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Wendell Berry: from saving the planet to local care

Wendell Berry, “Word and Flesh” in What Are People For?:

The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence—that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods.

What can accomplish this reduction? I will say again, without overweening hope but with certainty nonetheless, that only love can do it.

“Saving the planet” is the same imperialist way of thinking that has put the planet in danger. We have repeatedly found that the people enmeshed in the relationships of a particular place were already caring for and preserving that place. They didn’t need the help or methods of their would-be civilizers. That sort of local knowledge and care—indeed, love—is what is needed now to save and preserve our planet full of particular places.

It’s also worth highlighting that local care is on “the scale of our competence.” The aspiration to save the planet very often ends in paralysis or apathy. One person without great wealth or influence cannot act on that scale. (And those with great wealth or influence often make the problem worse.) Acting on the scale of your competence is liberating.

But this will come at a cost, Berry says. The industrialized nations live by robbing nature and “our standard of living demands that the robbery shall continue.” This must end.

We must achieve the character and acquire the skills to live much poorer than we do. We must waste less. We must do more for ourselves and each other. It is either that or continue merely to think and talk about changes that we are inviting catastrophe to make.

The great obstacle is simply this: the conviction that we cannot change because we are dependent on what is wrong. But that is the addict’s excuse, and we know that it will not do.

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