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Apologists for the modern economies that arose out of the industrial revolution seem for the most part to have assumed that there will be a sufficiency of goods in perpetuity. They have assumed that we have at last risen above contingency. Nature has been licked, beaten back.

This would merely be silly were it not also dangerous.

There is no denying that economies that produce more waste than compost have increased standards of living impressively, at least temporarily, but my guess is that in the end the increase will turn out to have been ephemeral and the apologists delusional. Those who have been made rich in this brief episode characterized by cheap energy rapaciously and thoughtlessly extracted from the last of the five available carbon pools would do well to pay attention when reality breaks in with news of what the next episode is going to be like.

In fact reality has been trying to get our attention for a while now, and what it has been saying is that nature, whence comes all wealth, is not an Everlasting Gobstopper. It is a limited stock. It is not an ATM with an unlimited supply of Andrew Jacksons deep in its bowels. It is itself wealth. And natural capital (sometimes called “natural resources), which doesn’t enjoy the benefits of compound interest, can be exhausted pretty quickly. You can print symbols of wealth and restock the ATM to your hearts’ content, but paper is only as real as paper. If we run out of things for it to represent, the paper will have no end of trouble trying to signify.

Perhaps it is the simplifications of modern economies and our many abstract relations in them that make it easy for us to believe that a land economy is thing of the past. What percentage of the population, after all, is still “one the land”?

The answer to that is 100. True, farm and ranch families make up only about 2.2 percent of the U.S. population, but pretty much all of us are still subject to gravity, the contortions of NASA and the airline industries notwithstanding. All of our economic activity begins and ends on the land—especially air travel. There is nothing we do, no matter how dishonest our bookkeeping is or might be, that isn’t land-based. The industrial economy and the so-called tech economy it made possible thrive only so long as there is a source for their goods, and that source is not a pipeline of raw materials extending to earth from the planet Betelgeuse. It is nature.

This goes some distance in explaining why our hempy friends in tie-dye were obviously high on something in the middle part of the last century when the spoke of getting back to the land. There can be no back-to-the-land movement because there was never any leaving it.

What there was—and here we get nearer the problem—were increasingly refined and simplified systems of production and distribution and a more highly reticulated division of labor that resulted in buffers—armies of middlemen—between people and the land. The farm population dwindled—at considerable ecological and economic costs—which meant that fewer and fewer people were directly on the land, but no one ever quit eating. Many people may have thought farm work beneath them, but none of them ever rose above the need to eat. Everyone farms, either actually or by proxy.

The proxies are the problem. The simplifications—some would call them complexities but I think they are exactly the opposite—the simplifications of modern economies that make it possible for so many people to sit at a desk all day and eat at night have had one disastrous consequence: they have removed from the land the eyes that might have been watchful enough to care for it better than it has been cared for. People who are near enough to eroding fields to see the erosion are worried about the loss of topsoil. Some near enough are not worried, but that’s because they share the apologists’ delusion: they believe that we’ll always have plenty of artificial fertility to pound the fields with. We’ve got nature licked. We’ve risen above contingency. Nature’s an Everlasting Gobstopper. (You can spit in seven different colors.)

The newest and latest piece of gee-whizzery coming out of Silicon valley will be of no use to someone who doesn’t have anything to eat, and sooner or later the materials from which the latest dumb phones are made will be as scarce as topsoil. There’s no avoiding it: the real wealth that backs the paper wealth, the land and all the good in it, from the oil below to soil on top, are limited. The earth is a limit. A limit is the biggest thing there is. It is bigger than the universe. And if all we ever hear it say is “slow down” and “stop,” that is only because it is as taciturn as it is stern.

Obviously the most important thing we can do is assure ourselves of a sufficiency of real and necessary goods. And to do this we must remake our economic lives so that they work not by waste but by return. Wendell Berry has said, and well he has said it, that the industrial economy takes, makes, uses, and discards, proceeding from extraction to exhaustion. A true land economy, by contrast, call it an agrarian economy if you wish, does each of the first three things. It takes, makes, and uses. But the last thing it does is it returns rather than discards. It returns to the ground not waste, not trash, not poison, but decaying matter: death preparing to convert itself to life, a cycle of death and resurrection, Good Friday and Easter, on and on and on, the pattern by which we live and without which we don’t. This is true wealth management. You build soil and secure a sufficiency of goods only if you live by nature’s principle of return. Nature may abhor a vacuum cleaner, its parts refusing to decay in a land fill, but she delights in compost.

Thomas Hobbes, one of the chief architects of the modern world, complained that the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Unless we do a better job of respecting limits and of understanding what wealth really is and where it really comes from, our complaints could easily out-Hobbes Hobbes’s. Nature is remarkably resilient, and her wounds often heal. But, as Emerson said, she pardons no mistakes.

1 thought on “Real wealth and rotting matter”

  1. James Stergios says:

    Beware of articles wherein the author calls out people as silly, but especially when there is little to sustain his argument expect assertions without evidence.

    I say this as an avid environmentalist. Our probable alignment in terms of sustaining our environment is what makes this article’s argument so aggravating.

    The author’s desire to write something for himself (that is, a desire marked by underestimation of the worldview of his supposed opponents) is evident in his misuse of Thomas Hobbes. When Hobbes noted that “the life of man” is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” he was talking about men in a state of war – “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe.” The quote applies in a state of war “of every man, against every man,” a state in which “nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.”

    The author’s argument is as old as Thomas Robert Malthus. In his “Essay on the Principle of Population as it affects the Future Improvement of Society,” Malthus suggested that arithmetically, because of human fertility and family structure, our appetites would always outpace our ability to feed ourselves. Even the author, who does his best to dress up his argument in environmental economics, recognizes his polemical forebear by pointing to the economics of land as the basis of his argument.

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