In a time when we are all concerned with economic stability, Mr. Berry is a clear voice urging us to trace our economic problems to their roots.
He is asking fundamental questions about food and other natural resources that demonstrate the vital role rural communities play in economic life. What emerges from these questions is the realization that the rise of a ‘global’ economy has been accompanied by various abuses of people and land. The quandary here is that the resources that fuel the ‘global’ economy are not themselves ‘global.’ They come from particular places, particular landscapes and the way they are cultivated, mined and extracted has a direct and often devastating effect on local communities.
The solution to these problems, according to Berry, lies in the re-vitalization of a local, rural economic life. The ‘global’ economy tends to be driven by urban life. This leaves rural communities on the periphery. According to Berry, the solution to this problem is generating local and regional economies that make efficient use of local resources. His emphasis is on food production. The dilemma is that rural communities have the capacity to grow food and yet a tiny fraction of that food is consumed locally. It enters into the global market where it is shipped across the country and around the world. In this system, food producers are forced to answer to the standards of a global economy that often does not have them or the health of their local communities as a driving concern. In a regional economy, these concerns come to the fore along with an emphasis on sustainable practices. When the resources of a given region are exhausted, industries in service of the global economy just move to another place. A regional economy must remain sensitive to the limitations of its resources. It must honor the working conditions of its producers. It must appreciate the interdependence and inner dynamics of the ecosystem.
The voice that emerges in Mr. Berry’s writings though, is not primarily that of an economic theorist. He writes out of the poet’s sensitivity that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We cannot understand our economic life apart from the wholeness and versatility and value of life itself.
Luckily, as Mr. Berry is proud to remind us, an ethic of neighborliness, of good stewardship, of knowing that the value and cost of a thing is not always equivalent to its price tag—this wisdom is part of our rural cultural heritage. It worked in the past to maintain regional economies and it holds as good, solid ground for an integrated and authentic rural life today.
It is this wisdom from our past that provides the seeds for creative change in our present. What was common place: local products coming from local landscapes to sustain local people, has now become cutting edge. Not only is this the original way of rural life but (and I think Berry points this out quite convincingly) it is the only sustainable way for healthy, creative, rural communities to flourish.