The Idea of a Local Economy
by Wendell Berry
LET US BEGIN BY ASSUMING what appears to be true: that the so-called
"environmental crisis" is now pretty well established as a fact of our
age. The problems of pollution, species extinction, loss of wilderness,
loss of farmland, loss of topsoil may still be ignored or scoffed at,
but they are not denied. Concern for these problems has acquired a
certain standing, a measure of discussability, in the media and in some
scientific, academic, and religious institutions.
This is good, of course; obviously, we can¹t hope to solve these
problems without an increase of public awareness and concern. But in an
age burdened with "publicity," we have to be aware also that as issues
rise into popularity they rise also into the danger of
oversimplification. To speak of this danger is especially necessary in
confronting the destructiveness of our relationship to nature, which is
the result, in the first place, of gross oversimplification.
The "environmental crisis" has happened because the human household or
economy is in conflict at almost every point with the household of
nature. We have built our household on the assumption that the natural
household is simple and can be simply used. We have assumed
increasingly over the last five hundred years that nature is merely a
supply of "raw materials," and that we may safely possess those
materials merely by taking them. This taking, as our technical means
have increased, has involved always less reverence or respect, less
gratitude, less local knowledge, and less skill. Our methodologies of
land use have strayed from our old sympathetic attempts to imitate
natural processes, and have come more and more to resemble the
methodology of mining, even as mining itself has become more
technologically powerful and more brutal.
And so we will be wrong if we attempt to correct what we perceive as
"environmental" problems without correcting the economic
oversimplification that caused them. This oversimplification is now
either a matter of corporate behavior or of behavior under the
influence of corporate behavior. This is sufficiently clear to many of
us. What is not sufficiently clear, perhaps to any of us, is the extent
of our complicity, as individuals and especially as individual
consumers, in the behavior of the corporations.
What has happened is that most people in our country, and apparently
most people in the "developed" world, have given proxies to the
corporations to produce and provide all of their food, clothing, and
shelter. Moreover, they are rapidly giving proxies to corporations or
governments to provide entertainment, education, child care, care of
the sick and the elderly, and many other kinds of "service" that once
were carried on informally and inexpensively by individuals or
households or communities. Our major economic practice, in short, is to
delegate the practice to others.
The danger now is that those who are concerned will believe that the
solution to the "environmental crisis" can be merely political - that
the problems, being large, can be solved by large solutions generated
by a few people to whom we will give our proxies to police the economic
proxies that we have already given. The danger, in other words, is that
people will think they have made a sufficient change if they have
altered their "values," or had a "change of heart," or experienced a
"spiritual awakening," and that such a change in passive consumers will
cause appropriate changes in the public experts, politicians, and
corporate executives to whom they have granted their political and
The trouble with this is that a proper concern for nature and our use
of nature must be practiced not by our proxy-holders, but by ourselves.
A change of heart or of values without a practice is only another
pointless luxury of a passively consumptive way of life. The
"environmental crisis," in fact, can be solved only if people,
individually and in their communities, recover responsibility for their
thoughtlessly given proxies. If people begin the effort to take back
into their own power a significant portion of their economic
responsibility, then their inevitable first discovery is that the
"environmental crisis" is no such thing; it is not a crisis of our
environs or surroundings; it is a crisis of our lives as individuals,
as family members, as community members, and as citizens. We have an
"environmental crisis" because we have consented to an economy in which
by eating, drinking, working, resting, traveling, and enjoying
ourselves we are destroying the natural, the god-given world.
WE LIVE, AS WE MUST SOONER or later recognize, in an era of sentimental
economics and, consequently, of sentimental politics. Sentimental
communism holds in effect that everybody and everything should suffer
for the good of "the many" who, though miserable in the present, will
be happy in the future for exactly the same reasons that they are
miserable in the present.
Sentimental capitalism is not so different from sentimental communism
as the corporate and political powers claim. Sentimental capitalism
holds in effect that everything small, local, private, personal,
natural, good, and beautiful must be sacrificed in the interest of the
"free market" and the great corporations, which will bring
unprecedented security and happiness to "the many" - in, of course, the
These forms of political economy may be described as sentimental
because they depend absolutely upon a political faith for which there
is no justification, and because they issue a cold check on the virtue
of political and/or economic rulers. They seek, that is, to preserve
the gullibility of the people by appealing to a fund of political
virtue that does not exist. Communism and "free-market" capitalism both
are modern versions of oligarchy. In their propaganda, both justify
violent means by good ends, which always are put beyond reach by the
violence of the means. The trick is to define the end vaguely - "the
greatest good of the greatest number" or "the benefit of the many" -
and keep it at a distance.
The fraudulence of these oligarchic forms of economy is in their
principle of displacing whatever good they recognize (as well as their
debts) from the present to the future. Their success depends upon
persuading people, first, that whatever they have now is no good, and
second, that the promised good is certain to be achieved in the future.
This obviously contradicts the principle - common, I believe, to all
the religious traditions - that if ever we are going to do good to one
another, then the time to do it is now; we are to receive no reward for
promising to do it in the future. And both communism and capitalism
have found such principles to be a great embarrassment. If you are
presently occupied in destroying every good thing in sight in order to
do good in the future, it is inconvenient to have people saying things
like "Love thy neighbor as thyself" or "Sentient beings are numberless,
I vow to save them." Communists and capitalists alike, "liberal" and
"conservative" capitalists alike, have needed to replace religion with
some form of determinism, so that they can say to their victims, "I am
doing this because I can¹t do otherwise. It is not my fault. It is
inevitable." The wonder is how often organized religion has gone along
with this lie.
The idea of an economy based upon several kinds of ruin may seem a
contradiction in terms, but in fact such an economy is possible, as we
see. It is possible however, on one implacable condition: the only
future good that it assuredly leads to is that it will destroy itself.
And how does it disguise this outcome from its subjects, its short-term
beneficiaries, and its victims? It does so by false accounting. It
substitutes for the real economy, by which we build and maintain (or do
not maintain) our household, a symbolic economy of money, which in the
long run, because of the self-interested manipulations of the
"controlling interests," cannot symbolize or account for anything but
itself. And so we have before us the spectacle of unprecedented
"prosperity" and "economic growth" in a land of degraded farms,
forests, ecosystems, and watersheds, polluted air, failing families,
and perishing communities.
THIS MORAL AND ECONOMIC ABSURDITY exists for the sake of the allegedly
"free" market, the single principle of which is this: commodities will
be produced wherever they can be produced at the lowest cost, and
consumed wherever they will bring the highest price. To make too cheap
and sell too high has always been the program of industrial capitalism.
The idea of the global "free market" is merely capitalism¹s
so-far-successful attempt to enlarge the geographic scope of its greed,
and moreover to give to its greed the status of a "right" within its
presumptive territory. The global "free market" is free to the
corporations precisely because it dissolves the boundaries of the old
national colonialisms, and replaces them with a new colonialism without
restraints or boundaries. It is pretty much as if all the rabbits have
now been forbidden to have holes, thereby "freeing" the hounds.
A corporation, essentially, is a pile
of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance.
The "right" of a corporation to exercise its economic power without
restraint is construed, by the partisans of the "free market," as a
form of freedom, a political liberty implied presumably by the right of
individual citizens to own and use property.
But the "free market" idea introduces into government a sanction of an
inequality that is not implicit in any idea of democratic liberty:
namely that the "free market" is freest to those who have the most
money, and is not free at all to those with little or no money.
Wal-Mart, for example, as a large corporation "freely" competing
against local, privately owned businesses has virtually all the
freedom, and its small competitors virtually none.
To make too cheap and sell too high, there are two requirements. One is
that you must have a lot of consumers with surplus money and unlimited
wants. For the time being, there are plenty of these consumers in the
"developed" countries. The problem, for the time being easily solved,
is simply to keep them relatively affluent and dependent on purchased
The other requirement is that the market for labor and raw materials
should remain depressed relative to the market for retail commodities.
This means that the supply of workers should exceed demand, and that
the land-using economy should be allowed or encouraged to overproduce.
To keep the cost of labor low, it is necessary first to entice or force
country people everywhere in the world to move into the cities - in the
manner prescribed by the United States' Committee for Economic
Development after World War II - and second, to continue to introduce
labor-replacing technology. In this way it is possible to maintain a
"pool" of people who are in the threatening position of being mere
consumers, landless and also poor, and who therefore are eager to go to
work for low wages - precisely the condition of migrant farm workers in
the United States.
To cause the land-using economies to overproduce is even simpler. The
farmers and other workers in the world's land-using economies, by and
large, are not organized. They are therefore unable to control
production in order to secure just prices. Individual producers must go
individually to the market and take for their produce simply whatever
they are paid. They have no power to bargain or make demands.
Increasingly, they must sell, not to neighbors or to neighboring towns
and cities, but to large and remote corporations. There is no
competition among the buyers (supposing there is more than one), who
are organized, and are "free" to exploit the advantage of low prices.
Low prices encourage overproduction as producers attempt to make up
their losses "on volume," and overproduction inevitably makes for low
prices. The land-using economies thus spiral downward as the money
economy of the exploiters spirals upward. If economic attrition in the
land-using population becomes so severe as to threaten production, then
governments can subsidize production without production controls, which
necessarily will encourage overproduction, which will lower prices -
and so the subsidy to rural producers becomes, in effect, a subsidy to
the purchasing corporations. In the land-using economies production is
further cheapened by destroying, with low prices and low standards of
quality, the cultural imperatives for good work and land stewardship.
THIS SORT OF EXPLOITATION, long familiar in the foreign and domestic
economies and the colonialism of modern nations, has now become "the
global economy," which is the property of a few supranational
corporations. The economic theory used to justify the global economy in
its "free market" version is again perfectly groundless and
sentimental. The idea is that what is good for the corporations will
sooner or later - though not of course immediately - be good for
That sentimentality is based in turn, upon a fantasy: the proposition
that the great corporations, in "freely" competing with one another for
raw materials, labor, and marketshare, will drive each other
indefinitely, not only toward greater "efficiencies" of manufacture,
but also toward higher bids for raw materials and labor and lower
prices to consumers. As a result, all the world¹s people will be
economically secure - in the future. It would be hard to object to such
a proposition if only it were true.
But one knows, in the first place, that "efficiency" in manufacture
always means reducing labor costs by replacing workers with cheaper
workers or with machines.
In the second place, the "law of competition" does not imply that many
competitors will compete indefinitely. The law of competition is a
simple paradox: Competition destroys competition. The law of
competition implies that many competitors, competing on the "free
market" will ultimately and inevitably reduce the number of competitors
to one. The law of competition, in short, is the law of war.
In the third place, the global economy is based upon cheap
long-distance transportation, without which it is not possible to move
goods from the point of cheapest origin to the point of highest sale.
And cheap long-distance transportation is the basis of the idea that
regions and nations should abandon any measure of economic
self-sufficiency in order to specialize in production for export of the
few commodities or the single commodity that can be most cheaply
produced. Whatever may be said for the "efficiency" of such a system,
its result (and I assume, its purpose) is to destroy local production
capacities, local diversity, and local economic independence.
This idea of a global "free market" economy, despite its obvious moral
flaws and its dangerous practical weaknesses, is now the ruling
orthodoxy of the age. Its propaganda is subscribed to and distributed
by most political leaders, editorial writers, and other "opinion
makers." The powers that be, while continuing to budget huge sums for
"national defense," have apparently abandoned any idea of national or
local self-sufficiency, even in food. They also have given up the idea
that a national or local government might justly place restraints upon
economic activity in order to protect its land and its people.
The global economy is now institutionalized in the World Trade
Organization, which was set up, without election anywhere, to rule
international trade on behalf of the "free market" - which is to say on
behalf of the supranational corporations - and to overrule, in secret
sessions, any national or regional law that conflicts with the "free
market." The corporate program of global free trade and the presence of
the World Trade Organization have legitimized extreme forms of expert
thought. We are told confidently that if Kentucky loses its
milk-producing capacity to Wisconsin, that will be a "success story."
Experts such as Stephen C. Blank, of the University of California,
Davis, have proposed that "developed" countries, such as the United
States and the United Kingdom, where food can no longer be produced
cheaply enough, should give up agriculture altogether.
The folly at the root of this foolish economy began with the idea that
a corporation should be regarded, legally, as "a person." But the
limitless destructiveness of this economy comes about precisely because
a corporation is not a person. A corporation, essentially, is a pile of
money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance. As
such, unlike a person, a corporation does not age. It does not arrive,
as most persons finally do, at a realization of the shortness and
smallness of human lives; it does not come to see the future as the
lifetime of the children and grandchildren of anybody in particular. It
can experience no personal hope or remorse, no change of heart. It
cannot humble itself. It goes about its business as if it were
immortal, with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money.
The stockholders essentially are usurers, people who "let their money
work for them," expecting high pay in return for causing others to work
for low pay. The World Trade Organization enlarges the old idea of the
corporation-as-person by giving the global corporate economy the status
of a super government with the power to overrule nations. I don¹t mean
to say, of course, that all corporate executives and stockholders are
bad people. I am only saying that all of them are very seriously
implicated in a bad economy.
UNSURPRISINGLY, AMONG PEOPLE WHO WISH to preserve things other than
money - for instance, every region's native capacity to produce
essential goods - there is a growing perception that the global "free
market" economy is inherently an enemy to the natural world, to human
health and freedom, to industrial workers, and to farmers and others in
the land-use economies; and furthermore, that it is inherently an enemy
to good work and good economic practice. I believe that this perception
is correct and that it can be shown to be correct merely by listing the
assumptions implicit in the idea that corporations should be "free" to
buy low and sell high in the world at large. These assumptions, so far
as I can make them out, are as follows:
1. That stable and preserving relationships among people, places, and
things do not matter and are of no worth.
2. That cultures and religions have no legitimate practical or economic
3. That there is no conflict between the "free market" and political
freedom, and no connection between political democracy and economic
4. That there can be no conflict between economic advantage and
5. That there is no conflict between greed and ecological or bodily
6. That there is no conflict between self-interest and public service.
7. That the loss or destruction of the capacity anywhere to produce
necessary goods does not matter and involves no cost.
8. That it is all right for a nation's or a region's subsistence to be
foreign based, dependent on long-distance transport, and entirely
controlled by corporations.
9. That, therefore, wars over commodities - our recent Gulf War, for
example - are legitimate and permanent economic functions.
10. That this sort of sanctioned violence is justified also by the
predominance of centralized systems of production supply,
communications, and transportation, which are extremely vulnerable not
only to acts of war between nations, but also to sabotage and
11. That it is all right for poor people in poor countries to work at
poor wages to produce goods for export to affluent people in rich
12. That there is no danger and no cost in the proliferation of exotic
pests, weeds, and diseases that accompany international trade and that
increase with the volume of trade.
13. That an economy is a machine, of which people are merely the
interchangeable parts. One has no choice but to do the work (if any)
that the economy prescribes, and to accept the prescribed wage.
14. That, therefore, vocation is a dead issue. One does not do the work
that one chooses to do because one is called to it by Heaven or by
one's natural or god-given abilities, but does instead the work that is
determined and imposed by the economy. Any work is all right as long as
one gets paid for it.
These assumptions clearly prefigure a condition of total economy. A
total economy is one in which everything - "life forms," for instance,
or the "right to pollute" - is "private property" and has a price and
is for sale. In a total economy significant and sometimes critical
choices that once belonged to individuals or communities become the
property of corporations. A total economy, operating internationally,
necessarily shrinks the powers of state and national governments, not
only because those governments have signed over significant powers to
an international bureaucracy or because political leaders become the
paid hacks of the corporations but also because political processes -
and especially democratic processes - are too slow to react to
unrestrained economic and technological development on a global scale.
And when state and national governments begin to act in effect as
agents of the global economy, selling their people for low wages and
their people's products for low prices, then the rights and liberties
of citizenship must necessarily shrink. A total economy is an
unrestrained taking of profits from the disintegration of nations,
communities, households, landscapes, and ecosystems. It licenses
symbolic or artificial wealth to "grow" by means of the destruction of
the real wealth of all the world.
Among the many costs of the total economy, the loss of the principle of
vocation is probably the most symptomatic and, from a cultural
standpoint, the most critical. It is by the replacement of vocation
with economic determinism that the exterior workings of a total economy
destroy the character and culture also from the inside.
In an essay on the origin of civilization in traditional cultures,
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy wrote that "the principle of justice is the same
throughout...[it is] that each member of the community should perform
the task for which he is fitted by nature..." The two ideas, justice
and vocation, are inseparable. That is why Coomaraswamy spoke of
industrialism as "the mammon of injustice," incompatible with
civilization. It is by way of the principle and practice of vocation
that sanctity and reverence enter into the human economy. It was thus
possible for traditional cultures to conceive that "to work is to
A viable neighborhood is a community; and a viable community is made up
of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common.
AWARE OF INDUSTRIALISM'S potential for destruction, as well as the
considerable political danger of great concentrations of wealth and
power in industrial corporations, American leaders developed, and for a
while used, the means of limiting and restraining such concentrations,
and of somewhat equitably distributing wealth and property. The means
were: laws against trusts and monopolies, the principle of collective
bargaining, the concept of one-hundred-percent parity between the
land-using and the manufacturing economies, and the progressive income
tax. And to protect domestic producers and production capacities it is
possible for governments to impose tariffs on cheap imported goods.
These means are justified by the government's obligation to protect the
lives, livelihoods, and freedoms of its citizens. There is, then, no
necessity or inevitability requiring our government to sacrifice the
livelihoods of our small farmers, small business people, and workers,
along with our domestic economic independence to the global "free
market." But now all of these means are either weakened or in disuse.
The global economy is intended as a means of subverting them.
In default of government protections against the total economy of the
supranational corporations, people are where they have been many times
before: in danger of losing their economic security and their freedom,
both at once. But at the same time the means of defending themselves
belongs to them in the form of a venerable principle: powers not
exercised by government return to the people. If the government does
not propose to protect the lives, livelihoods, and freedoms of its
people, then the people must think about protecting themselves.
How are they to protect themselves? There seems, really, to be only one
way, and that is to develop and put into practice the idea of a local
economy - something that growing numbers of people are now doing. For
several good reasons, they are beginning with the idea of a local food
economy. People are trying to find ways to shorten the distance between
producers and consumers, to make the connections between the two more
direct, and to make this local economic activity a benefit to the local
community. They are trying to learn to use the consumer economies of
local towns and cities to preserve the livelihoods of local farm
families and farm communities. They want to use the local economy to
give consumers an influence over the kind and quality of their food,
and to preserve and enhance the local landscapes. They want to give
everybody in the local community a direct, long-term interest in the
prosperity, health, and beauty of their homeland. This is the only way
presently available to make the total economy less total. It was once,
I believe, the only way to make a national or a colonial economy less
total. But now the necessity is greater.
I am assuming that there is a valid line of thought leading from the
idea of the total economy to the idea of a local economy. I assume that
the first thought may be a recognition of one's ignorance and
vulnerability as a consumer in the total economy. As such a consumer,
one does not know the history of the products that one uses. Where,
exactly, did they come from? Who produced them? What toxins were used
in their production? What were the human and ecological costs of
producing them and then of disposing of them? One sees that such
questions cannot be answered easily, and perhaps not at all. Though one
is shopping amid an astonishing variety of products, one is denied
certain significant choices. In such a state of economic ignorance it
is not possible to choose products that were produced locally or with
reasonable kindness toward people and toward nature. Nor is it possible
for such consumers to influence production for the better. Consumers
who feel a prompting toward land stewardship find that in this economy
they can have no stewardly practice. To be a consumer in the total
economy, one must agree to be totally ignorant, totally passive, and
totally dependent on distant supplies and self-interested suppliers.
And then, perhaps, one begins to see from a local point of view. One
begins to ask, What is here, what is in me, that can lead to something
better? From a local point of view, one can see that a global "free
market" economy is possible only if nations and localities accept or
ignore the inherent instability of a production economy based on
exports and a consumer economy based on imports. An export economy is
beyond local influence, and so is an import economy. And cheap
long-distance transport is possible only if granted cheap fuel,
international peace, control of terrorism, prevention of sabotage, and
the solvency of the international economy.
Perhaps one also begins to see the difference between a small local
business that must share the fate of the local community and a large
absentee corporation that is set up to escape the fate of the local
community by ruining the local community.
SO FAR AS I CAN SEE, the idea of a local economy rests upon only two
principles: neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood,
neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another,
and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and
nothing else, is the practice of neighborhood. This practice must be,
in part, charitable, but it must also be economic, and the economic
part must be equitable; there is a significant charity in just prices.
Of course, everything needed locally cannot be produced locally. But a
viable neighborhood is a community; and a viable community is made up
of neighbors who cherish and protect what they have in common. This is
the principle of subsistence. A viable community, like a viable farm,
protects its own production capacities. It does not import products
that it can produce for itself. And it does not export local products
until local needs have been met. The economic products of a viable
community are understood either as belonging to the community's
subsistence or as surplus, and only the surplus is considered to be
marketable abroad. A community, if it is to be viable, cannot think of
producing solely for export, and it cannot permit importers to use
cheaper labor and goods from other places to destroy the local capacity
to produce goods that are needed locally. In charity, moreover, it must
refuse to import goods that are produced at the cost of human or
ecological degradation elsewhere. This principle applies not just to
localities, but to regions and nations as well.
The principles of neighborhood and subsistence will be disparaged by
the globalists as "protectionism" - and that is exactly what it is. It
is a protectionism that is just and sound, because it protects local
producers and is the best assurance of adequate supplies to local
consumers. And the idea that local needs should be met first and only
surpluses exported does not imply any prejudice against charity toward
people in other places or trade with them. The principle of
neighborhood at home always implies the principle of charity abroad.
And the principle of subsistence is in fact the best guarantee of
giveable or marketable surpluses. This kind of protection is not
Albert Schweitzer, who knew well the economic situation in the colonies
of Africa, wrote nearly sixty years ago: "Whenever the timber trade is
good, permanent famine reigns in the Ogowe region because the villagers
abandon their farms to fell as many trees as possible." We should
notice especially that the goal of production was "as many...as
possible." And Schweitzer makes my point exactly: "These people could
achieve true wealth if they could develop their agriculture and trade
to meet their own needs." Instead they produced timber for export to
"the world economy," which made them dependent upon imported goods that
they bought with money earned from their exports. They gave up their
local means of subsistence, and imposed the false standard of a foreign
demand ("as many trees as possible") upon their forests. They thus
became helplessly dependent on an economy over which they had no
Such was the fate of the native people under the African colonialism of
Schweitzer¹s time. Such is, and can only be, the fate of everybody
under the global colonialism of our time. Schweitzer's description of
the colonial economy of the Ogowe region is in principle not different
from the rural economy now in Kentucky or Iowa or Wyoming. A total
economy for all practical purposes is a total government. The "free
trade" which from the standpoint of the corporate economy brings
"unprecedented economic growth," from the standpoint of the land and
its local populations, and ultimately from the standpoint of the
cities, is destruction and slavery. Without prosperous local economies,
the people have no power and the land no voice.
Wendell Berry's poems, essays, and works of fiction have won him
numerous honors and a wide following. His latest collection of poems is
titled Given. He lives and farms in his native Kentucky.