Tim DeChristopher and Wendell Berry sat down for a conversation last summer that’s available from Orion Magazine. I’m excerpting portions of that conversation below to give a shorter sense of it, but it’s worth reading in its fullness:
WB: In 1965, my friend Gurney Norman gave me my first look at a strip-mining operation. That’s nearly fifty-five years ago, isn’t it? So there I stood on the mountain behind Hardburly, Kentucky, and I saw the bulldozer go in on a wooded mountainside, and throw loose the whole surface of the world. I found that hard to bear. That brought me to something like defeat. How could a human being do that? How could anybody take a machine and destroy the world with it?
As often in my life, I got a book just when I needed it. A friend sent me Georges Bernanos’s Last Essays from the years just after World War II. What disturbed him was not the military humiliation of his country, of France. And he was not appeased or heartened by the Allied victory. What most impressed him, and deeply, deeply disturbed him, was the emergence out of that war of what he called “machine civilization.” He anticipated that the machine would make humankind over in its image.
TD: This is what Bill [McKibben]’s talking about in Falter — we have reached a new level of that.
WB: We’re always at a new level of that. Hitler and Hiroshima reached a new level of that. If humankind can make a weapon, a machine that can destroy not only all the other machines, but us too — I don’t see how climate change can ante up any higher than that.
TD: The level of machine control of human beings now is not bigger than that, it’s not a bigger, more catastrophic, explosive end, but it’s more insidious in so many ways. We’re not just blowing things apart; we’re changing our own DNA in a way that makes human existence meaningless.
WB: I don’t think humans have any power over meaning. Meaning is given to us. We can’t make meaning.
TD: I don’t agree with that. We make meaning all the time.
WB: The ability of humans even to discover meaning is very limited. They counterfeit meaning all the time. …
TD: What is localism’s answer to refugees? To those whose homeland is not livable anymore? Whether that place is underwater, has turned to desert, was destroyed by American imperialism and our desire for more resources?
WB: You’ve won this argument. The argument for despair is impenetrable, it’s invulnerable. You got all the cards. You got the statistics, the science, the projections on your side. But then we’re still just sitting here with our hands hanging down, not doing anything.
One of the characteristics of the machine civilization is determinism. You’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you there’s nothing you can do, it’s inevitable. You can’t make an organization to refute that; you’ve got to do it yourself. You’ve got to cleanse that mess out of your heart. Among our own people, the only communities who’ve done that have been the Amish. Their communities have survived. We were living very much like them when I was a boy here… This county here was full of self-employed people, full of people who were living without bosses. There were a lot more people going to church here then than now, and I’m sure they were all hearing, from time to time, Jesus’s two laws: love God and love your neighbor. And the difference between us and the Amish is that they took that law as an economic imperative. If you love your neighbor, you can’t replace your neighbor with a machine. And that so far has worked for them. But the key to it is love. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to like your neighbor. It means that you know what the commitment to love requires of you, and you’re going to keep the commitment. …
WB: … I got a letter from a woman, she talked about self-creation and autonomy. She wanted to know why her relative gave up his job and went home to help his dad farm. I suggested that they might have loved each other. That they might have loved their ranch. But then I said, “You were born into dependence and you’re going to die in it.”
TD: There’s been such a cultural trend that that father who said, Come home, I need you — to even say that is an expression of failure. To need other people is increasingly defined as failure, when that’s the fabric that holds us together. It’s such a gift for that son, to be needed.