Friday, 5 February 2010

Sustainability: A Matter of Prepositions?

I'm reading excerpts from Wendell Berry's The Unsettling of America and delighting in it. I've been hearing his name for sometime now but this is the first I've actually read of him. I'm not writing to sing his praises so much as explore an idea that came to me while reading chapter four, "The Agricultural Crisis as a Crisis of Culture". He writes, "The farms were generally small. They were farmed by families who lived not only upon them, but within and from them."

The difference is made with prepositions: upon, within and from. With regard to living and the land, off is a commonly used preposition. I think he writes that sentence with that commonly heard preposition in mind. Off suggests a distance or a separation, a removal from the object. Merriam-Webster defines it in the following ways:

1 a —used as a function word to indicate physical separation or distance from a position of rest, attachment, or union (take it off the table) (a path off the main walk)(a shop just off the main street) b : to seaward of (two miles off shore)
2 : from the possession or charge of (had his wallet stolen off him)
3 —used as a function word to indicate the object of an action (borrowed a dollar off him) (dined off oysters)
4 a —used as a function word to indicate the suspension of an occupation or activity (off duty) (off liquor) b : below the usual standard or level of (off his game)

A few of those definitions imply a taking or removal. Can that idea then be read as taking from the land? Can taking be thought of in opposition to giving; as an output without an input? Or using the land to one's own ends?

Maybe it can be most easily understood in terms of opposites. The opposite of off as being On. To live off the land is to not live on the land. I think the argument is being made that we ought to live on the land and as a result of not living on it our culture is suffering. But so long as there is gravity, we will live on the land; and so long as that's where the food grows, cars drive, buildings sit and animals (produce) roam (and we're not solely pescatarians) we will need to live in relation with the land. We need to do things to get things. We need inputs for outputs and ideally there is a balance. Land, sea, this planet, Mother Earth is not a wealthy parent with bottomless pockets that will continue to dish out whatever our greedy-hearts desire. It is a limited or closed system in which we need to mind the parameters. As greedy little children, we want everything that we want, but we also want to be houses, clothed, and maintained in a healthy way, so we need to consider that when we're asking Mother Earth drain every penny from her bank to satisfy our current whims. We need to do less living off the Earth and more living within it, within limits, within the closed system, within the realm of what is not only possible but what will do good.

This chapter and the sustainability approach suggest that we need to complicate the reigning paradigm of capitalism (economics, continuous and limitless growth) and look not value the financial bottom line at the expense of everything else. We would all benefit to create less distance between us and the Earth, Nature, food, ecology, etc. We need to view our interactions with natural resources as an exchange, not as endless resources there for the taking. We need live on the land, with the land, within the land, from the land, amongst all of the features of the land, beside it, by it, concerning, considering, following, for, into, like, near, regarding, through, via, even as the land? (Substitute land with anything: farm, water, air, or Earth.)

So, I'm thinking, is it really as simple as changing the preposition?

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