By Wendell Berry
First there was Civil Rights, and then there was The War, and now it is The Environment. The first two of this sequence of causes have already risen to the top of page one of the nation's consciousness, and declined somewhat, in a remarkably short time. I mention this in order to begin with what I believe to be an altogether justifiable skepticism. For it seems to me that the Civil Rights Movement and the Peace Movement, as popular causes in the electronic age, have partaken far too much of the nature of fads. Not for all, certainly, but for too many they have been the fashionable politics of the moment. As causes they have been undertaken too much in ignorance; they have been too much simplified; they have been powered too much by impatience and guilt of conscience and short-term enthusiasm, and too little by an authentic social vision and long-term conviction and deliberation. For most people those causes have remained almost entirely abstract; there has been too little personal involvement, too much involvement in organizations which were insisting that other organizations should do what was right.
There is considerable danger that the Environment Movement will have the same nature: that it will be a public cause, served by organizations that will self-righteously criticize and condemn.,,other organizations, inflated for a while by a lot of public talk in the media, only to be replaced in its turn by another fashionable crisis. I hope that will not happen, and I believe that there are ways to keep it from happening, but I know that if this effort is carried on solely as a public cause--if millions of people cannot or will not undertake it as a private cause as well--then it is sure to happen. In five years the energy of our present concern will have petered out in a series of public gestures--an no doubt in a series of empty laws--and a great, and perhaps the last, human opportunity will have been lost.
It need not be that way. A better possibility is that the movement to preserve the environment will be seen to be, as I think it has to be, not a digression from the civil rights and peace movements, but the logical culmination of those movements. For I believe that the separation of these three problems is artificial. They have, it seems to me, the same cause, and that is the mentality of greed and exploitation. The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, that imposes on young men the tyranny of the military draft, that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology. The mentality that destroys a watershed and then panics at the threat of flood is the same mentality that gives institutionalized insult to black people and then panics at the prospect of race riots. It is the same mentality that can mount deliberate warfare against a civilian population and then express moral shock at the logical consequence of such warfare at My Lai. We would be fools, in my opinion, to believe that we could solve any one of these problems without solving the others.
To me, one of the most important aspects of the environmental movement is that it brings us not just to another public crisis, but to a crisis of the protest movement itself. For the environmental crisis should
This is the text of a speech given by poet/novelist/ professor Wendell Berry during Earth Day activities at the University of Kentucky.
make it dramatically clear, as perhaps it has not always been before, that there is no public crisis that is not also private. To most advocates of civil rights racism has seemed mostly the fault of someone else. For most advocates of peace the war has been a remote reality, and the burden of the blame has seemed to rest mostly on the government. I am certain that these crises have been more private, and that we have each suffered more from them and been more responsible for them, than has been readily apparent, but the connections have been difficult for most of us to see. Racism and militarism have been institutionalized among us for too long for our personal involvement in those evils to be easily noticeable to us. Think, for example, of all the Northerners who assumed--until black people attempted to move into their neighborhoods--that racism was a Southern phenomenon. And think how quickly--one might almost say how naturally--among some of its members the peace movement has spawned policies of deliberate provocation and violence.
13ut the environmental crisis rises closer to home. Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, every time we eat a bite of food we are suffering from it. And more important, every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy--and our economy's first principle is waste--we are causing the crisis. Nearly every one of us, nearly every day of his life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet. A protest meeting on the issue of the environment is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty. That realization ought to clear away the smog of self-righteousness that has almost conventionally hovered over these occasions, and let us see the work that is to be done.
In this crisis it is certain that every one of us has a public responsibility. We must not cease to bother the government and the other institutions, to see that they never become comfortable with easy promises. For myself, I want to say that I hope never again to go to Frankfort to present a petition to the governor on an issue so vital as that of strip mining, only to be dealt with by some ignorant functionary--as several of us were not so long ago, the governor himself being "too busy" to receive us. Next time I will go prepared to wait as long as necessary to see that the petitioners' complaints and their arguments are heard fully--and by the governor. And then I will hope to find ways to keep those complaints and arguments from being forgotten until something is done to relieve them. The time is clearly past when it was enough merely to elect our officials. I think we will have to elect them and then go and watch them and keep our hands on them, the way the coal companies do. We have made a tradition in Kentucky of putting self-servers, and worse, in charge of our vital interests. I am sick of it. And I think that one way to change it is to make Frankfort a less comfortable place. As I have said before, and intend to say again, I believe in American political principles, and I will not sit idly by and see those principles destroyed by sorry practice. I am ashamed and deeply distressed that American government should have become the chief cause of disillusionment with American principles.