Some particularly beloved excerpts:
The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.
I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.
Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.
The problem that ought to concern us first is the fairly recent dismantling of our old understanding and acceptance of human limits. For a long time we knew that we were not, and could never be, “as gods.” We knew, or retained the capacity to learn, that our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of. We were intelligent enough to know that our intelligence, like our world, is limited. We seem to have known and feared the possibility of irreparable damage. But beginning in science and engineering, and continuing, by imitation, into other disciplines, we have progressed to the belief that humans are intelligent enough, or soon will be, to transcend all limits and to forestall or correct all bad results of the misuse of intelligence. Upon this belief rests the further belief that we can have “economic growth” without limit.
Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management. By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live. An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another. Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference. Most economists think of this arrangement as “the economy.” Their columns and articles rarely if ever mention the land-communities and land-use economies. They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”
In his essay, “Notes on Liberty and Property,” Allen Tate gave us an indispensable anatomy of our problem. His essay begins by equating, not liberty and property, but liberty and control of one’s property. He then makes the crucial distinction between ownership that is merely legal and what he calls “effective ownership.” If a property, say a small farm, has one owner, then the one owner has an effective and assured, if limited, control over it as long as he or she can afford to own it, and is free to sell it or use it, and (I will add) free to use it poorly or well. It is clear also that effective ownership of a small property is personal and therefore can, at least possibly, be intimate, familial, and affectionate. If, on the contrary, a person owns a small property of stock in a large corporation, then that person has surrendered control of the property to larger shareholders. The drastic mistake our people made, as Tate believed and I agree, was to be convinced “that there is one kind of property—just property, whether it be a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky or a stock certificate in the United States Steel Corporation.” By means of this confusion, Tate said, “Small ownership . . . has been worsted by big, dispersed ownership—the giant corporation.”4 (It is necessary to append to this argument the further fact that by now, owing largely to corporate influence, land ownership implies the right to destroy the land-community entirely, as in surface mining, and to impose, as a consequence, the dangers of flooding, water pollution, and disease upon communities downstream.)
In 1936, moreover, only a handful of people were thinking about sustainability. Now, reasonably, many of us are thinking about it. The problem of sustainability is simple enough to state. It requires that the fertility cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay—what Albert Howard called “the Wheel of Life”—should turn continuously in place, so that the law of return is kept and nothing is wasted. For this to happen in the stewardship of humans, there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that is meant, by “sustainability.” The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.
In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices.
But as I understand this dilemma, we are not completely isolated. Though we cannot by our own powers escape our limits, we are subject to correction from, so to speak, the outside. I can hardly expect everybody to believe, as I do (with due caution), that inspiration can come from the outside. But inspiration is not the only way the human enclosure can be penetrated. Nature too may break in upon us, sometimes to our delight, sometimes to our dismay.
As many hunters, farmers, ecologists, and poets have understood, Nature (and here we capitalize her name) is the impartial mother of all creatures, unpredictable, never entirely revealed, not my mother or your mother, but nonetheless our mother. If we are observant and respectful of her, she gives good instruction. As Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, and others have carefully understood, she can give us the right patterns and standards for agriculture. If we ignore or offend her, she enforces her will with punishment. She is always trying to tell us that we are not so superior or independent or alone or autonomous as we may think. She tells us in the voice of Edmund Spenser that she is of all creatures “the equall mother, / And knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.”7 Nearly three and a half centuries later, we hear her saying about the same thing in the voice of Aldo Leopold: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”8
We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.
The discrepancy between what modern humans presume to know and what they can imagine—given the background of pride and self-congratulation—is amusing and even funny. It becomes more serious as it raises issues of responsibility. It becomes fearfully serious when we start dealing with statistical measures of industrial destruction.
To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”9—and that appears to have the force of truth.
It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question: Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all.
The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by “liberal” or “conservative” tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, homemaking, and frugality can have no standing. The possibility of authentic correction comes, I think, from two already-evident causes. The first is scarcity and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land-community. The goods of nature so far have been taken for granted and, especially in America, assumed to be limitless, but their diminishment, sooner or later unignorable, will enforce change.
A positive cause, still little noticed by high officials and the media, is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary. It rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighborhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection, and all else that neighborhood implies. An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.
y now all thoughtful people have begun to feel our eligibility to be instructed by ecological disaster and mortal need. But we endangered ourselves first of all by dismissing affection as an honorable and necessary motive. Our decision in the middle of the last century to reduce the farm population, eliminating the allegedly “inefficient” small farmers, was enabled by the discounting of affection. As a result, we now have barely enough farmers to keep the land in production, with the help of increasingly expensive industrial technology and at an increasing ecological and social cost. Far from the plain citizens and members of the land-community, as Aldo Leopold wished them to be, farmers are now too likely to be merely the land’s exploiters.
I don’t hesitate to say that damage or destruction of the land-community is morally wrong, just as Leopold did not hesitate to say so when he was composing his essay, “The Land Ethic,” in 1947. But I do not believe, as I think Leopold did not, that morality, even religious morality, is an adequate motive for good care of the land-community. The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely. And here Leopold himself set the example. In 1935 he bought an exhausted Wisconsin farm and, with his family, began its restoration. To do this was morally right, of course, but the motive was affection. Leopold was an ecologist. He felt, we may be sure, an informed sorrow for the place in its ruin. He imagined it as it had been, as it was, and as it might be. And a profound, delighted affection radiates from every sentence he wrote about it.
Without this informed, practical, and practiced affection, the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.
Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.
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.