Wendell Berry: Without Prosperous Local Economies, the People Have No Power and the Land No Voice

OK, it's official. Wendell Berry is the Patron Saint of Year of Plenty. His writings resonate with me and our consumption experiences in the deepest ways. I wouldn't hire him as an economist or an accountant, but when I need a poet and prophet, Mr. Berry is the man.

His 2001 article for Orion magazine titled "The Idea of a Local Economy," describes the need to become aware of our consumer ignorance. He says;

...the first thought may be a recognition of one’s ignorance andvulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer, one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where, exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.

It wasn't until our family lived in the confines of our rules of consuming everything local, used, homegrown, or homemade that we realized just how ignorant and in the dark we are about the sources of our consumer goods. I remember the first week of our year, spending an hour in a grocery store going down the aisles piled high with thousands of products asking. "Where did this come from?" We quickly discovered that the problem isn't so much finding locally produced items, the core problem is that the vast majority of products have no significant markers indicating the product's origins or the practices that brought the product to market.  It takes the skills of an investigative reporter just to figure out where the cheddar cheese and milk comes from.

Berry get's to the core crisis of this arrangement when he observes that a consequence is that we are cut off from the land, and the land is cut off from us. This doesn't mean there aren't responsible stewards in the supply chain, it just means that we as consumers are made totally passive and totally dependent. In exchange for convenience and price we have deferred stewardly practice to others. 

Berry's prescription for this unhealthy arrangement is the development of local economies, especially local food economies. He concludes,

Without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.