Every home is an economy. The big economy is really only the composite of these many household economies — the small makes up the large. Working from this idea in his 1977 classic The Unsettling of America, farmer and writer Wendell Berry challenged the conventional activist approach of blaming the “big economy” — corporations and governments — for our environmental woes. The problem, Berry believed, had deeper roots, and in order to solve it, we must start in our own places in the world. Thirty years after the publication of The Unsettling of America, our homes are still in need of reform. Berry wrote that our society has created a system that makes it easy for us to relinquish responsibility for our most basic needs — and that’s still true today. We buy our food in grocery stores; we pay workers to clean our houses and take care of our children. This culture of outsourcing makes it easy for us to move from place to place, never truly becoming part of any one community.
Berry argued that the treatment for this modern disease is to settle in a place, and to begin to treat it more like a family member than a resource. This does not mean that we will stop outsourcing certain aspects of our lives, but it does mean that we will live in ways that allow us to take greater responsibility for our home economies. Take food: Most of us can’t grow the majority of our own groceries, but we can buy them from farmers with whom we have personal relationships — a hard thing to do if we move frequently.
But there are signs that the work that Berry started in The Unsettling of America is beginning to bear fruit. Berry was one of the first to point to the need for a local food economy, and now, “buy local” has become a catch phrase, showing up everywhere from the pages of Gourmet to the nightly news. “Once our personal connection to what is wrong becomes clear,” Berry writes, “then we have to choose: we can go on as before, recognizing our dishonesty and living with it the best we can, or we can begin the effort to change the way we think and live.”
Story by Ragan Sutterfield. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007. The story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.