Book Review: Our Only World

Our Only World:  Ten Essays, by Wendell Berry

Ultimately, I did not like this book, although its ten essays are less than 200 pages in total so this book is mercifully short.  The reason I disliked the book so much was the way the author was unaware of how contradictory his worldview was in his failure to see sin as a type of the pollution he hates so much [1].  On the one hand, the author writes with a great deal of the moral outrage of the progressive environmentalist who decries the physical and economic destruction of small town and rural America in the desire to exploit resources without thought to the well-being of life in the area.  On the other hand, the author shows a knee-jerk hostility to law and regulation in general, to the point where he shows no respect for the biblical power of the sword given to civil leaders to execute judgment on the unworthy, a power used by Abraham Lincoln with rare skill, nor does he show any genuine interest in the relationship of law and the moral failings of contemporary society with regards to personal morality.  The author, then, recognizes at least part of the problem, but has no understanding of the whole aspects of the problem and their relationship to the internalization of moral law, ironically making him like the politicians of the right and left whom he despises for their inability to see the whole.  Pot, meet kettle.

The contents of the ten essays that make up this book are both somewhat varied and also somewhat repetitive, as the author often returns to the same points over and over again believing that simply saying something many times makes it so.  The first essay contains paragraphs from a notebook that have all of the depth and nuance of the twitter posts of a political activist.  The second essay talks about the commerce of violence, one of several pieces that bemoan the conflict in our world.  The third essay is a long and rambling discussion about the proper way to manage forests the way one would manage a herd, and is one of the better essays in the collection.  The fourth essay is a call to action for the development of local economies to save the land and the people, in stark contrast to the way rural America is treated at present.  The fifth essay posits that less energy will lead to more life, a reminder of the scarcity mentality present among many progressives.  The sixth essay tries to position the author, vainly, as someone who is caught in the middle between two extremes rather than what he is, a progressive wolf in agrarian sheep’s clothing.  The seventh essay is a terrible and political piece about receiving one of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes, which is short at least.  The eighth essay reflects on the deserted countryside that could use some wise stewards looking over its creeks and rivers.  The ninth essay is in favor of the 50-year farm bill, while the last essay attempts a complex view of a narrative of the future, pointing out that we can only prepare for the future by overcoming the past and making provision for what may come as best as we are able.

This book was not a total waste.  Besides being short, the author’s genuine praise and affection for small family farms like those my family ran for so long and for the measured and sustainable pace of small-town and rural life is something to appreciate.  The author, likewise, points correctly to the way that biblical morality views violence against nature and a lack of concern for the well-being of the vulnerable as abominable, in addition to other abominable things that bother the author far less.  Yet the author manages to combine several irritating tendencies like the self-righteousness hostility towards capitalism of environmentalist progressives, the lack of moral virtue and knee-jerk hostility to government of libertarians, and a total inability to see the contradictions of his moral worldview.  The only way that his viewpoint would be able to become more predominant in our society is if God’s laws and God’s ways were internalized by people so that there could be less regulation and less government.  Yet the author has no particular desire to encourage this development within our society, only to complain about the barrenness of contemporary rural American life.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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