Home » (Un)Sustainable Farming »Environment »Reviews » Currently Reading:

The Unsettling of America

March 25, 2012 (Un)Sustainable Farming, Environment, Reviews No Comments

Book Author: Wendell Berry

Reviewed by Jonathan Latham (The Bioscience Resource Project)

In 2002, peasant associations from all over Asia organised an international scientific conference. The motivation for the conference was the fact that peasants and their leaders had no dialogue with agricultural scientists, either from their own countries or with those from abroad. A lack of support from scientists was not the only motivation however. The peasants had also come to believe that the science with which they were familiar was actively hostile to their way of life. As a result, many had demonstrated outside the UN-sponsored International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Phillipines, a research centre set up specifically to support farming in developing countries.

The Unsettling of America

The Unsettling of America

Nevertheless, they certainly did not feel that science was inherently incapable of being useful-some of them had even set up their own independent research farms on which they could conduct their own experiments with the crops that interested them. Thus, these peasants were not anti-science, rather, at issue was the specific type of science conducted at IRRI and elsewhere. It did not serve their needs, they did not even aspire to grow rice in the way that IRRI did, and it was impossible not to conclude that IRRI must have been serving someone else’s needs instead.

The relationship between these Asian peasant farmers and agricultural science is interesting because it corroborates the one depicted in The Unsettling of America. Wendell Berry is a philosopher and also a farmer, and as such has seen agricultural science from a perspective from which it is rarely judged. From that vantage point he ranges widely, drawing together observations and inferences that together sustain a fair-minded and coherent critique of modern society, the roots of ecological damage and the role of science as a force in modern life.

Much of his attention is directed at agricultural research. Despite widely acclaimed successes, most individual American farmers, have over the last fifty years, experienced not agricultural success but personal and economic failure. As a consequence, most of them no longer farm at all. Like the Asian peasants, most of them did not wish to leave the land, but even though we live in democracies that purport to value independence, self-reliance and small businesses, we have been persuaded that the switch from family farms to industrial scale agriculture represents success rather than failure. We are expected to celebrate increased farm sizes, productivity gains and lower food prices as if these were historical necessities inseparable from modern civilisation and progress.

Wendell Berry thinks instead that these explanations are the stories of the winners-agribusiness, universities and American power. Stories which are necessary to obscure the fact that change was the result of choices made for the sake of agribusiness and international geopolitics, relying on science as a mechanism and progress as the justification. For these choices we are now paying very dearly indeed-in pollution, food quality, declining sustainability and social dislocation. Wendell Berry plausibly and eloquently traces these costs to a few key causes that are connected more-or-less directly to the social role of agriculture in traditional societies. Some modern readers may find this a rather surprising conclusion. We are accustomed to causes being financial, rational or legal, rather than moral or social but Wendell Berry is a philosopher and he makes his case with persuasive logic.

How agricultural change came about is intimately connected to the story of agricultural research. Research has enabled modern farming and Wendell Berry has much of interest to say about the practice and value systems of modern research and in particular its relationship with agribusiness, which he characterises broadly as mutualistic and therefore very different from the relationship of research with farmers.

Anyone involved in fields related to agricultural research should value this fascinating, subtle and challenging book. Even though The Unsettling of America was written some thirty years ago, the rest of the world has yet to catch up.

ISBN: 0871568772 Publisher: Sierra Club books (1977)

Comment on this Article:

Science News on the Web

Why Independent Science News?

Scientific inventions and ideas shape the future. As science becomes ever more beset by commercial and ideological pressures, there is urgent need for scientific reporting and analysis from an independent, expert, public interest perspective. With this standard, Independent Science News works to shape a future that is biodiverse, just, and healthy for everyone.
More about us...

Sign up to our mailing list

E-mail address:
Name (optional):

Related News Articles

EU Safety Institutions Caught Plotting an Industry “escape route” Around Looming Pesticide Ban

How “Extreme Levels” of Roundup in Food Became the Industry Norm

The Experiment Is on Us: Science of Animal Testing Thrown into Doubt

New Report Links Food, Climate and Agricultural Policies

How Agriculture Can Provide Food Security Without Destroying Biodiversity

US Crop Yield Increases Owe Little to Biotechnology

Bee Learning Behaviour Affected by GMO Toxin

Royal Society Science and Agriculture Study Criticised

Commentaries

How EPA Faked the Entire Science of Sewage Sludge Safety: A Whistleblower’s Story

Science for Sale by David Lewis

US EPA’s 503 sludge rule (1993) allows treated sewage sludges, aka biosolids, to be land-applied to farms, forests, parks, school playgrounds, home gardens and other private and public lands. According to a recent EPA survey, biosolids contain a wide range of mutagenic and neurotoxic chemicals, which are present at a …

Genetic Testing of Citizens Is a Backdoor into Total Population Surveillance by Governments and Companies

DNA

by Helen Wallace, GeneWatch UK The new Chief Executive of the National Health Service (NHS) in England, Simon Stevens, was recently reported arguing that the NHS must be transformed to make people’s personal genetic information the basis of their treatments (1). His proposition is unsurprising since it is in line …

The Failing Animal Research Paradigm for Human Disease

Army Medical Mouse School Research

by John J. Pippin, M.D., F.A.C.C. “The history of cancer research has been a history of curing cancer in the mouse. We have cured mice of cancer for decades—and it simply didn’t work in humans.” This statement was made by Richard Klausner, M.D., former director of the National Cancer Institute, …

What Will the World Inherit From GE Salmon?

Salmon Farming

By Dr. Gerry Goeden It’s true; about 50 percent of the fish we eat are farmed. There is good reason for this as, one by one, the world’s commercial fisheries collapse through overfishing. According to FAO (2010), 70% of the world’s large commercial fisheries have either failed or are not …

More Commentaries...

Reviews

The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets, and Food

The Real Cost of Fracking book cover

Book Authors: Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald Reviewed by Allison Wilson (The Bioscience Resource Project) The first researchers to systematically document ill health in livestock, pets, and people living near fracking drill sites were Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at …

Biology as Ideology: The Doctrine of DNA

Biology as Ideology

Book Author: Richard Lewontin Reviewed by: Jonathan Latham (The Bioscience Resource Project) Biologists know that complex traits are typically associated with genetic variation between individuals. Nevertheless, if we hear on the news that obesity, antisocial behaviour or some other disorder has a strong genetic component, we are likely to attach …

More Reviews...