Essays chart disintegration of our society, environment

January 09, 1994|By Ann Egerton

Title: "Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community"

Author: Wendell Berry

Publisher: Pantheon

Length, price: 173 pages, $20 In these eight essays, Wendell Berry -- novelist, poet and essayist, teacher and farmer -- reveals that he is most worried about contemporary America. He believes that we have distorted and perhaps irrevocably damaged the fiber of our country, especially -- as the unwieldy title suggests -- our notions and conduct of sex, economy, freedom and community.

In clear, compelling prose, he denounces the multinational corporations that we have allowed to turn us into materialistic, land-raping and soulless drones. He scorns our participation in the Persian Gulf war, and he accuses Christian churches of tacit complicity with the military and economic forces that are methodically destroying the planet.

He observes that the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings high-lighted the brutalization of relations between the sexes, brutalization that the disintegration of community, trust and courtesy has made inevitable. But he holds out the hope that with fundamental, incremental changes in our behavior and in our priorities, Americans can change course.

For instance, he writes, Americans must drop their obsession with global economics and think local, local, local. After all, he asks: Would an absentee corporate employer care more about your well-being, safety and health, or would it be someone in your community?

In his advice to think and act locally, he suggests, for example, that Americans abandon a self-indulgent demand for exotic foods imported from far-away places. He is, of course, violently opposed to revisions of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), explaining that the proposed centralized control of all prices and standards in the international food economy would force more abdication of local control to corporations -- thereby further offending against democracy, freedom and individual and local self-sufficiency.

It's all connected, he explains: If we give up production and distribution of our food, we give up self-government, too.

Mr. Berry, a Kentuckian who grew up among tobacco growers, also writes a measured and rather courageous essay defending tobacco. But he writes not of the unhealthy product, but the strong community cooperation that goes into producing it, and says that we need to make it possible for farmers to choose not to grow it but to continue farming.

One beauty of growing tobacco is that it provides a good living from small acreage; it also involves much of a small community in many tasks during the year. Mr. Berry warns that "the ruin of farmers solves no problems and makes many."

Mr. Berry both stimulates and chastens the reader, but as he denounces profligate ways and the deterioration of freedom and community, something is missing. As he excoriates abuse of the land, increased sexual barbarism, the fragmentation of community, how can he not talk about population control? How can he not talk about what crowded conditions must do to the land and to a people?

The central uniting point of Mr. Berry's book is that "the root of the problem is always to be found in private life." Surely, he must know that most humans don't make selfish and destructive nTC decisions that poison and destroy the earth for the pleasure of it; we are reproducing at a speed and number that often dictate those decisions more out of confusion and desperation.

"Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community" is excellent, provocative reading as far as it goes, but it is missing a vital component that must be addressed.

Ms. Egerton is a writer who lives in Baltimore.

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