The World-Ending Fire: The Essential Wendell Berry
© 2018 Wendell Berry and Paul Kingsnorth
What a way to finish 2022, in reading this superb collection of Wendell Berry’s essays. Berry has published no small amount of essay collections himself, and some of the WEF pieces have previously appeared in those volumes. What distinguishes Paul Kingsnorth’s World Ending Fire is its comprehensiveness, in bringing together Berry essays from 1968 onward that cover the full spread of Berry’s thinking – on agarianism, politics, national security, and local culture. It is a fitting tribute to the poet-farmer of Kentucky, for these topics are not individual ones for him, viewed in isolate, but all one of a piece. There’s no better introduction to his extensive reflection on the fate and future of American life.
In his first nonfiction volume, The Unsettling of America, Berry connected the ongoing dissolution of agrarian America to other problems in American life, like the breakdown of American family culture, rising environmental concerns in a polluted and frequently denuded landscape, and the supply chain crises of the industrial economy. That overarching connection is the foundation for the essays collected in The World-Ending Fire, that title referring to what Berry calls ‘industrial fundamentalism’. Without referencing G.K. Chesterton, without perhaps even being aware of GKC’s distributist writings, Berry nonetheless echoes him in his criticism of big capital, in the concentration of economic production and the revenues thereof into fewer and fewer hands, in the reduction of human beings into mere biological machines for, warm-blooded cogs to pull levers and then go home to buy products. The world-ending-fire has consequences for man, society, and the land: the difficult but varied and rewarding work of old has been reduced to the meaningless work of moving a cursor around a screen in the modern age to pad the revenue pages of someone else ; industrial titans are far removed from the lands they own and dominate, and unaware or uncaring of the damage they do to it so long as revenue covers it; and civilization itself becomes more fragile, dependent on monocultures vulnerable to disease, on complex logistical supply chains. The family home is reduced to a place where things are consumed, or hoarded, not created; the family itself disappears in reality, if not in name, as husband and wife are no longer partners in the work, but atomized individuals who have merely made a convenient partnership, and the moment it becomes inconvenient it will be discarded like an empty soda can, a broken watch, or an unwanted embryo. Individuals themselves are reduced to subjects, powerless and impotent in the hands of corporations and the state. Alienation is the chief creation of industrial fundamentalism: man is alienated from the land, from his labor, from those around him. We have fallen from fellow creatures working in communion with one another to consumers standing in line at Wal-Mart staring at tik-tok at the same time, ‘together’ in place but as far from one another as the stars in their courses.
The World-Ending Fire is a book deep in thought, in passion, in meaning. Readers need not agree with Berry on every point, but they will not be able to dismiss him because his criticisms address so much, and at so personal a level. Like Ed Abbey, who counted him as a friend despite their frequent arguments, he is unboxable – a critic of the political left and right, seeing both as largely married to the same beast – though there are those on the Old Right, those who draw from Russell Kirk instead of Buckley and the neocon & corporate-conmen who followed him – who would recognize in Berry’s defense of the local and particular, in his prudence and deep respect for the continuity of creation – the debt we owe the past and future, being stewards of the present – an unqualified ally, separated only by his emphasis on creation rather than creator. He certainly stands more easily among them with the modern left, even environmentalists – for they only envision a world saved by the use of more energy, by more doodads, by more organization and dictation — if difficulties must be endured, Other People can endure them. Certainly not the silk-tie set who fly their jets across the world to lecture the peasants on how un-green they are, who gin up wars and collect their dividends from Raytheon and Hailiburton. “Sustainability is a context” is not a phrase uttered by Berry, but it is certainly one believed by him; in these essays we find rebukes of those who believe we can consume our way into greener and happier times, who bemoan the unsustainability of industrial civilization yet do nothing with their lives to reduce their own complicity – -who do not simplify their lives, who turn on the AC at the first blush of heat, who do not even bother to start a seed in a pot but are happy to pat themselves on the back for buying Certified Organic at Trader Joe’s. Berry does not exempt himself from his rebukes; he is particularly chagrined about his own dependence on automobiles.
As I read Berry, I argue with him myself; I am tugged between opposing values and the facts they arm themselves with. I am someone who started taking some of Berry’s prescriptions long before I ever read him, and yet I am compelled to wonder if there is a way out, a road home, that does not begin with disaster. Even if the long-awaited savior, The Demographic Transition, allowed human numbers to taper down to a level where small-scale agriculture of the kind practiced and advocated by Berry can comfortably feed all, the question remains: would we want it? The problem is that I don’t think so. We are opioid-hooked chimps, but our opiods are a little more than literal. We are addicted to comfort, to easy entertainment, to pretending that the only costs imposed are those appended to the product with a sticky label. Never mind that we are papering over those human costs with petty pleasures — that we turn our creative energy from the real to the virtual, investing time in creating digital worlds instead of restoring and cultivating our own — that we chase pleasures in dance halls and pill bottles and glowing TV screens instead of ordering our lives to create a deep and lasting contentment. Never mind that processed food sabotages our bodies and that we attempt to escape the consequences of our diets and disordered lives with more products, dependent forever on pharmaceutical companies sustained by our continuing ailments. It is only when we stumble upon the Real that we realize how starved we have been — Little Debbies and snapchat streaks compare badly against garden-grown blackberry pies and intimate conversation with a loved one.
I don’t think Berry has all the right answers, but he certainly asks many of the questions that need to be asked. He recognizes much of what has gone wrong, and he offers a taste of the Real — a vision of what we have lost, as a way to working toward its restoration — not only a healthy relationship with this Eden we were told to dress and keep, but toward a truly humane life.
I like to think that the reason that I move a cursor around a screen all day has meaning as well as contributing to a better society but can see that reading this collection would leave me questioning a great many of my choices.
I’m sure there’s wiggle room for those of us who move cursors for meaningful causes!