Wendell Berry on Growing Appalachia’s Local Economies

At Saturday’s Growing Appalachia workshop in Prestonsburg, KFTC member, National Humanities Medal recipient and native Kentuckian Wendell Berry facilitated a conversation about both the importance of and the challenges inherent to growing strong local economies.  Berry recognized his ‘outsider’ role in the Appalachian context – Berry is a native of Henry County, KY – but stressed that he too is connected to the region, ecologically in the form of shared water resources and economically in the form of the interdependent economic system currently in place.

In speaking of bolstering local economies, Berry noted that the will and the way have to come from internal desires: “It has to come from the people here, because they love here.”  Outsiders telling people in Appalachia what to do for eons.  Berry’s message reinforced that a local economy is one that serves the needs of the local people – as opposed to an imposed economy, which most of Appalachia has had for at least the last century, that serves the needs or in many cases the wants of outsiders.  This, according to Berry’s narrative, has resulted in a system where Appalachia has paid the costs without enjoying proportional benefits.

In looking forward then, to a more just and sustainable Appalachian economy choices must be available to those participating in a local economy.  Berry quoted the West Virginia heroine Judy Bonds as saying economic choices means allowing people opportunities “to where they don’t have to destroy their own homes to live here.”

Strong, vibrant economies are, in Wendell Berry’s words, local, small-scale, highly adaptive and independent.  What is often called a– sometimes pejoratively—subsistence economy, is in Berry’s narrative the most secure life support system.  It is one where participants are able to produce much, serve each others needs, and thus eventually rely on buying little from outside.

This sphere of economic activity occurs at a more human scale, and becomes a counter to the forces Berry has labeled the ‘terrifying disease of land destruction, or rural destruction’ because the impacts, costs, benefits and profits occur within a visible frame: the community itself.

Historically, economic development efforts have dealt with the symptoms – poverty, low-income, poor health – but have yet to address the root causes or ‘disease’ itself.  Berry’s beliefs, as expressed at Growing Appalachia, convey the idea that by drawing resources locally, in a way that respects the natural assets of our land, soil, forests and waters, will produce a more vibrant, healthy and resilient economic ecosystem that caters to the needs of its participants in a way the ‘imposed’ economies are, by their very nature, unable to do.  This begins to approach a notion of ‘sustainability’—though Berry cautions against throwing the term around too frequently.  Berry notes that ‘we Americans have yet to sustain anything for very long’ though suggests that perhaps a system of local economies – with networking, trade, and overlap between local nodes when possible and necessary – could approach an idea of sustainable economic activity.

Berry recognized the challenges inherent to such a vision.  Several workshop participants inquired as to examples of such local economic growth.  Marin County, California was offered as one possible example of marrying land conservation and preservation with sustainable agricultural practices to become the backbone of the local economy.  The tremendous wealth of the region, located just outside the hubbub of the Bay Area, certainly strengthened the capacity of local communities to protect their land legally and permanently, and perhaps poses an unattainable model for Appalachian communities to follow.

But, despite the shortage of off-the-shelf examples and ideas, Berry encouraged workshop participants to take stock of their own communities and draw on their own experiences and examples.  He said “Form something in your wakefulness that is exemplary and desirable.  Then, put your faith in the example.”  It is that leading by example that will, eventually, serve as testament to those who do not agree with this approach or have not yet awakened to the need for transition.

This concept of a transition, from imposed to local economy is at once immediately pressing and profoundly challenging.  Implementing the ideas put forth by Berry and other participants will take tremendous cooperation and sustained dialogue within and among communities.  In framing that conversation, Berry reminded the group, “There is a world of difference between public dialogue and having your message on a bumper sticker.”  And in advocating for and working towards a transition to a just, sustainable economy “Our people’s responsibility is to make sense.”

The skills, stories and experiences shared at Growing Appalachia –running the gamut from how to inoculate mushrooms, to horse-drawn logging efforts; from installing solar panels to power a mobile home, to community Transition Town initiatives – sure made sense to us.

What’s working in your community’s local economy efforts?  What supports do you see a need for?

Kristin Tracz

About Kristin Tracz

Kristin Tracz served MACED’s Research and Policy team from 2009-2012 working on clean energy policy, energy efficiency programs and the Appalachian Transition Initiative. She joined MACED after finishing her Master of Environmental Management degree at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. She now lives and works in Washington, DC.