Monday, November 15, 2010

Wendell Berry and the Two Economies

Modern engineering as it is currently practiced is deeply embedded in the context of the global economy of modern industrial societies. Large corporations are the only organizations complex enough to coordinate the production of things as intricate as computers or airliners. So when someone such as writer and philosopher Wendell Berry criticizes the economic basis on which current engineering depends, his words are worth considering for their indirect implication that engineering, too, in some respects, is a house built on sand.

In an essay entitled “Two Economies,” Berry first recognizes the thing we usually mean when we say “economy”: a global system of exchange based on what is called fiat money—money that is a creature of governments which, as the U. S. Federal Reserve recently announced plans to do, can create as much as $600 billion out of thin air over a period of a few months. And that is one of Berry’s complaints about that economy: the fact that it is not based on anything beyond the say-so of certain powerful people and interests who attempt to control it to their advantage.

But beyond the thing that is usually meant by “the economy” lies an all-encompassing principle or entity that Berry chooses to call the Great Economy. It is, he says, “. . . the ultimate condition of our experience and of the practical questions rising from our experience” and is “both known and unknown, visible and invisible, comprehensible and mysterious.” The idea of the Great Economy makes no sense outside of religious considerations, but that need not detain us, since every great classical religion says something meaningful about the Great Economy, though not in those terms.

In contrast to the human-created economy which is to some extent manageable, the Great Economy cannot be managed. It can only be conformed to by individuals and groups who acknowledge their inability to be fundamentally in control of their existence. Only when we admit that can we go about the business of constructing a human economy that works according to the terms of the Great Economy.

How would the world’s economy change if it conformed more to the Great Economy? I can mention only a couple of Berry’s ideas in the limited space available here. One is to cease viewing the various goods of the Great Economy as resources to be exploited. Berry says of the modern industrial economy that the “invariable mode of its relation both to nature and to human culture is that of mining: withdrawal from a limited fund until that fund is exhausted.” According to Berry, the industrial economy acknowledges no limits and recognizes no ultimate goals: it “cannot prescribe the terms of its own success.”

Berry sees much that is fundamentally wrong with things that most of us take for granted and rarely think about. He is not surprised that proponents of free enterprise end up so often on the dockets of criminal courts, and that much of modern medicine has become an “exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference.” The reason is that as long as one never looks beyond the limits of a human-created economy, one ignores the Great Economy at his peril. But such ignorance comes at a price, and billions of people around the world pay that price every day.

Berry is probably the leading living proponent of the philosophical and economic movement called agrarianism. More than just a simplistic back-to-the-farm philosophy, agrarianism sees humanity in a holistic way that views work, leisure, money, community, and government as integrated parts of the Great Economy. One of the first arguments most engineers might think of when confronting the ideas of agrarianism is that if everybody tried to live out its principles, our present way of life would be destroyed. Not everybody can live as a subsistence farmer, or even has the interest, ability, or resources for such a life.

But that argument is itself taken from the industrial-economy playbook, which instantly takes any proposal and tries to homogenize it, duplicate it, and apply it worldwide. Those very actions are counter to agrarian principles, which are primarily local, personal, and can take form only in the context of small communities where people know each other. And in fact, as Berry points out, there are thousands of Amish farmers and other members of certain religious communities (including monasteries) where a good bit of the agrarian ideal works in practice.

So what should an engineer take away from Berry’s picture of the Great Economy that surrounds our human economies like a family home encompasses children in a back-yard treehouse? Well, short of dropping out and joining an Amish community, religion and all, I think engineers could benefit in several ways from thinking about Berry’s ideas. No plans turn out quite the way we expect, for one thing. That sounds like a restatement of Murphy’s Law (“if anything can go wrong, it will”), but in fact it is an admission that the imponderable and unpredictable, especially if human beings are involved, can easily overwhelm the calculable and certain. And thinking about the people who ultimately use the things engineers work on, and the cultural and spiritual contexts of their lives, is something we could all do more of, to the benefit of both society and our own organizations.

Many of the dire predictions Berry has made over the years have either come to pass to some degree, or are so much a chronic condition of our times that we have ceased to notice them. But we can sometimes learn more from our critics than from our friends, and I would urge anyone who has never read anything by Wendell Berry to do so soon.

Sources: Berry’s essay “Two Economies” appears in a collected edition of his essays entitled The Art of the Commonplace (Shoemaker & Hoard, 2002), pp. 219-235.

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