The Use of Energy

Wendell Berry

Excerpted from The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1986 edition.

The damages of our present agriculture all come from the determination to use the life of the soil as if it were an extractable resource like coal, to use living things as if they were machines, to impose scientific (that is, laboratory) exactitude upon living complexities that are ultimately mysterious.

If animals are regarded as machines, they are confined in pens remote from the source of their food, where their excrement becomes, instead of a fertilizer, first a "waste" and then a pollutant. Furthermore, because confinement feeding depends so largely on grains, grass is removed from the rotation of crops and more land is exposed to erosion.

If plants are regarded as machines, we wind up with huge monocultures, productive of elaborate ecological mischiefs, which are in turn productive of agricultural mischief: monocultures are much more susceptible to pests and diseases than mixed cultures and are therefore more dependent on chemicals.

If the soil is regarded as a machine, then its life, its involvement in living systems and cycles, must perforce be ignored. It must be treated as a dead, inert chemical mass. If its life is ignored, then so must be the natural sources of its fertility — and not only ignored, but scorned. Alfalfa and the clovers, according to some of the most up-to-date practitioners, are "weeds"; the only legitimate source of nitrogen is the fertilizer manufacturer. And animal manures are "wastes"; "efficiency" cannot use them. Not long ago I found that the manure from a saddle-horse barn belonging to the University of Kentucky was simply being dumped. When I asked why it was not used somewhere on the farm, I was told that it would interfere with the College of Agriculture’s experiments. The result is absurd: our agriculture, potentially capable of a large measure of independence, is absolutely dependent on petroleum, on the oil companies, and on the vagaries of politics.

If people are regarded as machines, they must be regarded as replaceable by other machines. They are regarded, in other words, as dispensable. Their place on the farm is safe only as long as they are mechanically necessary.

In modern agriculture, then, the machine metaphor is allowed to usurp and wipe from consideration not merely some values, but the very issue of value. Once the expert’s interest is focused on the question of "what will work" within the exclusive confines of his theoretical model, values are no longer of any concern whatever. The confines of his specialty enable him to impose a biological totalitarianism on — he thinks, since he is an agricultural expert — the farm. When he leaves his office or laboratory he will, he assumes, go "home" to value.

But then it must be asked if we can remove cultural value from one part of our lives without destroying it also in the other parts. Can we justify secrecy, lying, and burglary in our so-called intelligence organizations and yet preserve openness, honesty, and devotion to principle in the rest of our government? Can we subsidize mayhem in the military establishment and yet have peace, order, and respect for human life in the city streets? Can we degrade all forms of essential work and yet expect arts and graces to flourish on weekends? And can we ignore all questions of value on the farm and yet have them answered affirmatively in the grocery store and the household?

The answer is that, though such distinctions can be made theoretically, they cannot be preserved in practice. Values may be corrupted or abolished in only one discipline at the start, but the damage must sooner or later spread to all; it can no more be confined than air pollution. If we corrupt agriculture we corrupt culture, for in nature and within certain invariable social necessities we are one body, and what afflicts the hand will afflict the brain.

The effective knowledge of this unity must reside not so much in doctrine as in skill. Skill, in the best sense, is the enactment or the acknowledgment or the signature of responsibility to other lives; it is the practical understanding of value. Its opposite is not merely unskillfulness, but ignorance of sources, dependences, relationships.

Skill is the connection between life and tools, or life and machines. Once, skill was defined ultimately in qualitative terms: How well did a person work; how good, durable, and pleasing were his products? But as machines have grown larger and more complex, and as our awe of them and our desire for labor-saving have grown, we have tended more and more to define skill quantitatively: How speedily and cheaply can a person work? We have increasingly wanted a measurable skill. And the more quantifiable skills became, the easier they were to replace with machines. As machines replace skill, they disconnect themselves from life; they come between us and life. They begin to enact our ignorance of value — of essential sources, dependences and relationships.

The catch is that we cannot live in machines. We can only live in the world, in life. To live, our contact with the sources of life must remain direct: we must eat, drink, breathe, move, mate, etc. When we let machines and machine skills obscure the values that represent these fundamental dependences, then we inevitably damage the world; we diminish life. We begin to "prosper" at the cost of a fundamental degradation.