Book Review: The Unsettling of America

The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture by Wendell Berry
Sierra Club Books, 1996
Paperback, 234 pages

In The Unsettling of America I argue that industrial agriculture and the assumptions on which it rests are wrong, root and branch; I argue that this kind of agriculture grows out of the worst of human history and the worst of human nature.
By the time one reaches this sentence in the author's 1996 afterword (to the 1977 book), this argument is very clear and very convincing. Beginning the book with a brief, Zinn-like history of America, Berry tackles many aspects of American and Western culture (money & consumerism, religion, technology, even the publisher) but always in relation to agriculture. For him, food is culture (hence agriculture) as well as a religion, because it is our most direct connection to the earth, the generator of an ongoing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. By separating ourselves from the production and processing of food -- mainly through the replacement of agriculture with agriscience and agribusiness -- we are suffering, and not just in terms of our health but, more importantly, morally, culturally, as communities of people. While 95% of the population may not need to work the land, the purchasing of pre-packaged, frozen, chemically-treated foods is not a substitute for this suffering, in the author's opinion. But to return or move towards a true agriculture (like the Amish, the Americans closest to Berry's ideals), it requires an almost complete overhaul of the American way, changing not only the way we grow food but the way we live and work in the broadest sense. It's a hard-to-fathom proposition -- more now than when the book was written -- but one that could slowly happen one reader at a time.