Wendell Berry's vision of a strong local economy | Kentuckians For The Commonwealth

Wendell Berry's vision of a strong local economy

Kentucky author, farmer and KFTC member Wendell Berry kicked off KFTC’s annual membership meeting by lifting up the unbreakable tie between people and the land, between work and community.

In his keynote address to a crowd of more than 200 KFTC members and friends gathered at General Butler State Resort Park on August 16, he expressed an ideal of a locally-based economy built on the skills of local people and the diverse resources of the land.

The most effective means of local self-determination would be a well-developed local economy based upon the use and protection of local resources, including local human intelligence and skills

Berry referred to the “tragedy” of industrialization and its emphasis on “job creation.” Industrialization has harmed rural areas all over Kentucky and especially eastern Kentucky.

“A ‘job’ exists without reference to anybody in particular or any place in particular. If a person loses a ‘job’ in eastern Kentucky and finds a ‘job’ in Alabama, then he has ceased to be ‘unemployed’ and has become ‘employed.’ It does not matter who the person is or what or where the ‘job’ is. ‘Employment’ in a ‘job’ completely satisfies the social aim of the industrial economy and its industrial government.”

“I can tell you confidently that the many owners of small farms, shops and stores and the self-employed craftspeople who were thriving in my county in 1945 did not think of their work as ‘a job,’” Berry said. “Most of those people, along with most skilled employees who worked in their home county or home town, have now been replaced by a few people working in large chain stores and by a few people using large machines and other human-replacing industrial technologies. Local economies, local communities, even local families, in which people lived and worked as members, have been broken.”

In his novels and stories about the fictional town of Port William, Berry has written about the “membership” of people who make up a community, sharing skills, food and company in an interdependent web that benefits all.

“The people who once were members of mutually supportive memberships are now ‘human resources’ in the ‘labor force,’ whose fate is either to be ‘exploited’ by an employer or ‘discarded’ by an employer when the economy falters or as soon as a machine or a chemical can perform their job.”

A Henry County farmer, Berry has been a vocal opponent of strip mining in eastern Kentucky for about 50 years and a proponent of locally based economies that respect the connection between people and the land.

“All of us who are living owe our lives directly to our connection with the land. I am not talking about the connection that is implied by such a term as ‘environmentalism.’ I am talking about the connection that we make economically, by work, by living, by making a living. This connection, as we see every day, is going to be either familiar, affectionate and saving or distant, uncaring and destructive.”

Leaders of industry, industrial politics, and industrial education decide how the land will be used, and people are moved into industrial jobs, away from local subsistence and into the economy of jobs and consumption, he said.

“The most effective means of local self-determination would be a well-developed local economy based upon the use and protection of local resources, including local human intelligence and skills,” Berry said. “Local resources have little local value when they are industrially produced or extracted and shipped out. They become far more valuable when they are developed, produced, processed and marketed by, and first of all to, the local people – when, that is, they support, and are supported by, a local economy. And here we realize that a local economy, supplying local needs so far as possible from local fields and woodlands, is necessarily diverse.”

Berry offered 12 ways forward:

  1. If our project is to save the land and the people, it will have to be done locally.  The leaders will have to be led.

  2. We should accept help from the centers of power, wealth and advice only if, in our estimation, it is actually helpful.

  3. We must think of reverence, humility, affection, familiarity, neighborliness, cooperation, thrift, appropriateness, and local loyalty. “These terms return us to the best of our heritage. They bring us home.”

  4. Many of the needed changes will have to be made in individual lives, in families and households, and in local communities. So we must understand the importance of scale.

  5. We must understand and affirm the importance of subsistence economies for families and communities.

  6. We must reconsider the purpose, the worth and the cost of education – especially higher education. “When young people leave their college or university too much in debt to afford to come home, we need to think again.”

  7. Every community needs to learn how much of the local land is locally owned and how much is available for local needs and uses.

  8. Every community and region needs to know as exactly as possible the local need for local products.

  9. There must be a local conversation about how best to meet that need, once it is known.

  10. We need many more skilled and careful people in the land-using economies. We can’t expect a good land-based economy from people who wish only to continue a land-destroying economy.

  11. We must do everything we can to develop associations of land owners and land users for the purpose of land use planning, but also of supply management and the maintenance of just prices.

  12. If we are interested in saving the land and the people of rural Kentucky, we will have to confront the issue of prejudice – against ourselves and against others. It is isolating, weakening and distracting. “It reduces the supply of love to our needs and our work.”

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