Wendell Berry on the “Cheerful Prophets” of Modernity

The following easy excerpt is from Chapter Six: “The Use of Energy” of Wendell Berry’s famous book “The Unsettling of America” (1977), an essential critique of the cultural and agricultural damage caused by the technocratic domination of farming and food production.

Though it seems impossible to distinguish between the living and the mechanical aspects of technology, it is possible to distinguish between two kinds of energy: that which is made available by living things and that which is made available by machines. 

The energy that comes from living things is produced by combining the four elements of medieval science: earth, air, fire (sunlight), and water. This is current energy. Though it is possible to speak of a reserve of such energy, as Sir Albert Howard does, in the sense of a surplus of fertility, it is impossible to conceive of a reservoir of it. It is not available in long-term supplies in any form in which it can be preserved, as in humus, in the flesh of living animals, in cans or freezers or grain elevators, it still perishes fairly quickly in comparison, say, to coal or plutonium. It lasts over a long term only in the living cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay. The technology appropriate to the use of this energy, therefore, preserves its cycles. It is a technology that never escapes into its own logic but remains bound in analogy to natural law. 

The energy that is made available, and consumed, by machines is typically energy that can be accumulated in stockpiles or reservoirs. Energy from wind and water obviously does not fit this category, but it suggests the possibility of bigger and better storage batteries, which one must assume will sooner or later be produced. And, of course, we already store water power behind hydroelectric dams. This mechanically derived energy is supposed to have set people free from work and other difficulties once considered native to the human condition. Whether or not it has done so in any meaningful sense is questionable—in my opinion, it is highly questionable. But there is no doubt that this sort of energy has freed machinery from the natural restraints that apply to the use of organic energy. We now have a purely mechanical technology that is very nearly a law unto itself. 

And yet, in the long term, this liberation of the machine is illusory. Mechanical technology is based on quantities of materials and fuels that are finite. If the prophets of science foresee “limitless abundance” and “infinite resources,” one must assume that they are speaking figuratively, meaning simply that they cannot comprehend how much there may be. In that sense, they are right: there are sources of energy that, given the necessary machinery, are inexhaustible as far as we can see.

The great difficulty, which these cheerful prophets do not acknowledge at all, is that we are trustworthy only so far as we can see. The length of our vision is our moral boundary. Even if these foreseen supplies are limitless, we can use them only within limits. We can bring the infinite to bear only within the finite bounds of our biological circumstance and our understanding. It is already certain that our planet alone—not to mention potential sources in space—can provide us with more energy and materials than we can use safely or well. By our abuse of our finite sources, our lives and all life are already in danger. What might we bring into danger by the abuse of “infinite” sources? 

The difficulty with mechanically extractable energy is that so far we have been unable to make it available without serious geological and ecological damage, or to effectively restrain its use, or to use or even neutralize its wastes. From birth, right now, we are carrying the physical and the moral poisons produced by our crude and ignorant use of this sort of energy. And the more abundant the energy of this sort that we use, the more abounding must be the consequences. 

It is typical of the mentality of our age that we cannot conceive of infinity except as an enormous quantity. We cannot conceive of it as orderly process, as pattern or cycle, as shapeliness. We conceive of it as inconceivable quantity—that is, as the immeasurable. Any quantity that we cannot measure we assume must be infinite. That is about as sophisticated as saying that the world is flat because it looks flat. The talk about “infinite” resources is thus a kind of scientific-sounding foolishness. And it involves some quaint paradoxes. If we think, for instance, of infinite energy as immeasurable fuel, we are committed in the same thought to its destruction, for fuel must be destroyed to be used. We thus arrive at the curious idea of a destructible infinity. Furthermore, we have become guilty not only of the demonstrably silly assumption that we know what to do with infinite energy, but also of the monstrous pride of thinking ourselves somehow entitled to undertake infinite destruction.

If, while walking along, you come across a bird’s nest with young birds or eggs in it, in any tree or on the ground, and the mother bird is sitting on them, you shall not take away the mother bird along with her brood. You must let the mother go, taking only her brood, in order that you shall prosper and have a long life.

Deuteronomy 22:6-7

“Ah! Lord God,” I replied, “it is the prophets who say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword; famine shall not befall you. Indeed, I will give you lasting peace in this place.’” These prophets utter lies in my name, the Lord said to me: I did not send them; I gave them no command, nor did I speak to them. They prophesy to you lying visions, foolish divination, deceptions from their own imagination.

Jeremiah 14:13-14

Featured Image: “Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt