The 10 essays in Our Only World convey outrage over environmental and community ruin while also expressing hope that the very species that inflicted such harm is capable of doing better. Stern but compassionate, author Wendell Berry raises broader issues that environmentalists rarely focus on.
Though Berry has for decades been a fierce critic of coal mining and industrialization, the essay Local Economies to Save the Land and the People notes that blaming big business isn’t enough, because “many of the needed changes will have to be made in individual lives, in families and households, and in local communities.”
Berry expands on that theme in On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,’ which considers the harms from global warming. He writes that “Millions of environmentalists and wilderness preservers are dependably worried about climate change. But they are not conversant with nature’s laws, they know and care nothing about land use.” He adds, “We must understand that fossil fuel energy must be replaced, not just by ‘clean’ energy, but also by less energy. … If we had a limitless supply of free, nonpolluting energy, we would use the world up even faster than we are using it up now.”
Berry challenges the assumption that higher education always makes sense, arguing that for the culture and people of rural communities to prosper “we must reconsider the purpose, the worth, and the cost of education — especially of higher education, which too often leads away from home, and too often graduates its customers into unemployment or debt or both.”
In another essay, Berry laments the violence of the Boston Marathon bombing but adds that “We forget also that violence is so securely founded among us — in war, in forms of land use, in various methods of economic ‘growth’ and ‘development’ — because it is immensely profitable.”
Our Only World also examines agricultural policy, abortion, the polarization of society and spirituality, but with some unifying themes. Berry stresses personal responsibility and the need for concrete, sometimes difficult action, and suggests extreme rhetoric from the left and the right can help fuel personal and societal ills.
Berry persuasively argues that a healthy environment ultimately requires healthy communities filled with spiritually healthy people. Whether the issue is global warming, good jobs for young people or good marriages, Berry writes that “If we want to save the land, we must save the people who belong to the land. If we want to save the people, we must save the land the people belong to.”
In one sense Berry is the voice of a rural agrarian tradition that stretches from rural Kentucky back to the origins of human civilization. But his insights are universal because Our Only World is filled with beautiful, compassionate writing and careful, profound thinking.
Kevin Begos reviewed this book for The Associated Press.