Monday, September 21, 2009

The Coming Agrarian Revival: A Footnote to Liberty Hyde Bailey's, "The Holy Earth," By Maynard Kaufman

This lecture was prepared for delivery at the Liberty Hyde Bailey Museum,
South Haven, Michigan, on March 5th, 2008, the day, which would have been Bailey’s 150th birthday.
Click on the title bar for the full text

Liberty Hyde Bailey as an Agrarian Thinker
Wendell Berry has defined the agrarian as the opposite of the industrial, and he got this directly from Liberty Hyde Bailey. In one of his early books, The Outlook to Nature published in 1905, Bailey began by emphasizing nature as the norm that should govern civilization. We now live in an industrial civilization which sees the farm, or nature, merely as a producer of raw materials. The agrarian, like Bailey, recognizes the industrial sector as being the producer of the tools needed to produce food, but the agrarian would like to see the industrial sector integrated more harmoniously with nature. Although Berry goes on to relate Bailey back to a tradition of agrarian thinkers, from the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, to Thomas Jefferson, the fact is that Bailey was a new kind of agrarian, the first environmental agrarian. Berry learned a greener kind of agrarianism from Bailey. Nature is the norm. In his book, The Holy Earth, Bailey begins with the proposition that the earth is good because God created it, and while humans were given dominion over it they have no commission to devastate: "and the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and keep it."

Reasons for Expecting an Agrarian Revival
We have indeed entered a new world since the time of Liberty Hyde Bailey. It is a world that was made possible by the burning of fossil fuels, coal, oil and natural gas. These fuels provided the energy that modern technology was able to harness, and they made possible the enormous productivity of our industrial civilization. They have also made possible a tremendous growth of population in the world: from two billion in 1930 to six billion in 1999. A large share of this population was made possible by the increased food production provided by synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. The main source of this fertilizer is natural gas. In addition, the mode of food production uses enormous quantities of oil: in trucks, farm machinery, to manufacture pesticides and fertilizer, to process food, to distribute it through wholesale and retail outlets and, increasingly, in restaurants...In the long view of history the fossil fuel era will be seen as a brief extravagance. It will be remembered, along with the industrial civilization it spawned, mainly through the pollution it left behind and through a climate much less hospitable to human life...As we learn to cooperate with nature we may recover a reverence for nature, for the Holy Earth, that would have gratified Liberty Hyde Bailey. I see the emergence of various forms of earth-centered spirituality, which had been a recessive gene in our cultural organism. One expression of this may be the kind of creation spirituality...where people worship God for the bounty provided in Creation and do not worry so much about sin and salvation.

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