Jul 06

Life is a Miracle

family over tuscanyWendell Berry
Life is a Miracle, an Essay against Modern Superstition
Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2000

“We are not getting something for nothing. We are getting nothing for everything,” the epigraph with which Berry opens Life is a Miracle, is apt and concise. Modern society appears miraculous, the product of man’s industry and ingenuity.  It looks (and is advertised largely as) a kind of perpetual motion machine, powered by little other than human inventiveness. Attentive observers have noticed that appearances are, as usual, deceptive: we are living on fossil fuels, energy created over eons by geological processes, and in a matter of decades, we’ve used up more than half of what’s available. But there are problems even greater than the depletion of our main energy sources, destroying our ability to perpetuate our society and culture without much notice from anyone. We (and many other animals) have been passing our knowledge and ways of life the old fashioned way (and the only way) from parent to child as long as we’ve been on this planet without giving it a thought, but it appears that this simple and irreducible aspect of our species existence can be interrupted. When this happens locally, tribes and cultures die. It’s not clear whether it is possible for this to happen globally, but it seems that this is the direction we are heading. Globalization and the “market economy” have been at work disrupting and destroying local cultures and replacing them with a universal mono-culture known to its practitioners and captives variously as “capitalism,” “market economy,” or “democracy” in the west, “communism” or “socialism” elsewhere. Whatever name it goes by, its effects on the living beings and the environments they inhabit is the same.

Life is a Miracle is about this process, the loss of the ability to perpetuate the culture we’ve built over millenia. Wendell Berry looks to science for a culprit, because science is our culture’s founding myth, governing paradigm, and much more, and he picks E. O. Wilson’s Consilience as the book through which to analyze the subject. The choice is appropriate for a number of reasons: Wilson is a mainstream scientist, and in Consilience, he tackles questions like ethics, religion, art, and culture in general- necessarily, since his stated goal is to bring the different disciplines together into a working whole. He is also a conservationist, as is Berry.

Science approaches all questions as problems to be solved, and all unanswered questions as questions yet to be answered. “(Consilience) reads as though it was written to confirm the popular belief that science is entirely good, that it leads to unlimited progress, and that it has (or will have) all the answers.” (p. 24) This means that mystery, an essential and critical part of human culture, is an impossibility: Wilson attributes it entirely to human ignorance. Without mystery, reverence and propriety are impossible, leading to a society governed by profit and raw power as we’ve arrived at today, whether the power is cloaked in the accoutrements of “democracy,” “socialism,” or more transparent forms. What Wilson calls “consilience” turns out to be an invitation (or an ultimatum, taken more broadly) for religion and the arts to take on the goals and methodology of science, an impossibility if the words mean what we all think they mean. “Like a naïve politician, Mr. Wilson thinks he has found a way to reconcile two sides without realizing that his way is one of the sides… One cannot, in honesty, propose to reconcile Heaven and Earth by denying the existence of Heaven.” (p.99)

The crisis we face can’t be solved with more science or technology, since these are part of the cause. We have to address the way we think and talk about the world and ourselves.

The language we use to speak of the world and its creatures, including ourselves, has gained a certain analytical power (along with a lot of expertish pomp) but has lost much of its power to designate what is being analyzed or to convey any respect or care or affection or devotion toward it. As a result, we have a lot of genuinely concerned people calling upon us to “save” a world which their language simultaneously reduces to an assemblage of perfectly featureless and dispirited “ecosystems,” “organisms,” “environments,” “mechanisms,” and the like. It is impossible to prefigure the salvation of the world in the same language by which the world has been dismembered and defaced. (italics in original) (p. 8)

Berry’s solution to this crisis, if there is to be any solution to it, is for scientists, artists, and religious people, whether they can work together in the end or not, to root their work in local considerations and return to such considerations at their works’ end, as well as, ideally, throughout the process.

Directly opposed to this reduction or abstraction of things is the idea of the preciousness of individual lives and places. This does not come from science, but from our cultural and religious traditions. It is not derived, and it is not derivable, from any notion of egalitarianism. If all are equal, none can be precious. (And perhaps it is necessary to stop here to say that this ancient delight in the individuality of creatures is not the same thing as what we now mean by “individualism.” It is the opposite. Individualism, in present practice, refers to the supposed “right” of an individual to act alone, in disregard of other individuals. (p.42)

Any new invention or idea or practice should, in the end, be weighed on the merits of its impact on our communities. “Suppose we learn to ask of any proposed innovation the question so far only the Amish have been wise enough to ask: What will this do to out community?” (p.134) Obviously, most people don’t have the benefit of living in anything resembling a community, so we would have to break up the corporate capitalist society into local communities first.

Life is a Miracle elicits some hysterical reviews on Amazon, as one would expect with books that challenge our most basic assumptions about ourselves and the world. I expect that if it were more widely read, the greater part of our country would be foaming at the mouth over this book. God I wish it were. This is likely one of the most important books of the decade, or century, or however long we plan on living miserable lives governed by anti-human precepts.