Wendell Berry’s “Think Little” Remains Relevant Today

Barn and Farm Paintings and Midwest Landscapes by Michael Stohlmeyer

In 1969 the agrarian writer, poet, and Kentuckian, Wendell Berry, published Think Little, a short essay dealing primarily with environmentalism and the principle of subsidiarity. I found it to be a well written and compelling piece. While it is brief, Berry’s essay contains striking observations that continue to be relevant in our own day.

As I began reading it, my immediate thought was how little has changed. This short essay could easily have been written yesterday. “First there was Civil Rights, and then there was the War, and now it is the Environment. The first two of this sequence of causes have already risen to the top of the nation’s consciousness and declined somewhat in a remarkably short time.” While the Civil Rights Movement itself has passed, the issue of race has again come to the forefront of the national and global stage. In 2020 the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests and riots dominated headlines, while in 2021 Critical Race Theory surfaced as a major point of contention. Then, though Berry speaks of Vietnam, one could easily replace that with the war in Afghanistan or even just the broader War on Terror. As for the Environment, there has hardly been a more prevalent and constant issue than Climate Change. The push for expanding renewable energy sources, building more electric cars, changing people’s diets, and reducing carbon emissions has been in the national and global discourse for decades now. Yet, as Berry points out, both Civil Rights (race) and the War (of your choice) have been short-lived in their prominence in the public sphere. This is not to say that racial issues have disappeared necessarily, but neither the protests of 2020 nor Critical Race Theory have actually lasted very long in terms of how important they are perceived as being and how much they dominate the political sphere. The protests came and went, and the Critical Race Theory debate has mostly given way to debates surrounding COVID-19 regulations and mandates (at least for now). Afghanistan is a similar story. While it took over headlines for a month or two, it has practically disappeared from the news and from public discourse. I doubt many people are actively thinking about our withdrawal and defeat at all, and likely will not remember it until it appears in midterm election advertisements.

The reason that Civil Rights and the War rose and fell so quickly is because, Berry says, “as popular causes in the electronic age, [the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement] have partaken far too much of the nature of fads. Not for all, certainly, but for too many they have been the fashionable politics of the moment.” Again, his observations continue to be true today. In fact, this observation is far more relevant now than it was then considering we have the Internet, social media, and smartphones. If you are on social media, as I unfortunately am, you have likely come across what I call the “Instagram social justice graphic.” Essentially, these are consumable and “artsy” infographics which social media users, young Liberal white women especially, post and repost on their accounts and stories. Below is an example of some:

Originally found in the OneSandbox article “How social justice slideshows took over Instagram”

These posts do absolutely nothing. They are completely performative in nature. The information they contain is superficial and rudimentary. Posting them to your story is not a serious method of activism. Perhaps the best example of this performative and aesthetic “activism” I can think of was when, in 2020, users posted black squares to their social media accounts and made a black square their profile picture. I saw countless people I knew from high school and others across various platforms posting black squares, either without comment or with the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackOutTuesday. There was also a #BlackoutDay2020 in which Black Americans would supposedly not spend any money, and if they did, only at Black-owned businesses. Predictably, both these things went absolutely nowhere and achieved nothing. In fact, the black squares became a bit of a meme, with people rightly mocking those who posted them as being pointless virtue signaling rather than anything of substance. All the people I know who posted the black squares have since deleted them from their accounts, perfectly demonstrating the fad nature of these movements. They get you likes and support for a short time, and signal your compliance with the narrative, but then the cow runs dry and cannot be milked any longer, so the influencers and parasites move on to the next Big Issue to post about.

In his essay, Berry urges the reader not to allow the Environment to suffer this same fate. In fact, he believes it to be the “logical culmination” of the Civil Rights and Peace Movements, as all three are caused by the same mentality, that being “the mentality of greed and exploitation.” He claims that unlike racism and war, the Environment is both a public and private issue, that it “rises closer to home.” Why? Because “Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, every time we eat a bite of food we are suffering from it. And more important, every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy-and our economy’s first principle is waste-we are causing the crisis.” Racism is an issue that you can take a stance on without having a direct link to. Even a person who is racist may never directly act on their racism. They may hate a Black person in their heart yet say nice things out loud, or simply ignore the issue altogether. We have an even more detached relationship with war, considering it takes place thousands of miles away at the command of our president and politicians. You can support or oppose the war without ever contributing to it or the opposition in any way. The horrors of war and the injustices of racism are someone else’s fault, not yours. Not so with the Environment. Every time you drive your gasoline powered car, turn on the light (if your light is powered by fossil-fuels), take too long in the shower, or buy an unethically sourced product that was the cause of pollution, you are contributing to the destruction of the environment. Now, an informed Catholic knows that there are different levels of culpability depending on your proximity to the immoral action and your level of cooperation. Many of our unethical actions are merely remote material cooperation, i.e., you indirectly contributed to an immoral act in a minor way and are not seriously culpable.

Because of our role in this issue, Berry believes that protests and government action are not enough. “We can see how superficial and foolish we would be to think that we could correct what is wrong merely by tinkering with the institutional machinery. The changes required are fundamental changes in the way we are living.”

This is hardly the beginning of the solution, though. Instead, there is an additional problem which must be addressed prior to the Environment, that being the state of private and social life in society. It is at this point in the essay that Berry really begins to shine. He says, “We have delegated all our vital functions and responsibilities to salesmen and agents and bureaus and experts of all sorts. We cannot feed or clothe ourselves, or entertain ourselves, or communicate with each other, or be charitable or neighborly or loving, or even respect ourselves, without recourse to a merchant or a corporation or a public-service organization or an agency of the government or a style-setter or an expert. Most of us cannot think of dissenting from the opinions or the actions of one organization without first forming a new organization.” Moreover, people’s motive for action is not one of genuine concern, but “the consumer’s anxiety that he is missing out on what is ‘in’…”

‘Iron Oxide Red’ by Michael Stohlmeyer

Corporations make our clothes and food. Corporations produce movies and television shows and video games for us to consume. Corporations provide the means through which we communicate with others, whether that be social media, the internet, computers, or the smartphone. Non-profits and government agencies serve other people and give them money and goods. The government cleans the street and the sidewalks. We speak to each other less, entertain one another less personally, outsource all our needs to either a government or corporation, and rely on charities and the government to care for others while we do nothing. Our very senses have been outsourced. You do not use your voice to speak. You use Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, or Snapchat. You do not use your eyes to see directly. You see through a screen. You do not hear from the source. You hear from a device. “In this state of total consumerism – which is to say a state of helpless dependence on things and services and ideas and motives that we have forgotten how to provide ourselves – all meaningful contact between ourselves and the earth is broken.”

My favorite part of the essay comes next, as Berry speaks on the type of individual produced by society, and the danger of a world populated by such individuals. He says:

Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle. I say, instead, that it is madness, mass produced. A man who understands the weather only in terms of golf is participating in a chronic public insanity that either he or his descendants will be bound to realize as suffering. I believe that the death of the world is breeding in such minds much more certainly and much faster than in any political capital or atomic arsenal.

“Think Little” by Wendell Berry

I have heard time and time again how our new globalized economy is actually great, and how self-sufficiency is not just unnecessary, but actually a privileged idea, espoused only by hipsters who grow food and raise animals as a hobby. After all, they could just go to the store and save time, money, and energy by buying the products made by multinational corporations and sold by multinational corporations. Raising your own chickens is looked down upon as foolishness. “The eggs are only $1.99 at the Walmart a five-minute drive away! You’re just doing it for fun, and any claim of sustainability and self-reliance is nothing more than posturing and poor justification for what is really a hobby.” If you think this is an exaggeration, you would be wrong. I had this exact conversation with a person on Twitter last month. Never mind the fact that we are in a global pandemic which has caused supply-chain issues and are experiencing inflation. No, the more globalized the economy is and the more you rely on other people for everything, the better off you are. You will own nothing, and you will be happy! The World Economic Forum predicts as much in a since deleted blog post.

Berry then speaks about the American farmer and how “In an age of unparalleled affluence and leisure, the American farmer is harder pressed and harder worked than ever before; his margin of profit is small, his hours are long; his outlays for land and equipment and the expenses of maintenance and operation are growing rapidly greater; he cannot compete with industry for labor; he is being forced more and more to depend on the use of destructive chemicals and on the wasteful methods of haste and anxiety.” Even further than the industrialization of the farm and the increasing hardship of farming, “He is being forced off the land into the cities, his place taken by absentee owners, corporations, and machines. Some would justify all this in the name of efficiency.” In our capitalistic society, efficiency is one of the essential markers of a good and healthy economy. The more efficient, the better, regardless of the consequences. All that matters is the profit margin. This relates to the previous topic of self-sufficiency and outsourcing all our autonomy. Rather than buying our food from the local market, from people in our community who have a stake in it, we buy food in the corporate supermarket from people halfway across the world working for unjust wages in unjust conditions. In the pursuit of efficiency, we have destroyed the local economy. People are no longer the master of themselves or of their own business or trade, but servants of a faceless multinational conglomerate that does not have their best interests in mind. As Berry points out, the multinational conglomerate does not view the land in an intimate way. It does not love the land, respect the land, or see the land as home, as sustenance. Instead, it exploits the land to turn a quick buck, because none of the stakeholders will be affected if the land is ravaged after years of intensive farming. They will just move elsewhere.

Our economy is no longer attached to our community as it once was, and, as a result, our land and our people become alienated from one another and suffer.

‘Landscape with a farm’ by Philip Stanton, 2019

The question now is what to do about all this? Some say we need another government program or piece of legislation. Others say we need a certain political party in power. Yet others say we need to change our economic system or political ideology. What does Wendell Berry say? In Think Little, he says none of this. Instead, he posits that we need a revitalization of private life. “We need better government, no doubt about it. But we also need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities. We need persons and households that do not have to wait upon organizations, but can make necessary changes in themselves, on their own.”

He goes on to say “For most of the history of this country our motto, implied or spoken, has been Think Big. I have come to believe that a better motto, and an essential one now, is Think Little.” Thinking Big, to Berry, is plan-making and law-making. The New Deal. The Great Society. The War on Drugs. The War on Terror. The New World Order. The Green New Deal. The Build Back Better Act. These are examples of Thinking Big. Berry says we need something different. We need Thinking Little. “The lotus-eaters of this era are in Washington, D.C., Thinking Big. Somebody comes up with a problem, and somebody in the government comes up with a plan or a law. The result, mostly, has been the persistence of the problem, and the enlargement and enrichment of the government.” Thinking Big has not solved the pandemic. Thinking Big has not solved poverty and homelessness. We do not live in a Great Society. Terrorism abounds. The New World Order has been shattered by the rise of China, of nationalism, and of populism. Drugs plague the country worse than ever. But fear not, the three letter agencies are flourishing! They are expanding, being funded even more, and will solve your problems, just you wait!

“While the government is “studying” and funding and organizing its Big Thought, nothing is being done. But the citizen who is willing to Think Little, and, accepting the discipline of that, to go ahead on his own, is already solving the problem.”

“Think Little” by wendell berry

What does Thinking Little and Acting Little look like? Berry describes it like this:

“A couple who make a good marriage, and raise healthy, morally competent children, are serving the world’s future more directly and surely than any political leader, though they never utter a public word. A good farmer who is dealing with the problem of soil erosion on an acre of ground has a sounder grasp of that problem and cares more about it and is probably doing more to solve it than any bureaucrat who is talking about it in general. A man who is willing to undertake the discipline and the difficulty of mending his own ways is worth more to the conservation movement than a hundred who are insisting merely that the government and the industries mend their ways.”

In short, Berry’s solution is that you must be the change you want to see.

“In other words, if you are fearful of the destruction of the environment, then learn to quit being an environmental parasite. We all are, in one way or another, and the remedies are not always obvious, though they certainly will always be difficult. They require a new kind of life-harder, more laborious, poorer in luxuries and gadgets, but also, I am certain, richer in meaning and more abundant in real pleasure.” We can apply this logic to many other issues in society today. I agree with Berry that personal action is a very good idea. Change must necessarily take place at the lowest level of society for conditions to improve. The principles Berry espouses here are very similar to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good” (CCC 1883).

Berry’s major recommendation to the reader is to raise a garden. I do not want to spend too much time on this specific point, though I heavily agree with him, and my own family raises a very large garden each year. You can read more about the merits of raising a garden by clicking on the link above and scrolling near the bottom.

With that being said, I do have some criticisms of his stance. I believe Berry is wrong to dismiss policy and power when it comes to political issues. Consider, for instance, the theoretical difference between a society in which porn is banned by the government and one in which it is not. Which will encourage people to not watch porn? Which will do more to fight sex-trafficking, the objectification of women, and porn addiction? Which would it be easier for a person to avoid porn? Without a doubt the one in which porn in banned. Similarly, consider a society where there are laws prohibiting companies from producing more than X amount of carbon, or where there are laws regulating waste disposal, recycling, and energy production, to one where these things are not being regulated. Even further, imagine a society where corporations are heavily limited, and every attempt is made to encourage small businesses and local production of many goods. Is it the case that every problem will be solved in these societies? No, of course not. Problems persist. Regulations fail and do not catch everything. Some policies are not as effective and do not produce the results that were expected. Yet, in each of these societies, it is far easier to do good than in a society where such laws do not exist. This is because law forms the person and guides our actions. Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and every philosopher prior to the Enlightenment understood that law forms people and can guide them to doing what is right and just. Sure, government and law does not solve everything or make it all perfect, but they do encourage good living, and having such encouragement is better than not. All law, or lack thereof, encourages us in some way. The question is what should be encouraged and how.

When we are dealing with global, national, cultural, and societal issues, we cannot simply say that it is up to the individual to fix it all, because the problem is far beyond the individual.

Barn and Farm Paintings and Midwest Landscapes by Michael Stohlmeyer

I also think Berry misses the mark when he criticizes associations and voluntary organizations. It is a mistake to downplay the importance of collective, organized action. Man is a social animal, and it is natural for him to form groups to work towards a common goal. The Catechism puts it nicely, saying, “Certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him. To promote the participation of the greatest number in the life of a society, the creation of voluntary associations and institutions must be encouraged ‘on both national and international levels, which relate to economic and social goals, to cultural and recreational activities, to sport, to various professions, and to political affairs.'” (CCC 1882). Charities, unions, religious organizations, activist groups, and political associations do a great deal to affect change and their role in solving society’s problems should not be downplayed.

With that, I want to return to an earlier part of Berry’s essay that demands consideration now, 53 years later. Berry says he hopes that Environmentalism does not become a fad like the Civil Rights Movement and Peace Movement. Has it? In my opinion, it has not. While it may not always be the issue of every day, climate news is never ending and so are the countless summits and pledges and agreements. Sure, it is just as Instagram worthy as any other social issue, perhaps even moreso because it is less offensive and divisive, but it has not been an issue that flares up one moment and is forgotten the next. We are talking a lot more about the environment now than we were when Think Little was published. In this way I do not think it has been made into a fad, though we have certainly not taken the kinds of steps that Berry advocated for. Actually, as far as I can tell, the breakdown of private life has worsened since the essay’s writing, as has the state of the nation’s farmer, the family unit, and the model citizen.

So, what now? We know there is a problem. We understand the source of our ills. What do we do about? Just as Berry exhorted his readers to act in certain ways, I shall do the same.

Revolt against the modern world. Go to church and deepen your faith. Pray often. Get married. Have children; many of them. Teach them to walk uprightly in the eyes of God. Become a priest or join a religious order. Read books. Appreciate good art and architecture. Eat healthily. Be more conscious about the things you put in and on your body. Raise a garden. Spend time in nature. Buy locally and/or ethically when you can. Keep your body in shape. Don’t watch porn. Don’t do drugs. Use social media less. Stop doom scrolling. Consume better media. Get involved in your community. Stay informed on local politics. Volunteer for a charity and serve others. Do not be so wasteful. Love others and treat them with respect. Stand firm in your convictions. In short, pursue the Good, the True and the Beautiful. If you do this, you will not only improve your own life, but your family, your community, your country, and your world.

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