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

What Happened to Obama’s Promise to Restore Scientific Integrity?

New Research Links Neonicotinoid Pesticides to Monarch Butterfly Declines

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

Commentaries

Monsanto’s Worst Fear May Be Coming True

Chipotle Mexican Grill

by Jonathan Latham, PhD The decision of the Chipotle restaurant chain to make its product lines GMO-free is not most people’s idea of a world-historic event. Especially since Chipotle, by US standards, is not a huge operation. A clear sign that the move is significant, however, is that Chipotle’s decision …

Anthropocene Boosters and the Attack on Wilderness Conservation

White Cloud Mountains, Idaho, George Wuerthner

by George Wuerthner A growing debate has serious consequences for our collective relationship to Nature. Beginning perhaps twenty years ago, a number of academics in disciplines such as history, anthropology, and geography, began to question whether there was any tangible wilderness or wild lands left on Earth. These academics, and …

Peasant Sovereignty?

China village

By Evaggelos Vallianatos In May 2014, the Spain-based international agrarian organization, Grain, reported that small farmers not only “feed the world with less than a quarter of all farmland,” but they are also the most productive farmers on Earth. For example, small farmers and peasants in nine European countries outproduce …

Will Food Sovereignty Starve the Poor and Punish the Planet?

Weeding maize in Burkina Faso

by Gilles Billen, Luis Lassaletta and Josette Garnier Globalisation is not only a matter of clothing and mobile phones. Long-distance worldwide shipping of food commodities has also increased tremendously over the last few decades. Lassaletta et al. (2014) estimate that one-third of all proteins (a proxy for the nutritive potential …

More Commentaries...

Reviews

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA

Poison Spring Evaggelos Valllianatos

Book Author: Evaggelos Vallianatos with McKay Jenkins Reviewed by: Carol Van Strum “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” Richard Feynman famously declared in 1966. Ever quick to challenge accepted wisdom, he distinguished the laudable ignorance of science, forever seeking unattainable certainties, from the dangerous ignorance of experts …

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 …

More Reviews...