I was thinking back to our earlier discussion about Reinhold Niebuhr as a theo-philosopher of limits (Christian realist) when I picked up the May 2008 issue of Harper’s. It contains an article by Wendell Berry, whom some of you may know as a critic, writer, poet, and novelist. Berry has long been critical of what could be called the American way of life, but in this article he returns to the issue of limits that we were discussing earlier. Taking his cue from Christopher Marlow’s Faust, in which Mephistopheles says, “Hell hath no limits,” Berry notes that we have now arrived at a modern version of hell.
A few snippets from the article:
“Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine.
… It is this economy of community destruction that, wittingly or unwittingly, most scientists and technicians have served for the past two hundred years. These scientists and technicians have justified themselves by the proposition that they are the vanguard of progress, enlarging human knowledge and power, and thus they have romanticized both themselves and the predatory enterprises that they have served.
As a consequence, our great need now is for sciences and technologies of limits, of domesticity, of what Wes Jackson of the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, has called “homecoming.” These would be specifically human sciences and technologies, working, as the best humans have always worked, within self-imposed limits. The limits would be the accepted contexts of places, communities, and neighborhoods, both natural and human.
… perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is the knowledge that some things, though limited, are inexhaustible. For example, an ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible. A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure — in addition to its difficulties — that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.
… And so, in confronting the phenomenon of “peak oil,” we are really confronting the end of our customary delusion of “more.” Whichever way we turn, from now on, we are going to find a limit beyond which there will be no more. To hit these limits at top speed is not a rational choice. To start slowing down, with the idea of avoiding catastrophe, is a rational choice, and a viable one if we can recover the necessary political sanity. Of course it makes sense to consider alternative energy sources, provided they make sense. But we will have to re-examine the economic structures of our lives, and conform them to the tolerances and limits of our earthly places. Where there is no more, our one choice is to make the most and the best of what we have.”
Here is my question. Is this something that a politician could ever say to the American electorate and still be elected? The last time a politician told the electorate that perhaps there were limits to American wealth and the American way of life, Jimmy Carter lost the election. Since then, politicians have followed Reagan, promising that it is always morning in America. If politicians cannot acknowledge limits, then what could Niebuhr’s relevance be for the present? And what could Obama be drawing upon? -DS