Forum Journal & Forum Focus

The Purpose of a Coherent Community 

12-09-2015 17:35

I know well that I am hardly the first aging man to look back on his youth as “a better time,” and perhaps I am sufficiently aware of the dangers. It is true nevertheless that in my lifetime I have witnessed a lot of destruction. I can’t forget, for example, that in the time of my childhood people in my part of the world drank fearlessly from springs and wells and swam without anxiety in whatever water was deep enough. We probably should have worried (a little) about coliform and other bacteria, but the possibility of contamination by persistent chemicals did not yet exist for us.

Now, of course, we know that water pollution is only a part of a package that includes air pollution, soil erosion, deforestation, urban sprawl, architectural ugliness, and other symptoms of a general disregard for the world’s life and health. Now we not only cannot drink fearlessly from wells and springs; we cannot drink fearlessly from the public plumbing; we cannot fearlessly breathe the air.

Here is a set of sentences culled from a book I wish were better known:

We have been greatly engaged in digging up the stored resources, and in destroying vast products of the earth for some small kernel that we can apply to our necessities or add to our enjoyments.

We...blast the minerals and the metals from underneath the crust and leave the earth raw and sore...exterminate whole races of animals; choke the streams with refuse and dross; rob the land of its available stores, denuding the surface, exposing great areas to erosion.

Those who appropriate the accumulations of the earth should complete their work, cleaning up the remainders, leaving the areas wholesome, inoffensive, and safe.

Yet there is even a more defenseless devastation...It is the organized destructiveness of those who would make military domination the major premise in the constitution of society…disrespecting the works of the creator.

Rivalry that leads to arms is a natural fruit of unrestrained rivalry in trade.

We have taken [the earth] for granted…and with little care or conscious thought of the consequences of our use of it.

If those grief-stricken sentences sound familiar, that is not because they are contemporary. They were written in the first year of World War I by Liberty Hyde Bailey, the great dean, by then retired, of the College of Agriculture at Cornell University. Those sentences become even more poignant for a person today who reads on in that little book, The Holy Earth, because the next chapter sets forth the belief that we were then at the beginning of a new era in our use of the land, when we would waste little and do no harm.

But since Dean Bailey died at 96 in 1954, something like one-third of the world’s farmable soil has been lost to erosion; we have brought clearly into sight the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels; we have polluted the entire earth with our poisons. Since 1954 most of our towns and cities have become formless, decadent, and ugly; and huge expanses of our fertile countryside have become monocultural deserts, toxic, depopulated, and ugly.

The Rise of “Redemptive” Organizations

As signs, or perhaps symptoms, of the general destructiveness of the industrial economy, we now have hundreds of large and small organizations devoted to protecting or saving things of value that are endangered: peace, kindness, freedom, childhood, health, wilderness areas, rivers, species of plants and animals, cultures, languages, farmland, family farms, farm families, families, the atmosphere, scenic roads, fine old buildings, historic places, holy places, quietness, darkness. More and more, as I ponder over our lengthening catalog of calamities and discouragements, I think of these organizations. I think of them with great sympathy, and with love, for I think they are the basis of our worldly hope. They are the basis of our right to hope that our own greatly endangered species may somehow be saved, if not from extinction, at least from the necessity of recognizing itself as the ultimate parasite, deserving extinction.

Collectively, these organizations comprise a movement of redemption, a movement to deliver the holy earth from its ruthless exploiters who are claiming everywhere their “right” to plunder, waste, corrupt, and destroy the great possessions that have been given to us on the condition only of our devoted care.

These many redemptive organizations are now required to confront consciously and capably, really for the first time in human history, a question which is almost overwhelming in its magnitude and urgency, but which also is utterly fascinating, fully worthy of a lifetime’s effort and study: Can we change the ways we live and work so as to establish a preserving harmony between the made and the given worlds? Or, to make that question more practical and immediate: Can great power or great wealth be kind to small places? Can the necessary industries subsist upon their natural sources without destroying them? Can the life of a farm or working forest be made compatible with its local ecosystem? Can city and country live and trade together to their mutual benefit? Can an urban economy vouchsafe the health and prosperity of its suppliers, its consumers, and its neighbors? One takes much hope and encouragement from the knowledge that everywhere in our country and in the world, thanks to these organizations, people in significant numbers are beginning to suffer these questions.

And yet, grateful as I am for these organizations, so many of whose names begin with “Save,” I can’t help but notice that this movement or this consciousness that I am calling redemptive, and am moreover a part of, is not only the losing side in our current public struggles, but in terms of its standing and influence is hardly a side at all. It doesn’t have a significant political presence. It is virtually unrepresented in our state and federal governments. Most of its concerns are not on the agenda of either major party.

Scattered Efforts and Negative Messages

And so I need to add to my praise some criticism, not in disparagement but in hope, for when we try to think of those organizations all together as a political constituency we see that, as such, it is badly disintegrated and fragmented. Its efforts are scattered, often mutually exclusive, sometimes mutually competitive, and mostly negative. In some of its parts, it is fearful of becoming too radical. For the purpose of its own coherence, it is not radical enough.

It is immensely heartening to know that the National Trust is interested in coherence and so can devote itself to such multiple purposes as “the preservation and restoration of buildings and landscapes,” can propose “to save historic places and revitalize communities,” and can see “historic preservation as a tool for restoring economic vitality to traditional business districts.” But even within and among those excellent aims there is trouble.

If, for example, you are interested in the preservation and restoration of landscapes, you will find out quickly that there are, with us, two classes of landscapes, the would-be pristine landscapes of parks and wilderness preserves and the economic landscapes of farms and working forests, and that the conservationists and the land users who seek to preserve those landscapes, though they have many of the same enemies and many reasons to be allies, have a long history of mutual enmity and dislike.

Or if you are interested in restoring economic vitality to traditional business districts in our town and urban centers, you will find an even more complicated muddle. Businesses, with us, are of two kinds: locally owned businesses that are relatively small, and national or supranational corporations. The interests of these kinds of businesses are almost diametrically opposed, and yet the local business people, who everywhere are being destroyed by the great corporations, are all too likely to believe that their interests are the same—and, at the same time, are all too likely to be antipathetic to the rural land users and the conservationists who are their natural allies.

Even a great redemptive effort, under way nearly everywhere and supported by the good work of many people, when it is as scattered and disconnected as this one, is almost inevitably going to be mostly negative. Among the many organizations I am talking about, the most popular words, after “save,” are “stop” and “no.” Even the preservation of something of value is negative if it reduces the possibility of preserving something else of value.

It is, of course, perfectly all right to be against something that is wrong. If we see that something is wrong we have no choice but to oppose it for the sake, if for nothing else, of our own souls. And yet, in so destructive an age as ours, it is possible for our sense of wrong to become an affliction. All of us who are committed to saving things of value have been in what Wes Jackson calls “the ain’t-it-awful conversation,” in which we recite the current litany of outrages. We have been in that conversation and, if we have brought to it a modicum of sanity, we have recognized sooner or later the need to get out of it.

The logical end of the ain’t-it-awful conversation, as of the life devoted merely to opposition, is despair. People quit having any fun, they begin to talk about the “inevitability” of what they are against, and they give up. Mere opposition finally blinds us to the good of the things we are trying to save. And it divides us hopelessly from our opponents, who no doubt are caricaturing us while we are demonizing them. We lose, in short, the sense of shared humanity that would permit us to say even to our worst enemies, “We are working, after all, in your interest and your children’s. Ours is a common effort for the common good. Come and join us.”

That this redemptive movement is not yet seen clearly enough as a common effort for the common good is perfectly understandable. Undoubtedly it began in the only way it could have begun. Its many organizations have necessarily defined themselves by the singular problems they have addressed:

“The river is being polluted. Save the river. Stop pollution. No to the polluters.”

“We are losing our architectural inheritance. Save the inner city. Stop the demolition. No to the wreckers.”

This is clear enough. If we are sympathetic, we have to say this is all right. The only possible objection is that it is incomplete; it does not go far enough. The effort is not only defined by the problem but is limited by it. An effort that is defined only or mainly by a problem is negative necessarily.

And under the rhetoric of Save and Stop and No there lies an odd and embarrassing fact. Who is polluting the river? Well, among others, we are, we members of Save the River, who flush our toilets and use the latest toxic products only a little less thoughtlessly than everybody else. Who is wrecking the inner city? We are, of course, we members of Save the Inner City, who drive our cars and shop at the malls and the chain stores only a little less thoughtlessly than everybody else. It doesn’t make any difference that we mostly don’t have an alternative to doing as we do; we still share the guilt. In a centralized, specialized, commercialized, mechanized society such as ours, we all are necessarily, and in considerable measure, helping to cause the problem we are helping to deplore and trying to solve.

I would be wrong, at this point, if I failed to notice that our side, this redemptive movement compounded of so many aims and efforts, has won a good many victories, and we are right to rejoice in them and take courage from them. But these victories, I am afraid, are isolated. They don’t yet constitute a significant pattern or tendency of cultural change. We have won victories, but we still are losing.

Approaching Problems in Context

If our efforts are fragmented and our victories are piecemeal, then clearly we have got to think again and think better. In order to think better, I believe, we are going to have to revive and reinvigorate the tired old idea of context. A creature can live only in a context that favors its life. An artifact exists and means only in a context that supports it and reinforces its meaning.

There is no escape from the issue of context, and if we think of modern life in terms of context we are going to find it abounding in inconsistencies, and in moral discomforts that we have taught ourselves not to feel. For example:

If we can’t preserve the health of the natural world in our economic landscapes of farm and ranch and working forest, and even in our cities, then we are not going to be able to preserve it in our parks and wilderness preserves.

To countenance mountaintop removal in Kentucky and West Virginia is to agree to the eventual destruction of Yosemite and Yellowstone and the Smokies.

We can’t for long preserve the fine arts if we neglect or destroy the domestic arts of farming, forestry, cooking, clothing, building, homemaking, community life, and local economy.

We can’t preserve historic buildings to any purpose or for very long outside the contexts of community life and local economy.

In short, we can’t preserve the best of human and earthly life merely as a museum of obsolete artifacts, rare creatures, and unusual scenery.

Contradictions so obvious and so ordinary alert us to the importance of preserving or advocating a whole thing. We have too many reasons to suspect that even the most valuable things cannot be preserved, or not for long, merely by the desire to save them, or even by the necessary money, or even by the necessary votes. And so let us say that a whole thing is anything worth preserving plus its preserving context. Let us call the preserving context a community, for that is the name of the having-incommon that does in fact preserve us. And let us understand that we must never allow our thoughts or wishes to separate the community from its habitat, or from its economy which is its way of living in its habitat, or from its culture which is its way of remembering (or forgetting) where it is and how to live there.

We seem to have been living for a long time on the assumption that we can safely deal with parts, leaving the whole to take care of itself. But now the news from everywhere is that we have to begin gathering up the scattered pieces, figuring out where they belong, and putting them back together. For the parts can be reconciled to one another only within the pattern of the whole thing to which they belong. The local business people, farmers, foresters, conservationists, investors, bankers, and builders are not going to get along on the basis of economic determinism. The ground of their reconciliation will have to be larger than the ground of their divisions. It will have to promise life, satisfaction, and hope to them all.

Seeking a Coherent Community

The common denominator is the local community. Only the purpose of a coherent community, fully alive both in the world and in the minds of its members, can carry us beyond fragmentation, contradiction, and negativity, teaching us to preserve, not in opposition but in affirmation and affection, all things needful to make us glad to live.

A coherent community is undoubtedly an excellent purpose. Perhaps we can agree that it is. But we will have to agree also, I am afraid, that none of us lives in one, and that none of us knows where to find one. History provides many examples of coherent communities, but not one that we can “go back to.” We have no place to begin but where we are.

Where we are is a world dominated by a global economy that places no value whatsoever on community or community coherence. In this economy, whose business is to set in contention things that belong together, you can do nothing more divisive than to assert the claims of community. This puts you immediately at odds with powerful people to whom the claims of community mean nothing, who ignore the issues of locality, who recognize no neighbors and are loyal to no place. These people believe, as W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm wrote in the New York Times of November 7, 2003, that “microeconomic failure”— by which they mean loss of jobs, displacement of workers, and the disruption of communities—is necessary for “macroeconomic”progress. Such failure, they wrote, “is the way the macro economy transfers resources to where they belong.” We must not object to microeconomic failure, these writers said, because “Large-scale upheaval in jobs is part of the economy...History tells us that the result will be even more jobs, greater productivity and higher incomes for American workers in general.”

We are indebted to Mr. Cox and Mr. Alm for telling us so precisely what we are up against. If the claims of community are to be asserted now, they must be asserted in the face of this heartless optimism backed by the world’s wealth all the world’s people as its dependents.

Putting the pieces back together is going to be slow work. The pieces can be scattered in a hurry merely by indifference or neglect or violence. But the same forces that scattered them cannot put them back together. For that, we are going to need the hope and the purpose of a coherent community, clearly articulated and steadily borne in mind. And we are going to have to resign ourselves to patience and small steps.

We are indebted to Mr. Cox and Mr. Alm also for displaying in blatant outline the great fault of their thesis. That fault is in their debasement of vocation to “job,” implying that what a worker does or where it is done does not matter so long as the worker gets paid for doing it. Their reduction of vocation to “job” leads necessarily to their further reduction of working people to “resources,” not different in kind or value from raw materials or machine parts.

To this, the purpose of a coherent community gives us the necessary answer, which is at the same time the means of unifying and making politically effective our now disparate efforts to save the good things: The members of a

and power, and with virtually community cohere on the basis of their recognized need for one another, a need that is in many ways practical but never utilitarian. The members of a coherent community, moreover, keep the good things they have because of a recognized need for them, a need sufficiently practical but never utilitarian. If it is to cohere, a community cannot agree to the loss of any of its members, or the disemployment of any of its members, as an acceptable cost of an economic program.

If it is to cohere, a community must remember its history and its obligations; it is therefore irreconcilably opposed to “mobility” as a social norm. Persons, places, and things have a practical value, but they are not reducible to such value; they are not interchangeable. That is why we outlawed slavery. That is why a house for sale is not a home.

Publication Date: Winter 2005


Author(s):Wendell Berry

Tags and Keywords