(Driven to Destruction is a series outlining how America became so dependent on the personal automobile, and how we must break this dependency if we want to create a sustainable way of life for future generations.)
Wendell Berry is a farmer and author who writes on issues of agriculture, the environment, and sustainability. In his 1997 essay "Energy in Agriculture," he blames the rise of fossil fuels for the damaging shift from family farms to industrial agriculture. He then connects this transformation in agricultural practices to the all-conmsuming oil addiction that is slowly bringing America to her knees – calling it theft from future generations:
(In the early to mid-1900′s), something was gaining speed in our country that I think will seem more and more strange as time goes on. This was a curious set of assumptions, both personal and public, about "progress." If you could get into a profession, it was assumed, then of course you must not be a farmer; if you could move to the city, then you must not stay in the country; if you could farm more profitably in the corn belt than on the mountainsides of New England, then the mountainsides of New England must not be farmed. For years this set of assumptions was rarely spoken and more rarely questioned, and yet it has been one of the most powerful social forces at work in this country in modern times.
But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them able finally to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was "cheap." But we were able to consider it "cheap" only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a "right" to as much of it as we could use. This was a "right" made solely by might.
Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not "belong" to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the "miracle" of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children. That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence.
(Berry, Wendell. "Energy and Agriculture." Bringing It To The Table, On Farming and Food. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2009.)
13 years after writing these words, I’d be curious to see if Berry would strengthen his condemnation of our energy practices. With the harsh realities of oil-fueled foreign wars, climate change, and now the BP oil spill dominating the headlines, perhaps "generational theft" is too weak of a charge. Infanticide might be the more accurate term. We are literally destroying our children’s future, and we are helpless to stop or even slow down our craving for cheap oil.
Throughout his writings, Berry advocates for sustainable, small-scale food production that greatly reduces fossil fuel consumption and does not defile the land and the people who work it. To achieve that, Berry claims, we must overcome our love affair with progress. Like a young lover who is blind to the faults of his mate, we are unable to see the damage that our progress is doing – or at least we are unable to connect the dots between our consumptive habits (which we consider a sign of progress) and the social and environmental devastation they are enabling.
In the coming weeks, as my "Driven to Destruction" series winds down, I am going to start a new series that begins with Berry’s vision of sustainable food practices. Called "Sustainability For The Rest Of Us," it will detail my own efforts to make my lifestyle less of an act of generational theft and more a process of investment in the future. This series will cover familiar topics such as local food, greening your home, and shopping responsibly. The twist, however, will be my focus on what makes achieving these things difficult for many people – family issues, financial limitations, apathetic communities, etc. Real life often gets in the way of us living the way we want to live, and I’ll be sharing my struggles and soliciting advice on how to overcome these challenges.