Making the decision to walk away from a sixteen year career at a major class one railroad was not easy. The “fragment of a speech” that is posted below was one of the turning points that greatly fueled my decision to leave a place that in some ways, was a place that I very much enjoyed working.
When I first heard this “fragment,” I was brainstorming for a conference that the organization Railroad Workers United was hosting in Richmond, California. As the national organizer, my task was to welcome many organizations, many that do not normally work together, to an environmental conference to find common ground on very complex issues of public safety, working conditions and labor.
The inspiration that I found from this “fragment” was a question that I had to ask myself over and over for about two years.
How complicit do I want to be?
After watching the video many times I wanted to find the book that the speech came from and couldn’t find it, So, from the YouTube video, I typed out the “speech” that Mr.Berry gave at Yale University word, by word and in the process, was deeply moved.
I later contacted Mr. Berry to ask him where I could find this “speech” in print, and sent the words that I had lifted from the YouTube video. He sent his book, Our Only World, with a note explaining that the Yale presentation was “fragments” found within the pages of the book.
The opening statement “that we are all complicit in its violence,” really was the haunting thought that fueled my decision to leave driving trains for a living behind. I found myself not wanting to participate in the destruction of Our Only World.
I found myself not wanting to drive military trains, fertilizers and GMO poisoned soybeans and corn. I found myself not wanting to haul coal, oil, fracking sand and waste. I also found myself not wanting to be exhausted mentally, and physically from the excessively long hours and harsh working conditions. And …
After the railroad that I was working for completely cut the union out of the safety conversation, I found myself not wanting to participate in a violent relationship that included a one-sided behavior based safety working environment.
I enjoyed my union work,
and the folks I worked with. I will miss the many wonderful people who I had the honor of working with for sixteen years of my life. I will in my music and poetry, continue to tell of my passion for the place I labored that is simply called the railroad! I will continue to care about what happens on the rails and will be inspired by what the railroad could be …
Since the California conference in 2015, I have twice had the opportunity to meet with Mr. Berry in his home. I have come to find myself deeply inspired by his work, deeply moved by his poetry and looking forward to a new life away from a haunting question rolling around in the back of my mind.
Below is the fragment of a speech that inspired me so deeply.
For more information about Wendell Berry go here.
The Industrial Economy From Agriculture To War – A Fragment Of A Speech
Wendell Berry – Introduction to the Yale Chubb Lecture Discussion. 12-07-2013
The industrial economy from agriculture to war is by far the most violent the world has ever known and we are all complicit in its violence. The history of industrialization has been violent from the start, as the Luddites quickly learned. The purpose of labor-saving technology has always been to cheapen work by displacing workers, thus increasing the flow of wealth from the less wealthy to the more wealthy.
It is a fact, one we have never adequately acknowledged or understood, that at the end of World War II, industry geared up to adapt the mechanical and chemical technologies of war to agriculture and other ways of using land. At the same time certain corporate and academic leaders known collectively as the committee for economic development decided that there were too many farmers.
The relatively self-sufficient producers on small farms needed to become members of the industrial labor force and consumers of industrial commodities. Reducing the number of farms and farmers became a devastatingly effective national policy.
The first problem of a drastic reduction of the land using population is to keep the land producing in the absence of the people. The committee for economic development and their allies were fully aware of this problem and they had a ready solution. The absent people would be replaced by the mechanical and chemical technologies developed for military use and subsisting upon a seemingly limitless bounty of natural resources mainly, ores and fuels.
Agriculture would become an industry. Farms would become factories like other factories ever more automated and remotely controlled. Industrial land use became a front in a war against the living world. And so with a few exceptions the free market was allowed to have its way.
Finally, nearly all of the land using population have left their family farms and their home places and moved or commuted into the cities to be industrially or professionally employed or unemployed and to be entirely dependent upon the ways and the products of industrialism.
This process of eliminating the too many farmers still continues. Nobody ever said how many were too many. Nobody ever said how many might be actually necessary. Even so, to remove the farmers from farming required of shift of interest from husbanding the fertility of the land to burning the fossil fuels with consequences so far less famous than terrifying.
But there was another problem that the population engineers did not recognize then and have not recognized yet. Agricultural production without land maintenance leads to exhaustion. Land that is in use, if the use is going to continue, must be used with care and
care is not and can never be an industrial product or an industrial result.
Care can come only from what we used to understand as the human heart – so-called because it is central to human being. The human heart is informed by the history of care and the need for care also by the heritage of skills of caring and of care-taking.
The replacement of our displaced rural families by technologies derived from warfare has involved inevitably a supposedly acceptable and generally accepted violence against land and people. By it we established an analogy between land use and war that has remained remarkably consistent ever since.
The common theme is a terrible pragmatism that grants an automatic predominance of the end over the means. The sacrifice of land and people, to the objective of victory, domination, security or profit. In oblivion or defiance of moral or natural law that may stand in the way. All of our prevalent forms of land use which is to say – land use minus care produces in addition to commercial products, massive waste and destruction.
War is politics minus neighborly love plus technological progress which makes it – ever more massively wasteful and destructive.
There is in fact no significant difference between the mass destruction of warfare and the massive destruction of industrial land abuse.
In order to mine a seam of coal in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, we destroy a mountain, its topsoil and its forest with no regard for the ecosystem or for the people downhill, downstream and later in time. The difference between explosion in the coal fields, and the erosion in the corn and soybean fields is only that erosion is slower. The end, the exhaustion of nature’s life supporting systems is the same.