Presentation: The Unsettling of America Culture and Agriculture- Wendell Berry

The Main Point:

  • In the preface of the book Berry writes about what got him started on creating this book. He says that “the first notes I made for it were incited by a news story in the summer of 1967 on the report of President Johnson’s “special commission on federal food and fiber policies.” Berry continues to write to describe this commission quoting a newspaper article which said “that the country’s biggest farm problem was a surplus of farmers: ‘…the technological in advances in agriculture have so greatly reduced the need for manpower that too many people are trying to live on a national farm income wholly inadequate for them.’ The proposed solutions were to find ‘better opportunities for the farm people, … a more comprehensive national employment policy, … retraining programs, …improved general educational facilities'” (V-VI).


  • Berry then writes “Reading that article, I realized that my values were not only out of fashion, but under powerful attack. I saw that I was a member of a threatened  minority. This is what set me off” (VI). In the rest of the book, so far, Berry has one theme: bash big farming businesses and root for the little guy. He gives tons and tons of his own personal criticisms for big farming “agribusiness” culture, and praises the little farmers, however, he doesn’t give the reader any solutions as to how we would have enough food without the big farming businesses. So far Berry seems like a babbling idiot.


  • One of the reasons that Berry uses to claim why Americans have moved on to big industrial farms is due to laziness. “The growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of hand work. We have made it an overriding ambition to escape work…” (12). Do you agree or disagree with Berry’s claim?



  • Berry writes about energy and claims that it is a fantasy for us to believe that we can “pursue our ideals of affluence, comfort, mobility, and leisure indefinitely” (13). I agree with this statement and the statement that “we cannot restrain ourselves…we waste fossil fuel energy” (13). But I also want to mention something else that Berry brings up in this section. Berry claims that: “If we had an unlimited supply of solar or wind power, we would use that destructively, too, for the same reasons.” Do you agree with this statement or disagree?


The Split

  • Berry mentions that “the split between what we think and what we do is profound” (18).  He then talks about how the Sierra Club has owned stocks and bonds in Exxon. Do you think that it’s okay for the Sierra Club to own stocks and bonds in Exxon? How else should they make money if not with good investments? Without money how can the Sierra Club function?


Against Specialists

  • Berry is also against the idea of having specialists- “people who are elaborately and expensively trained to do one thing” (19). He claims that “There are, for instance, educators who have nothing to teach, communicators who have nothing to say, medical doctors skilled at expensive cures for diseases that they have no skill, and no interest, in preventing” (19). Do you think that Berry is correct?
  • Berry also says “The specialist system fails from a personal point of view because a person who can do only one thing can do virtually nothing for himself. In living in the world by his own will and skill, the stupidest peasant or tribesman is more competent than the most intelligent worker or technician or intellectual in a society of specialists” (21). Again, do you agree?


What is a triumph?

  • Sort of tying in with our previous discussions of “progress” is the idea of “triumph.” I find that Berry would feel that progress does not mean an advancement in technology. He says “That one American farmer can now feed himself and fifty-six other people may be, withing the narrow view of the specialist, a triumph of technology; by no stretch of reason can it be considered a triumph of agriculture or of culture” (33). Berry does not further explain WHY this is not a triumph of agriculture, that is, until you get to page 87 and you read about the definition of agriculture.


  • “The word agriculture, after all, does not mean “agriscience,” much less “agribusiness.” It means “cultivation of land.” And cultivation is at the root of the sense both of culture and of cult. The ideas of tillage and worship are thus joined in culture. And these words all come from an Indo-European root meaning both “to revolve” and “to dwell” (87)”


Dog Eat Dog World

  • Berry seems to whine about the small farms failure. He claims that “…it appears that the failure of so many small farmers over so many years is really a kind of justice: it is their own fault; they ought to have been more efficient; if they had to get bigger in order to be more efficient, then they ought to have got bigger” (63). However, isn’t this true of most businesses in America now-a-days? Just look at all of the Wal*Marts taking over small stores. Why is it different when it’s agribusinesses taking over small farms? Or is it different?


Wrap Up / My Opinions

  • I feel that Berry sings a one note song. He complains about agribusinesses, yet doesn’t really give any explanations on how we are supposed to stop agribusinesses, or bring back old-style farms, and still manage to make enough food for not only the citizens of America, but for export. So far I have found Berry’s book to be boring and I find myself saying “so what?” often.
  • Do you think that we should go back to small old-style farms? Or do you think that agribusiness is the way to go?

2 Responses to Presentation: The Unsettling of America Culture and Agriculture- Wendell Berry

  1. My fellow on Facebook shared this link and I’m not dissapointed at all that I came to your blog.

  2. […] March 31, 2009- My Class Presentation (The Unsettling of America Culture and Agriculture) […]

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