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Global Warming, Waste, and Greed

Walter Moss: In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt.
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Insights of Wendell Berry and E. F. Schumacher

In a 2008 essay, “Faustian Economics,” writer Wendell Berry stated, “The real names of global warming are Waste and Greed.” Earlier this month, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its latest report. According to The New York Times’ (NYT) succinct summary, it indicated that “decades of foot-dragging by political leaders had propelled humanity into a critical situation, with greenhouse emissions rising faster than ever. Though it remains technically possible to keep planetary warming to a tolerable level, only an intensive push over the next 15 years to bring those emissions under control can achieve the goal.” Another NYT piece reported on the U. S. political gridlock that prevented the needed changes in our climate laws.

Following the links provided in the NYT articles, readers can familiarize themselves more with the dimensions of the present (and future) problem. It is one that we have all done too little to address since Berry’s words about waste and greed. But here we shall return to his insights and to the thinking of a man who perceived a similar connection between our economic system and an oncoming ecological crisis—economist\environmentalist E. F. Schumacher—even though he died before global warming had become a public issue. The value of examining the thoughts of these two men is that they delve down beyond the surface to the spiritual, cultural, and economic roots of our present environmental predicament. We shall first examine Berry’s ideas and then briefly indicate their similarity to those of Schumacher.

Berry’s primary and original ecological concern was with the proper treatment of farmland. This is not surprising because he came from several generations of Kentucky farmers. He followed his lawyer/farmer father’s example by combining farming with another profession, in Wendell’s case, however, it was writing. His first novel and book of poems had already appeared before he bought a Kentucky farm in 1965 and resumed the farming he had done when younger. His concern for farm land was accompanied by the affection he felt for the nearby Kentucky River and the trees and forests that surrounded his and other farms in the Port Royal area.

Already in 1969 in his first book of essays, The Long-Legged House, he indicates the importance of this area to him: “Within about four miles of Port Royal . . . all my grandparents and great-grandparents lived. . . . When I have thought of the welfare of the earth, the problems of its health and preservation, the care of its life, I have had this place before me, the part representing the whole more vividly and accurately, making clearer and more pressing demands, than any idea of the whole.” How individuals should fit with the land they farm, the lands that surround them, and with their neighbors has been Berry’s most consistent theme for almost a half century. It has been reflected in his numerous fictional and non-fictional works, as well as his essays.

Still in the late 1960s, Berry was writing a book critical of U.S. racism called The Hidden Wound (see here for more on it). In it he also mentioned the U. S. obsession with making money: “We cannot value things except by selling them, and that we think it acceptable, indeed respectable, to sell anything.” He thought our “society artificial in the extreme, both in its values and in its appearance.”

Global warming was not yet being mentioned in the late 1960s, and even as late as 1977, when E. F. Schumacher died, most prominent environmentalists like him were not yet especially concerned with it. Yet by 1977, both Schumacher and Berry were criticizing the modern mentalities and economic systems that have led us to our present global-warming predicament.

In that year Berry’s book The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture appeared. In it he wrote that you could divide our history into a conflict between two groups, the exploiters (e.g., strip miners) and nurturers (e.g., small, independent farmers). “The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.” To Berry’s regret the exploitive mentality, present for a long time in America, had become dominant in corporate America.

This mentality and the accompanying waste and greed that in 2008 he would equate with global warming was at the root of our problem. Chapter 2 of his 1977 book was entitled “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character.” At that time this crisis involved dwindling energy supplies and pollution more than global warming, but the root cause was the same. “The basic cause of the energy crisis is not scarcity; it is moral ignorance and weakness of character. We don't know how to use energy, or what to use it for. And we cannot restrain ourselves. Our time is characterized as much by the abuse and waste of human energy as it is by the abuse and waste of fossil fuel energy. Nuclear power, if we are to believe its advocates, is presumably going to be well used by the same mentality that has egregiously devalued and misapplied man- and womanpower. If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too, for the same reasons.”

Elaborating on our inability to “restrain ourselves,” he added that we need “to accept and live within limits.” Three decades later in his 2008 essay, he wrote:

But once greed has been made an honorable motive, then you have an economy without limits. It has no place for temperance or thrift or the ecological law of return. It will do anything. It is monstrous by definition.

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. The idea of a limitless economy implies and requires a doctrine of general human limitlessness: all are entitled to pursue without limit whatever they conceive as desirable — a license that classifies the most exalted Christian capitalist with the lowliest pornographer

The need to accept limits is the most important point of his essay. But to do this, he argues, science and technology need to be constrained by such higher values as “temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.” He ends his essays with the following words:

Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But also we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.

More recently in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture, he spoke of corporate industrialism’s failure to concern itself with the common good.

No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness.

Berry has not just spoken about our environmental failures, he has also engaged in protests. In late 2008, along with Bill McKibben (editor in 2011 of The Global Warming Reader), he sent out a letter urging others to join them the following March in participating in an “act of civil disobedience outside a coal-fired power plant near Capitol Hill in Washington D.C.” The letter noted the global-warming danger of continuing reliance on coal—the “only hope of getting our atmosphere back to a safe levels . . . lies in stopping the use of coal to generate electricity.” According to one news report of the actual March protest, McKibben, Berry, and other participants “hailed the day's activities as the kickoff for a year of worldwide mobilizations leading to the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December.”

Four years after the death of E. F. Schumacher, Berry gave the first Annual E. F. Schumacher lecture, lectures that have continued ever since—McKibben delivered the 2009 lecture. In his talk Berry said that one of the things he admired about Schumacher was the way the economist had adhered to his Christian values. In 1983, in his essay “Two Economies,” Berry quoted Schumacher’s belief expressed in the essay “Buddhist Economics” that the aim of such an economics should be “to obtain the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption.” Berry believed that such an aim should also be true of any economics that claimed to be true to Christian principles.

Like Berry, Schumacher thought that modern industrial economics (whether capitalist or communist) had deviated from basic spiritual values and placed too much emphasis on being “scientific.” (For the sources of Schumacher quotes that follow, see here.) The writings of the German-English economist also resemble Berry’s in numerous other ways: in Schumacher’s belief that

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  • advertising and marketing encouraged a “frenzy of greed and . . . an orgy of envy;
  • “ecology . . . ought to be a compulsory subject for all economists”;
  • the main cause of earth’s rapidly increasing environmental damage was industrial society’s obsession with economic growth and the constant production of more and more goods regardless of other consequences;
  • the struggle to insure adequate future resources and control pollution could not be successful unless “patterns of production and consumption” changed;
  • U. S. agriculture was wrong in “applying to soil, plants, and animals ever-increasing quantities of chemical products”;
  • major educational reform was necessary (see here for Berry’s thinking) to create a better economy and society;
  • good work and craftsmanship was to be highly valued;
  • renewable energy sources like wind and solar were preferable to more traditional sources such as coal, natural gas, petroleum, and nuclear sources (both men had solar panels on their property);

What this brief survey of the environmental thinking of Berry and Schumacher has indicated is that the problem of global warming has to be seen within a larger context. It is not just a matter of some scientific or technological fixes or some political agreements—although these are necessary—it is also a matter of changing how we think about consumption and nature and our relationship to them. Berry was not wrong when he claimed in 1977 that if we do not change such thinking we will also use solar and wind power destructively. He was also not wrong when he wrote in 2008 that “the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed.

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Moreover, there is still more to be gained by reading the writings of these two men. Their works concern themselves with good and wise living—see, e.g., here for Berry and also Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed. By reading them, we gain insights not only on how to sustain our planet, but how to live better lives on it.

 Walter G. Moss

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