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Wendell Berry, award winning novelist, poet, and farmer unveils the new essay "The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age"

17th Annual Edward & Nancy Dodge Lecture

December 14, 2016

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Wendell Berry on Farming, Art, Limits and Waste

On December 8, poet, writer, activist and farmer Wendell Berry read aloud from his new essay, “The Thought of Limits in a Prodigal Age,” in which he explains his vision of an authentic land economy.

Mr. Berry was speaking at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health as the honored guest of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s 17th annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture. The Lecture’s benefactor, Dr. Edward Dodge, and his son Randall Dodge, attended the essay-reading, traveling from Texas and Indiana respectively. Also in attendance were Tanya Berry, Mr. Berry’s wife of almost 60 years and his esteemed partner in writing and farming, the Center’s co-founders Robert Lawrence and Polly Walker, and Bloomberg School Dean Emeritus Al Sommer. The lecture by Mr. Berry, hosted in part by the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, was in celebration of the Center’s 20th anniversary. On December 7, he engaged in a conversation with journalist Eric Schlosser.

The audience filled the 350-seat room with a mix of educators, environmentalists, writers, CLF supporters, and students, including an eighth grade English class from St. Martin’s-in-the-Field Episcopal School in Severna Park, Maryland. One attendee flew in from Minneapolis to witness one of Mr. Berry’s rare public appearances. His visit to the School—his first—was arranged by Bob Martin, the Center’s policy director and friend of Mr. Berry.

To understand Mr. Berry’s ideas about limits (he thinks we need them desperately), we might want to first consider the word “prodigal,” which he includes in the title. The word connotes waste, extravagance or lavishness—all of which the author believes to be the underpinning of our culture, as well as the ruin of it.

The present economy, he explained, is rife with constraints and incentives that favor bad work. The consequence of this system is that we waste fertility. In other words, the land, if treated well, will give us so much, but we squander it, sometimes against our better judgment because our current economy favors waste. “Good work goes beyond production,” he said. In a better system, production would produce goods that we need, as opposed to merely producing productivity. He criticized our current economy as seeming to possess the goal of human uselessness—a race to replace humans with robots.

In contrast, an authentic land economy would protect what is good, and begins with kindness. “It must involve creaturely affection and care,” he said. It would acknowledge our dependence on nature and our dependence on the natural world, and it would be built from the ground up, specific to the place in which it exists.

Perhaps most importantly, a land economy would protect us against surplus and overproduction, which he describes as “the single cruelty” waged against farmers. Because we impose no limits on production, we overproduce, and it’s the only way for farmers to even have a hope of staying financially viable. But at the same time, overproduction is what drives prices down and creates financial despair. We believe, said Mr. Berry, that limiting production would be an abridgement of freedom, but freedom from what? “Freedom to produce themselves into bankruptcy. Freedom to fail by succeeding,” he said. “In the tragedy of the limitless market, the only solution is for producers to limit production.”

The concept of limitlessness is a fantasy, and so is the notion that we can have limitless economic growth. The concepts of enough and plenty have been replaced with “all you can get” and “all you can make.” Both political parties are guilty of this thinking, although in different directions. “Neither side has advocated rationing,” he said ruefully. During the Q&A session he remarked that we are a society of trained consumers who, at the debut of a new product, stand in line on our hind legs like dogs waiting to snap at it.

“Science seems to be limitless, too,” he said. “It’s produced human and chemical abominations that humans cannot limit. Anything goes. ‘Stop at nothing’ are the moral principles of some scientists.” He criticized our faith in limitless technological progress that will solve our problems.

What is the antidote to all this misplaced faith in science and technology and industry? True to form, Mr. Berry says that good farming is an art. Good farming is not the application of methods and technologies by dullards under the guidance of academic and corporate intelligentsia, he said. “Begin by giving careful attention to scale and form,” he said. “Good care of land and people depends on arts, it depends on ways of making and caring.”

And of course, limits. “All arts are limited. The making on any good work of art depends on limits of attention and purpose.”

The essay has yet to be published, but Mr. Berry expects it will be soon.

—Christine Grillo

The Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture is supported through the R. Edward Dodge, Jr. and Nancy L. Dodge Family Foundation Endowment, established through the generosity of Dr. Edward Dodge, MPH ’67, and his late wife Nancy to provide core funding for the Center for a Livable Future.