Wendell Berry and the EcoDorm


I am often struck by a story or article that I don’t have time to follow up on–at least right away.  Maybe that’s not all bad, since the transience of blog posts tends to discourage rumination and measured response.  In that spirit, I’m posting something I’ve been digesting for a fortnight.

Two issues ago, the New York Times Magazine featured a low-key and appreciative story on Warren Wilson’s new eco-friendly dorm (accessible only with on-line member ID).  The accompanying photo gallery is filled with young, self-consciously earthy students of European extraction.  They are depicted lounging in their dorm, drying clothes on a line, playing banjos and bending iron railings in their shop.  All in all, the article attempts to portray what the director of the school’s Environmental Leadership Center calls “an integration of life and values.”  They like their food home-grown, their furnishings hand-made, and their music unamplified.

The one incongruous picture, however, is the shot of an attractive young couple, lounging together in their dorm room (shown above and in the print edition, but not included in the online gallery).  The intimacy of the pose suggests a romantic relationship.  The caption informs us that the couple “met at a camp for home-schooled children when they were 14.  They share an EcoDorm room.  Two other couples cohabit in the dorm.”

The picture is notable not only because it adds little to the “integration of life and values” touted above, but because it goes so far as to contradict it.  Organic living lies cheek-to-jowl with industrial sex. Now I claim no certain knowledge of the actions of the couple in question, so I speak only at the level of structures and generalities.  However, if a college allows unmarried couples to cohabit in a dorm room, then they must at least generally presume sexual activity (once again, I make no judgment about this particular couple: for all I know, they–like St. Thomas Aquinas– experienced an “angelic girdling” resulting in their perfect chastity).  And if the dorm structurally encourages sexual activity in an atmosphere inhospitable to the rearing of children–namely, outside of marriage, in a cramped room, before a career, and amid the demands of studies–then it also structurally encourage some use of artificial contraceptives.

It could be argued at several levels that such a dorm culture, i.e., one which encourages both eco-friendly living and chemically modified sex, is inconsistent.  Most obviously, one might simply point out that common contraceptives are pollutants–responsible both for harm to wildlife and infertility among human males.  At a deeper level, the dorm policy fails to acknowledge the profound link between our body and the cosmos.  If we learn to resolve the conflict between desire and the limits of our body by artificial means, then–when push comes to shove–we will similarly resolve conflicts between desire and the limits of the natural environment.  Pope Benedict makes this point in Caritas in Veritate (noted previously here).

But Benedict has not been the only one to call for a “seamless garment” of organic attitudes.  Wendell Berry, an agrarian thinker whose “green” bona fides are beyond dispute, makes a similar analogy between respect for the earth and respect for the body.  In his essay, “The Body and the Earth,” Berry laments:

For the care or control of fertility, both that of the earth and that of our bodies, we have allowed a technology of chemicals and devices to replace the entirely cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints.  We have gathered up the immense questions that surround the coming of life into the world and reduced them to simple problems for which we have manufactured and marketed simple solutions.  An infertile woman and an infertile field both receive a dose of chemicals, at the calculated risk of undesirable consequences, and are thus equally reduced to the status of productive machines.  As for unwanted life–sperm, ova, embryos, weeds, insects, etc.–we have the same sort of remedies, for sale, of course, and characteristically popularized by advertisements that speak much of advantages but little of problems… That is only a new battle in the old war between body and soul–as if we were living in front of a chorus of the most literal fanatics chanting: ‘If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out!  If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off!’

For Berry, we are not reduced to “productive machines” because we ingest chemicals.  We are reduced to “productive machines” because we attempt to resolve deeply cultural and human problems with purely technical solutions.  It is this casualness in treating sacred things that breeds contempt for the body.  And, at the end of the day, I think that Wendell Berry (and Benedict) would see a deeply Christian instinct in the radicalism of the EcoDorm– a desire to walk with the grain of the cosmos.  He would simply call us all to apply this “organic” ethos more consistently.

12 Responses to Wendell Berry and the EcoDorm

  1. crystal says:

    I have to disagree with Berry. …

    “we have allowed a technology of chemicals and devices to replace the entirely cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints.”

    Is he against medications for illnesses too, prostheses for lost limbs, pacemakers, vaccines?

    John O’Malley’s book, What Happened at Vatican II, has most of the Council wanting the Church’s stance on birth control to be changed in favor of acceptance, and some bishops brought up the work of a Catholic physician, John Rock, one of the inventors of the pill, who’d hoped it would be accepted by the Church because it just regulated the menstral cycle.

    About 90% of estrogens in the environment come from livestock waste. Plastics, household products, cosmetics, industrial chemicals, pesticides, etc. are some other sources. The pill is a very small source.

  2. Bronwen Catherine McShea says:

    Excellent post — more people on the ‘right’ in the Church need to be open to eco-friendly ideas and solutions, and more people on the ‘green left’ so to speak need to undertand that the Church’s position on contraception is in fact much more consistent with their more cherished values.

    In response to Crystal’s comment (if I may), I believe Berry is on the whole okay with most medicinal technologies that aid, and do not harm, the human person: his point is always that technology/industrial produced chemicals/etc. should not be permitted — as they have been — to triumph over our ability as rational creatures with souls to remain connected to who we really are, to the natural, good things of Creation: a rather glaring difference between being sick and needing medicine and being fertile or being pregnant is that the latter two conditions are not *diseases*. We have permitted a great (and rather anti-human and very anti-female) attitude, that fertility (including the menstrual cycle) and pregnancy are somehow *bad* or potentially *bad* things per se, in themselves, to triumph over human reason as well as our human ability to understand that certain things in life are precious gifts that need to be guarded, protected, and, yes, morally regulated. With all due respect to many of those fathers at the Council who were waiting for the Church’s position to change, they had, in that, become overly conformed to the world’s growing acceptance of this particular lie, whatever their good intentions. I am glad, as a woman who believes fertility and pregnancy and even the unpleasant things associated with these things are good, are gifts, and not diseases, that the Holy Spirit triumphed and the Church’s teaching remained what it has always in essence been.

    The point about environmental estrogens apart from the pill is a good one: plastics, cosmetics, indutsrial chemicals, pesticides, etc. — these things too have come to dominate our lives: we are dependent upon them to a degree where we are both endangering our physical health as well as making ourselves almost entirely insensitive — aesthetically, spiritually, morally — to the beauties and wonders of the natural world, the gifts God wishes us to receive and to love with human care.

  3. Harmony says:

    While I agree with the fact that it is just a small percentage it is still a percentage. Also I think i took from the article more on the side of needless reproduction. We have strayed far from the fact of natural selection…..

  4. Karen in SC says:

    “Is he against medications for illnesses too, prostheses for lost limbs, pacemakers, vaccines?”

    But fertility is not an illness.

  5. Regina Terrae says:

    @crystal, what? Illnesses, lost limbs, etc., are not voluntary. SEX is voluntary. We’re talking about sex here. The point is that birth control replaces SELF-RESTRAINT, not that artificial hormones might occasionally be used to replace something that’s actually malfunctioning in a given woman’s body. The latter in absolutely no way cancels out the former. It’s not even relevant.

    We’ve become an impulsively self-indulgent culture.

  6. crystal says:

    I don’t think fertility or pregnancy are bad, what I think is bad is not allowing women to decide for themselves if and when they want to be pregnant.

    About natural law and contraception – Bernard Lonergan SJ has opined that contraception is no more unnatural than the rhythm method, as not every act of intercourse = conception. … both change the statistical probability of conception taking place.

    Birth control doesn’t replace restraint, it is a sign, I think, of a person taking responsibility for themselves and their actions. With all due respect, if there’s any lack of restraint, it’s in the people who don’t care about over-population and the hunger and povety and destruction of the environment that come with it.

  7. Regina Terrae says:

    Don’t even get me started on overpopulation…. It’s overconsumption in the “First World”, where birthrates are low, that’s destroying the environment and driving global economic policies that leave people hungry and poor. Birthrate is a red herring — birthrates naturally drop within a generation or two of infant mortality rates dropping.

    I’ve decided I can’t handle being pregnant right now, therefore I don’t have sex. I don’t feel that my fundamental human rights are being violated, and neither does my partner. I feel that I am exercising my fundamental human right to decide NOT to have sex when it is inappropriate.

  8. crystal says:

    Yes. birth rates are dropping in developed countries, but that doesn’t mean there are not and will not be too many people for our environment to sustain us, not to mention the toll in deforestation, pollution, loss of other species, etc.

    “In a study titled Food, Land, Population and the U.S. Economy, David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, and Mario Giampietro, senior researcher at the US National Research Institute on Food and Nutrition (INRAN), estimate the maximum U.S. population for a sustainable economy at 200 million. To achieve a sustainable economy and avert disaster, the United States must reduce its population by at least one-third, and world population will have to be reduced by two-thirds, says the study.”
    (Eating Fossil Fuels | EnergyBulletin.net

    And …

    “Another study by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) called the Global Environment Outlook [2] which involved 1,400 scientists and took five years to prepare comes to similar conclusions. It “found that human consumption had far outstripped available resources. Each person on Earth now requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the planet can supply.” It faults a failure to “respond to or recognise the magnitude of the challenges facing the people and the environment of the planet… ‘The systematic destruction of the Earth’s natural and nature-based resources has reached a point where the economic viability of economies is being challenged – and where the bill we hand to our children may prove impossible to pay’… The report’s authors say its objective is ‘not to present a dark and gloomy scenario, but an urgent call to action’. It warns that tackling the problems may affect the vested interests of powerful groups, and that the environment must be moved to the core of decision-making… ‘ ”
    (Global Environment Outlook)

    (quotes from wikipedia article)

  9. Regina Terrae says:

    It “found that human consumption had far outstripped available resources. Each person on Earth now requires a third more land to supply his or her needs than the planet can supply.”

    Begs the question … too many people, or each one consuming too much? We, we here in the developed world, we of the declining birthrates, consume WAY WAY WAY MORE THAN WE NEED. WE are the problem. Our rate of consumption per capita is the problem. We are too damn greedy. YOU and I are too damn greedy.

    This laptop I’m typing on is powered by coal. Oh yeah, I pay extra for all “green” electricity, but that just means my local coal-powered electric company sends some of my payment out west to a more creative company that is generating electricity from something that would otherwise be wasted. Around here, it’s coal. Wendell Berry has a habit of starting his speeches around the country by acknowledging that he flew on an airplane to get there, hardly sustainable.

    It’s systemic … in our economy, in our society, in our culture, we WASTE. Big-time, hugely, we live far far far beyond the earth’s means. We are not living sustainably. It’s not that there are too many people in the world. The people that there are too many of are not overconsuming, it’s WE FEW here in the shrinking (low birthrate) “rich” world who are destroying the earth with our greed.

    WE have to give something up. WE cannot have every whim satisfied without causing harm somewhere. There is not a technological solution for all that harm, that doesn’t cause its own harm. At some point, we just have to re-learn RESTRAINT. Not just as individuals, but as a culture, we have to relearn the VALUE of restraint.

    Sexual restraint went out of vogue in the 70s, but when I was a kid, conspicuous consumption was still tacky. Somewhere in the Reagan years, that changed, as we were encouraged to spend the country out of recession, and more-more-more now-now-now became not only socially acceptable, but absolutely normal.

    YUCK. Stupid. Mutually self-destructive. Makes me want to go FREECYCLE some more.

  10. bill bannon says:

    To some extent if I remember my Trevor-Roper correctly, it was two Catholic countries that made Latin America poor through an encomienda system whereby the conquistadors and their families seized the best lands in Latin America (per the written permission of Pope Nicholas V (Portuguese)1452 and Pope Alexander VI (Spanish and in 1494)) and left the dregs for the native population. Turn on Telemundo TV and you will see the process in action each day now rather than long ago. Gorgeous Spanish actors and actresses on every show making good money with hardly a short Mayan or real Bolivian in sight except in the audience. It would be nice if a Pope took time out from criticizing the “West” and told Telemundo to hire some indigenous people since these are predominantly Catholic countries involved who are supposed to be leavening the world rather than singing in their underwear…but I digress.

  11. Jenny Clarke says:

    I really enjoyed this post. I have often wondered how the environmental movement can justify ignoring the effects of artificial contraception on our bodies and the environment. We do a lot to try to be good stewards of the Earth God has given us. I have greatly appreciated Pope Benedict’s seamless leadership on this issue.

  12. Joseph Fromm says:

    Dear Aaron,

    I agree with your post about Christian messages and chastity.

    I would like to point you to a post about the Jesuit Volunteer Corp.

    Were men and women are housed under the same roof.


    It seems odd to me, I thought some who has seen this program up close could give me solid take on it.



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