The Unsettling of America, chs. 1-6 (Berry)

Ch. 1: The Unsettling of America

  • clash between two tendencies in America: to conquer the continent and its resources verses the tendency of the Indians to stay in place (3)
  • a continuous American practice has been that the people who stay in place have always been subverted to those who conquer the resources; the people who stay become the “redskins”; e.g. our modern industrialized society’s exploitation of small farmers; the only way to avoid this exploitation is to “succeed in life” (4-5)
  • similarities exist between foreign colonization and the American habit of converting productive farms and forests  into strip mines (6); This tendency clearly still exists in the U.S. today–we continue to place sprawling human developments on areas that were previously well suited for growing crops. This can result in clashes between the original farming communities and the new homeowners.

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  • nurturers v. exploiters: society is divided into conquerors and victims; the nurturers care for the earth and aim for quality in the things they do and produce, while the exploiters seek to destroy them and are interested only in their corporations and increasing profit and production; the exploiters thus have no stake in the health of the land, and thus soil fertility declines (7-10)→our government is always seeking to justify exploitative practices in the name of freedom, democracy, etc. (10)
  • there is a link between an increase in machinery, which leads to a decreased need for farm workers, which in turn fosters city unemployment, overcrowding, and urban plight (11)
  • we base our hope on technological innovations, i.e. that there will be a silver bullet (13)
  • Jefferson believed in an economy of necessity as the surest safeguard of democratic liberty, with emphasis on the local economy (14)
  • Jefferson is absolutely correct in that we can protect our values in an economy based not on our frivolous wants, but rather on what we truly need to live. Greed and entitlement go counter to the ideas of community and the collective good.
  • How realistic would it be for our society to completely re-localize today?

Ch. 2: The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character

  • all Americans are in some way destructive people because our economy is destructive; many environmental groups used to have stock in environmentally harmful companies, like Exxon; this should come as no surprise because the actions of these groups simply mirrors the day-to-day activities of their members (17). In this way, as we have discussed in class, perhaps such environmental groups simply allow their members to feel like they are making a difference when they contribute $20, but continue all other aspects of their lifestyles. The idea of divestment has emerged more recently, in which companies or organizations decide not to invest in particular firms with negative social or environmental practices,  for instance.
  • quote to illustrate the above statements: “Conservation organizations hold stock in exploitative industries because they have no clear perception of, and therefore fail to be responsible for, the connections between what they say and what they do, what they desire and how they live” (25)
  • our society is dangerous because it produces too many specialists; the U.S is too fragmented and disconnected from the sources of the products that we consume; we become dependent on ineffective/disinterested specialists; the average person is only interested in making money and entertaining himself (thus a whole vast entertainment industry exists); BUT “this is probably the most unhappy average citizen in the history of the world” (18-23); the way to escape this system rests with producing more of your own goods and food (24)
  • the discourse is too often centered on our rights, but not responsibilities (24); governments are ineffective and act only when forced to do so (22)

Ch. 3: The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture

  • competing visions exist as to which land is worth conserving (27)
  • conservationists often do not address the problems of our own use; this is called a terrarium world view; nature is always seen at a distance and is completely separate from human contact (28)
  • as a society, we need to return to the “kindly use” of land for agriculture; this requires responsiveness and responsibility; future policies must include both the farm AND the household (30-31)
  • under our industrialized food system, a once collaborative relationship has become competitive; quantitative/economic standards have replaced qualitative ones; the relationship between people and the land is now fundamentally different, because a single farmer now feeds 56 people! (30-32) I wonder how these statistics have changed since the 1970s, when this book was first published.
  • loss of farm families; if farms can’t “get bigger”, they must “get out” (33)
  • the Department of Agriculture uses a list of impressive sounding statistics (see p. 33-35); i.e. we are feeding ever more people with fewer individuals actually having to devote their time to farming
  • this quote struck me as ironic: “U.S. agripower is a major force in the world’s exchange of goods and services. Agripower is, unquestionably, an even greater force than petropower in man’s survival in the future” (35); True, the U.S. does produce a great deal of agriculture, with surplus sold on the world market, but increasingly, our agricultural system is no longer independent. That is, it is completely tied to fossil fuels for inputs like fertilizer. The decentralized food system we have created also requires transporting goods vast distances, thus using even more imported oil.
  • today, the people operating farms are not farmers, but rather agri-business people; they are producers interested in only production, not in creating high quality food which can nourish the local community; most of America thus eats thoughtlessly (37-38); our food system is thus dehumanized

Ch. 4: The Agriculture Crisis as a Crisis of Culture

  • since the end of WWII there has been a rapid increase in mechanization, with many societal consequences; since this time, the market for minor products has vanished; diversified small local farms have gone under→small farms are abandoned and left to deteriorate (40); as a result, reforestation has actually been a recent phenomenon in the U.S. over the last couple of generations as old farms revert back to forest
  • This book was first published in 1977; how has the situation changed since this time? For instance, recently, the local food movement has made significant gains, with the number of small famrs and farmer’s markets on the rise in many states.
  • germs previously in our foods have been replaced by poisons; all of these trends have been driven not by farmers, but by supposed “experts”–these experts are not under any pressure to ask important questions (41); food is a cultural product; it cannot be produced by technology alone
  • the culture of money that now exists subverts all else (46); we need cooperation and interdependence, not competition in the universe (47)
  • healthy culture= “communal order of memory, insight, value, work, conviviality, reverence, aspiration” (43)

Chapter 5: Living in the Future: The “Modern” Agricultural Ideal

  • it’s impossible to divorce “what we do” from “where we are”; however, modern society attempts to do just that; we don’t have a connection to our earth; people don’t feel the effects of their actions when they live and work in different places (52)
  • because of the decline in cottage industries, modern people do not have a sense of where they are (53)
  • the aim of modern people is to improve the future (56);industrial farming and technology are seen as the cure-all that will allow us to have a prosperous, bright future;  “better living through chemistry”; the future looks perfect becsuse humans will usurp the role of God (77)
  • BUT, only responsible behavior in the present can guarantee the future (58)
  • the agricultural revolution is seen simply as an extension of the industrial revolution;  for many Americans this is why it is acceptable; the guarantee of fresh produce year-round is very enticing (60-62); BUT the environmental costs of living this way are very high
  • farms of the future envision 15 story buildings for animal feed lots and slaughtering; BUT the model farm takes people completely out of the picture!; what will be the consequences of this type of farm on local communities? How about the environment? (67-73)
  • the survival of small businesses does not carry importance any more (76)
  • What might we envision a farm of the future to look like from today’s perspective? When this book was written, genetically modified organisms did not yet exist. How might a future farm view look different today? Are there reasons to be more worried or more hopeful? Why?

Ch. 6: The Use of Energy

  • technology joins us to energy, to life; energy extraction entails geological and ecological damage (81-84)
  • soil is a living entity; it should not be treated as a resource available for our exploitation (86); This section reminded me of material I read in Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, in which he shows that there is scientific evidence that healthy soil results in more nutritious produce. Communities of microbes enhance the nutrients available to plants, and plants are also more likely to produce materials to combat pests, such as antioxidants. On megafarms, soil is soil in name only; other than that, it does not have many characteristics with actual living soil.
  • Damage comes from treating soil as an extractable resource (90)
  • farming allows humans to have a fundamental connection to the earth (87)
  • food should be cultural, not scientific or commercially framed (88); Much of the food we buy in stores contains additives and preservatives that alter it beyond recognition. Bread used to be an item with at most five ingredients. Now, many store-bought breads have insanely long ingredient lists with unpronounceable items.
  • For fertilizer, we rely on energy-intensive oil sources, not simple things like manure (90). This increases our dependence on foreign oil. Linking our domestic food production to resources that we must import seems like an incredibly unwise idea.
  • if we corrupt agriculture, we corrupt our own culture (91); skills are lost once societies become utterly dependent on machinery to do tasks; we must restrain our use of machines! (92-94)
  • the Amish have largely escaped our society’s fate by not relying on machines (95)

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