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Agrarian responsibility, and why that means we can't ignore the world news

Agrarianism, like any other -ism, is shorthand for an enormous number of practices, ideas, and commitments. But if I were going to sum it up as briefly as possible, I might say that agrarianism is what happens when you take "responsibility" seriously. (You could make similarly suggestive but incomplete statements about other -isms, for example, that libertarianism is what you get when you take "freedom" seriously, or that fascism is what you get when you take "authority" seriously. Obviously a whole lot more needs to be said, but these statements are accurate and provocative starting points.)

Our non-agrarian society makes it very difficult to take full responsibility for what we do. According to the agrarian writer Wendell Berry,

When there is no reliable accounting and therefore no competent knowledge of the economic and ecological effects of our lives, we cannot live lives that are economically and ecologically responsible. [Berry, "The Whole Horse"]
Berry thinks that in modern society there is in fact "no reliable accounting," and "no competent knowledge" of what we are doing.
We are thus involved in a kind of lostness in which most people are participating more or less unconsciously in the destruction of the natural world, which is to say, the sources of their own lives.  They are doing this unconsciously because they see or do very little of the actual destruction themselves, and they don't know, because they have no way to learn, how they are involved. [Berry, "Two Minds"]

The reason that we "see or do very little of the actual destruction ourselves" is that the nature and scale of our work in the modern economy diffuse the effects of our actions over enormous distances and long time periods.  So enormous and so long, in fact, that we have almost no way of actually observing these effects and seeing that they are the results of what we've done.  We see the consequences only in the aggregate -- newspaper articles decrying rainforest destruction in Brazil, videos of starving sweatshop workers in Malaysia, lamentations for the disappearance of butterflies in Alabama.  And we wonder, from our kitchen tables in Chicago or Colorado, how any of that could possibly be connected to our own 45-mile commute in to work from the suburbs each day, or to our weekly trips with the kids to Wal-Mart for some of those low, low prices.  Even if we do make the imaginative leap required to believe that our spending money at Wal-Mart contributes incrementally to the abuse of child laborers halfway around the world, we'll find it hard to say that in any sense we're "responsible" for that outcome.  And even if we get that far, it's hard to convince ourselves to alter our comfortable behaviors for the sake of people we know only as abstractions and who we'll never meet, much less love.

It is different in a local (agrarian) economy.  When the local clothing store locks its workers, who are also your neighbors, in its stores overnight so that it can shave five cents off the price of a t-shirt, you're much more likely to see the connection between your patronage of that shop and the mistreatment of your neighbors.  You're much more likely to feel some responsibility for the person living across the street named Bob than you are for "malaysian sweatshop workers" in a nation you'd be hard pressed to find on a map.

There are many other examples implicating the deleterious effects of over-large scale and hyperspecialization on our capacity for taking responsibility.  Let's say you're a small-town lawyer.  You take a case defending the local factory from a lawsuit brought by its employees after an explosion that killed two workers and put five more in the hospital.  The same questions about whether it's ethical or not to take that case arise for the lawyer who works for a five-hundred person law firm representing a multinational company sued by the same workers, for the same explosion, in a state fifteen hundred miles away.  But the first lawyer is better able to take responsibility for his actions.  He lives close enough to the accident site to see what the damage has done.  He may know, as a citizen of the community, whether the factory owners have acted fairly or rapaciously in the past.  He is more likely to work on the whole case from start to finish than if he were an associate at a big firm, who may never actually meet the clients and whose participation may be limited only to drafting a few memos covering narrow aspects of the discovery in the case.  Both lawyers may decide to work on the case or not, but it's extremely unlikely that the big firm lawyer will really have taken responsibility for his decision.  How can he?  He can't see the effects of his work, and he has no real connection with the place that those effects are felt.  The same problems confront virtually all of us who work in the modern "global economy."

This need to take responsibility for our actions leads Rick Saenz to advocate dealing with righteous people that we've met and know well, and Wendell Berry to suggest that we broaden the context of our work by narrowing its scale.  This, and not some purely esthetic preference for small farms, is what lies behind the agrarian opposition to the global economy and the preference for the local.

Saenz goes further, in his post on "knowing your neighbors."  When I finished reading the post I found it hard to decide if I liked it enough to recommend it, or hated it enough to post an argument against it.  I suppose that it's both.

In the course of arguing that we ought to pay attention to the local landscape, Saenz also says that we shouldn't concern ourselves with the "affairs of nations and empires"; that we shouldn't bother to "form opinions about the causes of war and famines and prosperity and tyranny," and that we shouldn't "track natural disasters in far-off places."  Why?  Because we can't actually do anything about these things anyway, and any time spent paying attention to these things distracts us from paying proper attention to our local environment.

I disagree.

Someone less charitable than I could easily read Saenz as arguing against curiosity, and for a strictly instrumentalist use of our powers of perception and wonder -- "if we can't use information, we're better off not having it at all."  I won't do that.  But I think Saenz fails to understand that his own agrarian project is profoundly dependent upon our paying even closer attention to the news around the globe than most of us normally do.

If agrarianism is not simply to be just an esthetic preference, we have to make the effort to understand how we are responsible, by our participation in the modern economy, for things that we can't easily see or easily trace back to things that we've done.  The problem with globalization is that at the same time that it gives us each some small power to improve or degrade a landscape half a world away, it makes it extremely hard to see or know exactly what we're doing.  Those sweatshop laborers in Malaysia suffer what they suffer because we choose to buy their employers' products.  If we shop at Wal-Mart, we need to pay attention to the news from Malaysia or we are shirking our responsibility.  And even if, as Saenz suggests, we refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, we'll still need to understand what's going on in Malaysia.  Any close attention that we pay to our local environment will inexorably -- since we don't live in an agrarian economy, yet -- reveal that it is caught up in an economic system that ties it to Malaysia and other places.

Until we no longer live in a global economy (and I'm doubtful that this will ever happen), we will have to expend more -- not less -- effort at understanding the ties between our local place and places on the other side of the globe.  To use one of Saenz' examples: let's say your city council is about to "waste another few million of our tax dollars."  These days, that's likely to be because it's contemplating cutting a deal with BestBuy to level two or three square blocks of homes to make way for a new mega-store parking lot, or because it wants to let Kodak off the hook for millions of dollars of taxes to entice it to relocate locally rather than move to Malaysia where the government there is paying death squads to kill labor organizers in order to keep wages low.  No one who ignores, as Saenz suggests we do, the news from Malaysia is likely to really understand what their own local city council is doing.

The problem with globalization, as Wendell Berry tells us, is that it combines huge-scale activities with myopic vision.  The answer is not to increase our myopia.  To take proper responsibility means that we must make even more of an effort to understand what we're doing.  And even if, like Saenz suggests, we opt out of the global economy and try to do for ourselves, we will still find ourselves living in communities that are tied into the global economy (and even Saenz recognizes that this "opting-out" will often have to be done piecemeal).  Attention to the local demands that we pay attention to the global, or, as Wal-Mart would prefer it, we won't understand what's going on globally or locally.

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