Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#734 - Thoughts In The Presence Of Fear, 26-Sep-2001

We interrupt our series on the environmental movement to reprint
a short essay written by Wendell Berry in response to the
atrocities in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania September
11.

Wendell Berry is a farmer, writer, conservationist and teacher
who lives in Henry County, Kentucky. His books include (among
others) HOME ECONOMICS (1987; ISBN 0865472750); THE UNSETTLING OF
AMERICA: CULTURE & AGRICULTURE (1996; ISBN 0871568772); ANOTHER
TURN OF THE CRANK (1996; ISBN 1887178287); and THE GIFT OF GOOD
LAND (1983; ISBN 0865470529);

This article first appeared on OrionOnline.org, the web magazine
of ORION and ORION AFIELD, in a feature called "Thoughts on
America: Writers Respond to Crisis." The number of contributing
writers continues to grow. See http://www.oriononline.org.

Thoughts in the Presence of Fear

by Wendell Berry

I. The time will soon come when we will not be able to remember
the horrors of September 11 without remembering also the
unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on
that day.

II. This optimism rested on the proposition that we were living
in a "new world order" and a "new economy" that would "grow" on
and on, bringing a prosperity of which every new increment would
be "unprecedented."

III. The dominant politicians, corporate officers, and investors
who believed this proposition did not acknowledge that the
prosperity was limited to a tiny percent of the world's people,
and to an ever smaller number of people even in the United
States; that it was founded upon the oppressive labor of poor
people all over the world; and that its ecological costs
increasingly threatened all life, including the lives of the
supposedly prosperous.

IV. The "developed" nations had given to the "free market" the
status of a god, and were sacrificing to it their farmers,
farmlands, and communities, their forests, wetlands, and
prairies, their ecosystems and watersheds. They had accepted
universal pollution and global warming as normal costs of doing
business.

V. There was, as a consequence, a growing worldwide effort on
behalf of economic decentralization, economic justice, and
ecological responsibility. We must recognize that the events of
September 11 make this effort more necessary than ever. We
citizens of the industrial countries must continue the labor of
self-criticism and self-correction. We must recognize our
mistakes.

VI. The paramount doctrine of the economic and technological
euphoria of recent decades has been that everything depends on
innovation. It was understood as desirable, and even necessary,
that we should go on and on from one technological innovation to
the next, which would cause the economy to "grow" and make
everything better and better. This of course implied at every
point a hatred of the past, of all [past] innovations [which] ,
whatever their value might have been, were discounted as of no
value at all.

VII. We did not anticipate anything like what has now happened.
We did not foresee that all our sequence of innovations might be
at once overridden by a greater one: the invention of a new kind
of war that would turn our previous innovations against us,
discovering and exploiting the debits and the dangers that we had
ignored. We never considered the possibility that we might be
trapped in the webwork of communication and transport that was
supposed to make us free.

VIII. Nor did we foresee that the weaponry and the war science
that we marketed and taught to the world would become available,
not just to recognized national governments, which possess so
uncannily the power to legitimate large-scale violence, but also
to "rogue nations," dissident or fanatical groups and individuals
whose violence, though never worse than that of nations, is
judged by the nations to be illegitimate.

IX. We had accepted uncritically the belief that technology is
only good; that it cannot serve evil as well as good; that it
cannot serve our enemies as well as ourselves; that it cannot be
used to destroy what is good, including our homelands and our
lives.

X. We had accepted too the corollary belief that an economy
(either as a money economy or as a life-support system) that is
global in extent, technologically complex, and centralized is
invulnerable to terrorism, sabotage, or war, and that it is
protectable by "national defense."

XI. We now have a clear, inescapable choice that we must make. We
can continue to promote a global economic system of unlimited
"free trade" among corporations, held together by long and highly
vulnerable lines of communication and supply, but now recognizing
that such a system will have to be protected by a hugely
expensive police force that will be worldwide, whether maintained
by one nation or several or all, and that such a police force
will be effective precisely to the extent that it oversways the
freedom and privacy of the citizens of every nation.

XII. Or we can promote a decentralized world economy which would
have the aim of assuring to every nation and region a local
self-sufficiency in life-supporting goods. This would not
eliminate international trade, but it would tend toward a trade
in surpluses after local needs had been met.

XIII. One of the gravest dangers to us now, second only to
further terrorist attacks against our people, is that we will
attempt to go on as before with the corporate program of global
"free trade," whatever the cost in freedom and civil rights,
without self-questioning or self-criticism or public debate.

XIV. This is why the substitution of rhetoric for thought, always
a temptation in a national crisis, must be resisted by officials
and citizens alike. It is hard for ordinary citizens to know what
is actually happening in Washington in a time of such great
trouble; for all we know, serious and difficult thought may be
taking place there. But the talk that we are hearing from
politicians, bureaucrats, and commentators has so far tended to
reduce the complex problems now facing us to issues of unity,
security, normality, and retaliation.

XV. National self-righteousness, like personal
self-righteousness, is a mistake. It is misleading. It is a sign
of weakness. Any war that we may make now against terrorism will
come as a new installment in a history of war in which we have
fully participated. We are not innocent of making war against
civilian populations. The modern doctrine of such warfare was set
forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held
that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly
subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that
doctrine.

XVI. It is a mistake also -- as events since September 11 have
shown -- to suppose that a government can promote and participate
in a global economy and at the same time act exclusively in its
own interest by abrogating its international treaties and
standing apart from international cooperation on moral issues.

XVII. And surely, in our country, under our Constitution, it is a
fundamental error to suppose that any crisis or emergency can
justify any form of political oppression. Since September 11, far
too many public voices have presumed to "speak for us" in saying
that Americans will gladly accept a reduction of freedom in
exchange for greater "security." Some would, maybe. But some
others would accept a reduction in security (and in global trade)
far more willingly than they would accept any abridgement of our
Constitutional rights.

XVIII. In a time such as this, when we have been seriously and
most cruelly hurt by those who hate us, and when we must consider
ourselves to be gravely threatened by those same people, it is
hard to speak of the ways of peace and to remember that Christ
enjoined us to love our enemies, but this is no less necessary
for being difficult.

XIX. Even now we dare not forget that since the attack on Pearl
Harbor -- to which the present attack has been often and not
usefully compared -- we humans have suffered an almost
uninterrupted sequence of wars, none of which has brought peace
or made us more peaceable.

XX. The aim and result of war necessarily is not peace but
victory, and any victory won by violence necessarily justifies
the violence that won it and leads to further violence. If we are
serious about innovation, must we not conclude that we need
something new to replace our perpetual "war to end war"?

XXI. What leads to peace is not violence but peaceableness, which
is not passivity, but an alert, informed, practiced, and active
state of being. We should recognize that while we have
extravagantly subsidized the means of war, we have almost totally
neglected the ways of peaceableness. We have, for example,
several national military academies, but not one peace academy.
We have ignored the teachings and the examples of Christ, Gandhi,
Martin Luther King, and other peaceable leaders. And here we have
an inescapable duty to notice also that war is profitable,
whereas the means of peaceableness, being cheap or free, make no
money.

XXII. The key to peaceableness is continuous practice. It is
wrong to suppose that we can exploit and impoverish the poorer
countries, while arming them and instructing them in the newest
means of war, and then reasonably expect them to be peaceable.

XXIII. We must not again allow public emotion or the public media
to caricature our enemies. If our enemies are now to be some
nations of Islam, then we should undertake to know those enemies.
Our schools should begin to teach the histories, cultures, arts,
and language of the Islamic nations. And our leaders should have
the humility and the wisdom to ask the reasons some of those
people have for hating us.

XXIV. Starting with the economies of food and farming, we should
promote at home, and encourage abroad, the ideal of local
self-sufficiency. We should recognize that this is the surest,
the safest, and the cheapest way for the world to live. We should
not countenance the loss or destruction of any local capacity to
produce necessary goods.

XXV. We should reconsider and renew and extend our efforts to
protect the natural foundations of the human economy: soil,
water, and air. We should protect every intact ecosystem and
watershed that we have left, and begin restoration of those that
have been damaged.

XXVI. The complexity of our present trouble suggests as never
before that we need to change our present concept of education.
Education is not properly an industry, and its proper use is not
to serve industries, neither by job-training nor by
industry-subsidized research. It's proper use is to enable
citizens to live lives that are economically, politically,
socially, and culturally responsible. This cannot be done by
gathering or "accessing" what we now call "information" -- which
is to say facts without context and therefore without priority. A
proper education enables young people to put their lives in
order, which means knowing what things are more important than
other things; it means putting first things first.

XXVII. The first thing we must begin to teach our children (and
learn ourselves) is that we cannot spend and consume endlessly.
We have got to learn to save and conserve. We do need a "new
economy," but one that is founded on thrift and care, on saving
and conserving, not on excess and waste. An economy based on
waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its
inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy.