“The Way of Ignorance” by Wendell Berry

by Joshua H. Liberatore

Wendell Berry’s most recent collection of essays, The Way of Ignorance, builds strength from a premise at once fundamentally American and decidedly un-American: the recognition and acceptance of limits. The eponymous essay that forms the book’s central theme reveals this very paradox well: we must learn to proceed intelligently despite flawed knowledge. American culture is grounded in a special blend of both pragmatism and idealism, and Berry draws on the best of these competing but not irreconcilable traditions in his suggestions for a new path forward. Throughout our short history, Americans have demonstrated an uncanny ability to work within limits. We just don’t like being told to do so. In full appreciation of this delicacy in the national psyche, Berry locates an old, time-honored comfort in studying, evaluating, and dealing with the various parameters that define and qualify our various landscapes: limits to economy and growth, limits to science and technology, even limits to creative imagination and spiritual wisdom. His concern throughout is to encourage a comprehensive program that sustains a healthy human community within a fractured political system, a vulnerable environment, a distorted economy, and most importantly, an extractive relationship with the very land that feeds our prosperity. From his perch on a hillside farm in Henry Country, Kentucky, Berry proves to be one of our sagest voices for positive reconstruction.

Recognizing and accepting limits sounds like pure cynicism, but in Berry’s confident presentation, we find a way to indulge in rational optimism. Why? Because Berry’s own example as a householder and his broad learning about the ways in which Aldo Leopold’s land ethic can be applied to 21st century problems offer living testament that we can do better, and often with less. Our fastidious hopes in the future promise of new technologies or sophisticated science to mitigate the consequences of habitual overconsumption, unchecked economic growth, rapine abuse of the land are often misguided and sometimes counterproductive. Berry places hope in small, local solutions, solutions that have existed in farming communities like his for generations, well before industrial agriculture, economies of scale, and intractable farm subsidies squeezed native knowledge from its historical primacy in negotiating questions of land management. Native knowledge, Berry contends, is often subject to urban condescension and corporate suspicion. Old ways, uninformed by the latest science and computer-aided modeling, are equated with backwardness and small thinking. Small thinking, on the contrary, has been both sustainable and profitable for centuries. Why should we rule out that kind of intimate expertise now, especially when it is typically cheaper and politically easier to implement?

Although his immediate purview is agrarian, Berry’s point has wide application: “The corporate approach to agriculture or manufacturing or medicine or war increasingly undertakes to help at the risk of harm, sometimes of great harm. And once the risk of harm is appraised as ‘acceptable,’ the result often is absurdity: We destroy a village in order to save it; we destroy freedom in order to save it; we destroy the world in order to live in it” (65). It need not be so, of course, and it isn’t so everywhere. Berry describes many cases where a sort of smart antiquarianism has yielded impressive results, results worth replicating in the wider economy. But one of the more striking aspects of Berry’s ethic of responsibility is its generosity and openness. Even some of our notable efforts to correct for past destruction need to be challenged: reliable land-health indicators that measure viability in soil, water quality, vegetation, biodiversity, and regenerative potential often indicate that mixed-use land management strategies are more successful than the preservationist paradigm that grew out of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Through the mechanism of positive disturbance, responsibly logged forests and orderly ranched prairies might end up in better shape ecologically than the wilderness preserves adjacent to them. Not all environmentalists will want to hear it, to be sure, but purity is more likely than not a guilt-induced delusion, encouraging overcompensation and new extremes, whose ends are badly defined and little understood, partly because by corralling off a chunk of landscape, we perpetuate human ignorance of its internal logic and render it inaccessible. By placing nature on the pedestal of pristine exclusion, we engage in mythmaking and risk further alienation, damaging opportunities for responsible use and stewardship. Not to mention the fact that it is expensive and politically difficult to achieve purity on this model.

Berry thus positions himself as an advocate for the achievable middle road, which is neither revolutionary nor naïve. The local food movement, which has gained steady popularity since Berry published The Way of Ignorance in 2006, is a good example of a very old idea finding new purchase among educated, urban consumers who smell a rat in their inheritance of an American dream premised on cheap overseas oil and imported manufactures, media and technological saturation, and a gazillion choices in retail and lifestyle. Locating happiness in self-imposed limits, achieving comfort in smallness or parochial geographies, and placing value in an acceptance that not all knowledge is good or useful could form a credible gospel for the first generation in a half century that might be receptive to its mass application.

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