Wendell Berry on Mephistophilis, Limitless Animals, and the End of Cheap Oil

Yesterday, the discussion on my post last week on the rhetoric of environmentalism got a little heated. I was accused in the comments thread of proposing two conflicting ideas. I don’t think that’s true, and I’m not going to go back to the post and nitpick over my own rhetoric; I’ll let it stand on its own. Oddly enough though, last night I read novelist Wendell Berry’s essay “Faustian Economics” in the latest issue of Harper’s. Berry’s piece is simply beautiful and beautifully simple, and certainly the best essay I’ve read in a number of years. He discusses our propensity toward the illusion that we are “limitless animals,” reveals the etymological connection between free and friend, points out that we are in an “economy of community destruction” (not all of us unwittingly), and proposes that, “in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.”” For Berry, this is a good thing. Again, the essay is awfully compelling, and he makes a much more solid case for what I was trying to say in my previous post: existence costs.

Berry’s introduction:

The general reaction to the apparent end of the era of cheap fossil fuel, as to other readily forseeable curtailments, has been to delay any sort of reckoning. The strategies of delay have been a sort of willed oblivion, or visions of large profits to the manufacturers of such “biofuels” as ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or the familiar unscientific faith that “science will find an answer.” The dominant response, in short, is a dogged belief that what we call the American Way of Life will prove somehow indestructible. We will keep on consuming, spending, wasting, and driving, as before, at any cost to anything and everybody but ourselves.

This belief was always indefensible–the real names of global warming are Waste and Greed–and by now it is manifestly foolish. But foolishness on this scale looks disturbingly like a sort of national insanity. We seem to have come to a collective delusion of grandeur, insisting that all of us are “free” to be as conspicuously greedy and wasteful as the most corrupt of kings and queens. (Perhaps by devoting more and more of our already abused cropland to fuel production we will at last cure ourselves of obesity and become fashionably skeletal, hungry, but–thank God!–still driving.