Choice Cuts: Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” in Harper’s, May ’08

We’re starting a new, irregularly-running feature here on State of the Commonwealth, one that we’re calling Choice Cuts. Basically, the gist is we will link and quote from a longer essay, think-piece, article, story, series or just plain ol’ yakety-yak by Kentuckians — either on some aspect of Kentucky or on some issue that affects Kentucky — for your perusal.

And what better way to inaugurate our initial foray into Choice Cuts but with a few thoughts by Wendell Berry, Kentucky’s pre-eminent conservationist, essayist, poet, scholar, and all-around writer?

Faustian Econ 1Econ 3Faustian Econ 2

Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits” in the May, 2008 issue of Harper’s (available only to subscribers) is a fascinating look at what our society’s newfound and fleeting preoccupation on environmental limits may mean for us, culturally:

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily foreseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay, so far, have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such ‘biofuels’ as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that ‘science will find an answer.’ The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

This belief was always indefensible — the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed — and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are ‘free’ to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry but — thank God! — still driving.)…

Berry then goes on to describe American culture’s foolish equation of “limitlessness” with “freedom,” as best illustrated in Kentucky’s pro-coal energy and tax policies:

Even so, that we have founded our present society upon delusional assumptions of limitlessness is easy enough to demonstrate. A recent ‘summit’ in Louisville, Kentucky, was entitled ‘Unbridled Energy: The Industrialization of Kentucky’s Energy Resources.’ Its subjects were ‘clean-coal generation, biofuels, and other cutting-edge applications,’ the conversion of coal to ‘liquid fuels,’ and the likelihood that all this will be ‘environmentally friendly.’

…That human limitlessness is a fantasy means, obviously, that its life expectancy is limited. There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status. We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.

…In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define ‘freedom,’ for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, ‘free’ is etymologically related to ‘friend.’ These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of ‘dear’ or ‘beloved.’ We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our ‘identity’ is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

Berry then looks to Marlowe’s Faustus (of the Tragical History of Doctor Faustus) and Milton’s Satan (of Paradise Lost) for prescient examples of our currently self-obsessed and selfish society, and to art in general for ways to live in a more sustainable way:

If the idea of appropriate limitation seems unacceptable to us, that may be because, like Marlowe’s Faustus and Milton’s Satan, we confuse limits with confinement. But that, as I think Marlowe and Milton and others were trying to tell us, is a great and potentially a fatal mistake. Satan’s fault, as Milton understood it and perhaps with some sympathy, was precisely that he could not tolerate his proper limitation; he could not subordinate himself to anything whatever. Faustus’s error was his unwillingness to remain “Faustus, and a man.” In our age of the world it is not rare to find writers, critics, and teachers of literature, as well as scientists and technicians, who regard Satan’s and Faustus’s defiance as salutary and heroic.

On the contrary, our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning. Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

…It is the artists, not the scientists, who have dealt unremittingly with the problem of limits. A painting, however large, must finally be bounded by a frame or a wall. A composer or playwright must reckon, at a minimum, with the capacity of an audience to sit still and pay attention. A story, once begun, must end somewhere within the limits of the writer’s and the reader’s memory. And of course the arts characteristically impose limits that are artificial: the five acts of a play, or the fourteen lines of a sonnet. Within these limits artists achieve elaborations of pattern, of sustaining relationships of parts with one another and with the whole, that may be astonishingly complex. And probably most of us can name a painting, a piece of music, a poem or play or story that still grows in meaning and remains fresh after many years of familiarity.

…The same is true of our arts of land use, our economic arts, which are our arts of living. With these it is once-for-all. We will have no chance to redo our experiments with bad agriculture leading to soil loss. The Appalachian mountains and forests we have destroyed for coal are gone forever. It is now and forevermore too late to use thriftily the first half of the world’s supply of petroleum. In the art of living we can only start again with what remains.

And so, in confronting the phenomenon of ‘peak oil,’ we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of ‘more.’ Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But also we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.

Any thoughts on our Choice Cuts from Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics: Hell hath no limits?” As always, reader comments are welcome and encouraged!

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4 Responses to “Choice Cuts: Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” in Harper’s, May ’08”

  1. […] State of the Commonwealth Politics and Culture from KY « Choice Cuts: Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” in Harper’s, May &#82… […]

  2. Harper’s is available on the better news stands but is also available at the public library. The online version is only available to subscribers.

  3. […] Our previous Choice Cuts installment featuring Wendell Berry’s “Faustian Economics” is available here […]

  4. Chase Hoeffer Says:

    amazing stuff thanx 🙂

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