Berry Publishes Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Acclaimed poet and novelist Wendell Berry published a collection of essays on the natural and ethical relationship between North American culture and agriculture. The book helped to broaden the goals of environmental organizations that had become complacent with their successes.

Summary of Event

Wendell Berry wrote The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (1977) as a result of a disagreement between Berry—a poet, novelist, teacher, and farmer—and the agricultural establishment in the United States, as epitomized by Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. When Butz and his administration departed Washington, Berry noted, their policies remained in place. Berry therefore concluded that the policies in favor of corporate agriculture were not temporary political maneuvers but rather long-standing structural concerns. Berry’s argument against the agricultural practices advocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Department of Agriculture, U.S. involves two separate but interwoven strands of analysis. The first concerns the cultural effects of agricultural modes of production—hence the book’s subtitle. The second is the effect of agricultural practices on the environment, as well as the contributions of modern exploitative agriculture to the general decline of environmental quality. Agriculture Environmental awareness;agriculture Unsettling of America, The (Berry) Agriculture Environmental awareness;agriculture Berry, Wendell Butz, Earl Jefferson, Thomas Howard, Albert

Berry’s first argument begins not with Butz but with the history of the European colonization of the Americas, or what historian Howard Zinn calls the European invasion of the Americas. Chapter 1, “The Unsettling of America,” offers the most extended commentary on the historical nature of the agricultural crisis. Berry finds a contradiction between two impulses embodied in the early settlers of North America. On one hand, the settlers fleeing persecution in Europe were looking for a place to settle and live—permanently. Against this noble ideal Berry finds a much stronger and insidious motivation among a significant minority: the drive to exploit the colonized land and the colonized people persistently and completely. Berry finds this pattern of exploitation to be carried through to the present day. After the colonists exploited the Native Americans, they in turn found themselves exploited by the European imperial governments, and so on into the 1960’s, when, to Berry’s shock and dismay, Butz and the Department of Agriculture established a policy of “get big or get out.” Agriculture, once seen by Thomas Jefferson as the cornerstone of democracy, had become part of an aggressive foreign policy.

The modern agricultural mode of production, according to Berry, is an extension of the imperialistic mind-set of the early colonists. Berry continues his analysis of the superstructural effects of modern factory farming in two important chapters of the text: chapter 4, “The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture,” and chapter 8, “Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust.” He begins chapter 4 in an anecdotal fashion, describing his boyhood in the farming region of Henry County, Kentucky. The productive and diversified farms of his boyhood are mostly gone, he writes, because of the false modernization of agriculture and the subsequent marginalization of the small farm. Berry places the blame on government emphasis on the technological fix, which turns the farmer away from self-reliance and self-employment and toward becoming simply another employee of the agribusiness concerns. The end result of this technological upheaval is a cultural tidal wave: As fewer farmers are required to produce food, the once independently minded farm dwellers become displaced, with most becoming consumers living a culturally disconnected life in the suburbs or the city.

Berry continues this line of argument in “Jefferson, Morrill, and the Upper Crust.” Berry notes that Jefferson, the most philosophical of the founding fathers, always considered democracy to be joined to the issues of farming and education. For Jefferson, the small landowner was the ideal citizen of a democracy, living independently of any master but connected to the earth. Berry sees the decline of this ideal evident in the fate of the land-grant colleges established through the efforts of Justin Morrill Morrill, Justin and the Morrill Act of 1862. Morrill discounted the idea of farming as a democratic institution, viewing it instead as a profession that needed only technical training. From this change in philosophy, Berry extrapolates to the current crisis, where public funds are diverted from small farms and public interest to factory farms and corporate interests.

Wendell Berry’s poems and novels promote a sustainable, agrarian lifestyle in which humans peacefully coexist with nature.

(Dan Carraco)

Berry intersperses his analysis of the cultural crisis with his analysis of the ecological crisis. Two chapters emphasize different aspects of the ecological crisis: chapter 3, “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture,” and chapter 7, “The Body and the Earth.” Chapter 3 lays the groundwork for Berry’s ecological analysis. Berry’s first point is that the traditional environmental organizations have overlooked the question of land use in favor of preservation of wilderness or prevention of particularly abusive practices such as strip mining. Berry points out that the greatest amount of land utilized in the United States is used for agriculture and that environmental groups have been acting in an elitist fashion by ignoring rural issues. Although Berry is strongly in favor of wilderness conservation, he argues that most land will eventually have to be used. The basis of his conservation ethic is thus an argument for kindly and responsible use of all lands, particularly agricultural lands. Otherwise, he states, the quality of food will continue to decline, and waste will continue to be institutionalized. Berry’s scientific source here is not Thomas Jefferson but British agrarian Albert Howard, author of The Agricultural Testament (1940). Agricultural Testament, The (Howard) Howard, like Berry, argues that the health of the soil can be improved only through organic and kindly methods and that the health of the soil can even be linked to the health of the body.

Berry elaborates on the second argument in chapter 7, “The Body and the Earth,” in which he puts a more philosophical gloss on the same issue. Moving beyond the obvious environmental damage created by poor agricultural practices, Berry views ecology in the broadest sense as the connection of the human body to the planet Earth. His argument rests on a correspondence between our treatment of our bodies and our treatment of Earth. Although he admits that many readers will find this correspondence a strange one, Berry carries his argument to its logical conclusion. If our relationship to Earth is one of exploitation and abuse, then our personal environments should exhibit the same symptoms of decline. Berry addresses, respectively, the issues of mental and physical health, competition, sexuality, and fertility. At this point Berry’s analysis becomes exegesis, and he leaves the boundaries of the traditionally environmental for the realm of the religious.


The Unsettling of America ranks with Aldo Leopold’s Leopold, Aldo A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There (1949) Sand County Almanac, A (Leopold) as an influential work on the environment that also ranks as a literary work of the first order. The book received positive reviews from trade publications, poets, novelists, and environmental organizations, some of whom changed their policies after reading Berry’s cool-headed critique of the biases underlying the environmental movement. The work in many ways represents a synthesis of several previously independent movements within the environmental community, and it helped to broaden the goals of organizations that had become complacent with their successes.

Sections of The Unsettling of America were originally published in two very different journals, The Nation and The CoEvolution Quarterly (later known as The Whole Earth Review, a publication affiliated with The Whole Earth Catalog). The Nation, the longest-publishing weekly newsmagazine in the United States, represented a New York/East Coast version of traditional American radicalism. The CoEvolution Quarterly, published in Sausalito, California, represented a newer and brasher segment of the environmental and social movement, based in large measure on the politics of 1960’s California. That Berry, a writer from the agrarian tradition of the American South that traces itself back to Jefferson, could connect these two groups illustrates the significance of his work. His insistence on democratic idealism, which forms one of the bases of the work, was a link that joined the three regions and seemingly different traditions.

Politically, Berry’s book is one of the hallmarks of late 1970’s environmentalism. Though the environmental movement as a whole suffered a number of defeats with the election of Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald to the presidency in 1980, membership and involvement in environmental groups grew and continued to do so throughout most of the 1980’s. Several of the authors cited in The Unsettling of America rose to political prominence in the 1980’s. Barry Commoner, Commoner, Barry scientist and author of The Closing Circle Closing Circle, The (Commoner) (1971), was the founder and 1980 presidential candidate of the Citizen’s Party, forerunner of and model for the worldwide Green political parties. Jim Hightower, Hightower, Jim a prominent figure in the Democratic Party, later became agriculture commissioner of Texas and implemented many of the policies suggested by Berry in an attempt to benefit the small farmer.

The book’s greatest political contribution within the environmental movement itself came about as a result of its emphasis on the ethical nature of environmentalism. Berry states that environmentalism cannot be quantified into simple economic abstractions: It is instead based on ethics and character. Although The Unsettling of America was first published by the Sierra Club, Sierra Club Berry had no qualms about revealing the information that the organization had only recently divested its holdings in Exxon, General Motors, Tenneco, strip-mining companies, and pulp mills. The divestment itself, as Berry notes, came about because of public embarrassment over the publicity concerning the holdings. While Berry lauds the organization for its quick action in divesting, he notes that such behavior is typical of the flaws in the modern mind and character. Berry may not have been the first or the only writer to stress socially responsible investing practices, but the fervor with which he castigates those who place convenience above ethical behavior helped add momentum to what has become a significant social phenomenon.

Finally, perhaps the greatest impact that Berry’s book has had comes from its insistence on the importance of “marginal agriculture,” which is Berry’s term for the organic farming Organic farming movement. At the time of publication of the text, organic farms represented at best a marginal segment of the agricultural economy. Berry’s analogy is both startling and accurate: He compares modern orthodox agriculture to orthodoxy in religion and concludes that agribusiness has become evangelistic in its zeal. Like religion, Berry argues, modern agriculture can be shaken only by a movement that begins at the margins. Berry finds organic farming, especially the type practiced by his favorite farmers, the Amish, to be the agricultural equivalent of the voice crying in the wilderness.

Not satisfied with the strictly moral argument, however, Berry also relies on scientific studies from anthropologists and scientists, in particular the work of Albert Howard and Barry Commoner. Howard, a British soil scientist, influenced British agricultural practices with his works published in the 1940’s. Commoner provides a scientific rationale for organic soil management, and he argues conclusively that organic farms can produce crops as abundantly and much more efficiently, from the standpoint of energy consumption, than corporate farms. Berry disagrees with Commoner on the use of draft animals instead of tractors. Berry notes that the Amish are able to farm and prosper using only draft animals for power and have done so without the massive government subsidies given to corporate farms.

Berry concludes with a twelve-point plan of action designed to help protect the small organic farm, much of which is now in place in states with certified organic produce programs. Berry’s ideas are not necessarily new ones. He admits to borrowing his ideas on government intervention from Thomas Jefferson, who argued that “the earth is given as common stock for man to labor and live on.” Such a philosophy continues to inform the agricultural and cultural movement influenced by Berry’s book. Agriculture Environmental awareness;agriculture

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berry, Wendell. The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture. 1977. 3d ed. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996. The classic work that reinvigorated environmentalism. With a new afterword by the author.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Commoner, Barry. The Closing Circle: Nature, Man, and Technology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971. An influential book in the modern environmental movement that broadened interest in environmental issues beyond the focus introduced by Rachel Carson. Contains an extensive analysis of agricultural pollution and the economic impact of environmental pollution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Poverty of Power: Energy and the Economic Crisis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Extension and elaboration of The Closing Circle presents a more focused analysis of the inefficient use of energy in the United States. Commoner’s chapter on the importance of organic agricultural practices provides a starting point for one of Berry’s most important arguments.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Wes. New Roots for Agriculture. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth, 1980. Jackson, the founder of the Kansas-based Land Institute, argues for a radical departure from current and traditional farming practices. He proposes a form of “permaculture” based on perennial instead of annual crops. He finds fault with organic farming and cites erosion problems common on even the most well-maintained and efficient Amish farms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jackson, Wes, Wendell Berry, and Bruce Colman, eds. Meeting the Expectations of the Land: Essays in Sustainable Agriculture and Stewardship. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. An excellent collection of essays representative of a broad spectrum of views in the alternative agriculture movement. Subjects addressed include permaculture, tree crops, and traditional and experimental organic farming techniques.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leopold, Aldo. A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There. 1949. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. One of the most influential books on environmental ethics produced in the United States, and a classic work of modern prose. A lifelong conservation worker, Leopold presents a respected view from inside the government conservation establishment.

Commoner Publishes The Closing Circle

Club of Rome Issues The Limits to Growth

Ward and Dubos Publish Only One Earth

Schumacher Publishes Small Is Beautiful

Heilbroner Predicts Growth Limits

Land Institute Is Founded to Develop Alternative Grains

“Deep Ecology” Platform Is Drafted

Categories: History