In Wendell Berry’s essay “Two Economies,” he explains his thoughts on the important differences between a money economy or some “little” economy when compared to what he refers to as “The Great Economy.” This difference is vital to understand especially when humans consider the components and processes of creation.
Should humans see creation’s components and processes as resources, as the extractive or deconstructionist mindset sees them? Or should humans see them as co-residents of The Great Economy. For my purposes here, soil is the great co-resident with us. It is of utmost importance for the survival of the human species even beyond the exploitation of other components of creation, such as fossil oil or fossil water. As I used to say, it’s the soil, stupid!
For Berry, The Great Economy is inclusive of all of creation, its processes and elements, and their full integration. Of this, Berry wrote, everything in The Great Economy “is joined both to it and to every thing else that is in it.”
As heady as this stuff sounds at this point, I believe Berry is helping us to understand human hubris in the notion that we cannot live in an economy that is not as inclusive as The Great Economy without repercussion of destructive behaviors. For example, humans should not practice industrial agriculture on a large global scale in a money economy because the costs that occur outside of the money economy (poisoned water, soil loss, reduction of habitat) are charged against The Great Economy, but no so far in the money economy. When objectively viewed from a macro perspective, these macro costs far outweigh the micro benefits gained by industrial agriculture in the money economy.
In other words, according to Berry, industrial agriculture is based on an “invasion and pillage of The Great Economy” because industrial agriculture sees the components as extractable resources rather than collaborative co-residents. In my mind, nowhere is this more profound, and profoundly unheralded, than with the abuse of soil, specifically topsoil.
Berry added, “Once we acknowledge the existence of The Great Economy, however, we are astonished and frightened to see how much modern enterprise is the work of hubris.” For me, the arrogance of human behavior and attitude toward soil is more than astonishing and frightening, it’s blasphemous.
There are many components that co-reside within The Great Economy that the extractive mind views as valuable resources that originate from The Great Economy, according to Barry. These are worked into the smaller money economy by the activities of those holding that mindset. Fossil coal, fossil water, uranium, are just three examples.
Soil, however, is that co-resident in The Great Economy that has the power to create life from death. In fact, healthy soil requires death to offer life. Yet, when soil is viewed as a resource, humans lose sight of the fact that it is a co-resident with them. The result of soil exploitation has negative impacts in The Great Economy where there is always interaction and integration at play. Exploitation of soil is rarely felt in the money economy because of this fact. This is what is taking place in industrial agriculture where humans no longer collaborate with the living soil. Instead, soil’s life-giving characteristics are extracted or destroyed for the sake of yield rather than collaborating with it for the sake of fertility.
One can measure farming success by fertility or even the calorie. But, yield is a misleading measure of farming because it does not take into account the costs. In The Great Economy, as I understand it, there is harmony between the co-residents. Dare I say symbiosis? Whereas, in the money economy which exists as a subset to The Great Economy, humans are necessarily parasitic to the elements that are resident in The Great Economy. Humans leech most dramatically from the soil.
Humans extract from the soil and destroy its ability to be soil. It becomes sterile. When we realize this, we apply inputs to the soil that we know our crops need for their own processes. Mankind does this with blatant disregard for the interaction and integration that is at play in The Great Economy. As one writer put it, humans are living and operating as if we don’t believe that when we poke nature, nature’s not going to poke back.
I claim that The Great Economy won’t be just poking back, its reaction will be correlative to the degree of human hubris. In other words, it will be cataclysmic.
When one adds to that calamity, the justice demanded by the Creator of The Great Economy, the weighing of the scales will be fearfully unbearable because the Creator’s command was for humans to be stewards of that portion of The Great Economy in which we’ve been placed and for which we’ve been equipped. We are not designed to be manipulators of some subset profane economy.
By definition, creation is the work of a creator. The Great Economy, the all-inclusive set, is the work of the Creator. As such, to abandon stewardship of its inherent components and processes is to be in direct violation of the Creator’s commands. Worse still, to abuse that which the Creator bestows is not only a violation, but blasphemous, since The Great Economy is a direct fiat of the Creator. In no language, Hebrew or otherwise, could dominion ever be synonymous with abuse and exploitation. And make no mistake, industrial agriculture is abuse of soil.
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