Wendell Berry on Climate Change: To Save the Future, Live in the Present

In this selection from his new book, the poet and farmer Wendell Berry connects the dangers of the future to a failure to live fully in the here and now.

Wendell Berry. Photo by Guy Mendes.

Editor’s note: This excerpt consists of two parts. The first was written in 2013 and the second in 2014.

I. [2013]

So far as I am concerned, the future has no narrative. The future does not exist until it has become the past. To a very limited extent, prediction has worked. The sun, so far, has set and risen as we have expected it to do. And the world, I suppose, will predictably end, but all of its predicted deadlines, so far, have been wrong.

The End of Something—history, the novel, Christianity, the human race, the world—has long been an irresistible subject. Many of the things predicted to end have so far continued, evidently to the embarrassment of none of the predictors. The future has been equally, and relatedly, an irresistible subject. How can so many people of certified intelligence have written so many pages on a subject about which nobody knows anything? Perhaps we need a book— in case we don’t already have one—on the end of the future.

None of us knows the future. Fairly predictably, we are going to be surprised by it. That is why “Take...no thought for the morrow...” is such excellent advice. Taking thought for the morrow is, fairly predictably, a waste of time.

I have noticed, for example, that most of the bad possibilities I have worried about have never happened. And so I have taken care to worry about all the bad possibilities. I could think of, in order to keep them from happening. Some of my scientific friends will call this a superstition, but if I did not forestall so many calamities, who did? However, after so much good work, even I must concede that by taking thought for the morrow we have invested, and wasted, a lot of effort in preparing for morrows that never came. Also by taking thought for the morrow we repeatedly burden today with undoing the damage and waste of false expectations—and so delaying our confrontation with the actuality that today has brought.

If using less energy would be a good idea for the future, that is because it is a good idea.

The question, of course, will come: If we take no thought for the morrow, how will we be prepared for the morrow?

I am not an accredited interpreter of Scripture, but taking thought for the morrow is a waste of time, I believe, because all we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today.

The passage continues: “for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” The evil of the day, as we know, enters into it from the past. And so the first right thing we must do today is to take thought of our history. We must act daily as critics of history so as to prevent, so far as we can, the evils of yesterday from infecting today.

Another right thing we must do today is to appreciate the day itself and all that is good in it. This also is sound biblical advice, but good sense and good manners tell us the same. To fail to enjoy the good things that are enjoyable is impoverishing and ungrateful.

The one other right thing we must do today is to provide against want. Here the difference between “prediction” and “provision” is crucial. To predict is to foretell, as if we know what is going to happen. Prediction often applies to unprecedented events: human-caused climate change, the end of the world, etc. Prediction is “futurology.” To provide, literally, is to see ahead. But in common usage it is to look ahead. Our ordinary, daily understanding seems to have accepted long ago that our capacity to see ahead is feeble. The sense of “provision” and “providing” comes from the past, and is informed by precedent.

All we can do to prepare rightly for tomorrow is to do the right thing today.

Provision informs us that on a critical day—St. Patrick’s Day, or in a certain phase of the moon, or when the time has come and the ground is ready—the right thing to do is plant potatoes. We don’t do this because we have predicted a bountiful harvest; history warns us against that. We plant potatoes because history informs us that hunger is possible, and we must do what we can to provide against it. We know from the past only that, if we plant potatoes today, the harvest might be bountiful, but we can’t be sure, and so provision requires us to think today also of a diversity of food crops.

What we must not do in our efforts of provision is to waste or permanently destroy anything of value. History informs us that the things we waste or destroy today may be needed on the morrow. This obviously prohibits the “creative destruction” of the industrialists and industrial economists, who think that evil is permissible today for the sake of greater good tomorrow. There is no rational argument for compromise with soil erosion or toxic pollution.

For me—and most people are like me in this respect—“climate change” is an issue of faith; I must either trust or distrust the scientific experts who predict the future of the climate. I know from my experience, from the memories of my elders, from certain features of my home landscape, from reading history, that over the last 150 years or so the weather has changed and is changing. I know without doubt that to change is the nature of weather.

Just so, I know from as many reasons that the alleged causes of climate change—waste and pollution—are wrong. The right thing to do today, as always, is to stop, or start stopping, our habit of wasting and poisoning the good and beautiful things of the world, which once were called “divine gifts” and now are called “natural resources.” I always suppose that experts may be wrong. But even if they are wrong about the alleged human causes of climate change, we have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by trusting them.

Even so, we are not dummies, and we can see that for all of us to stop, or start stopping, our waste and destruction today would be difficult. And so we chase our thoughts off into the morrow where we can resign ourselves to “the end of life as we know it” and come to rest, or start devising heroic methods and technologies for coping with a changed climate. The technologies will help, if not us, then the corporations that will sell them to us at a profit.

I have let the preceding paragraph rest for two days to see if I think it is fair. I think it is fair. As evidence, I will mention only that, while the theme of climate change grows ever more famous and fearful, land abuse is growing worse, noticed by almost nobody.

Maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly in it.

A steady stream of poisons is flowing from our croplands into the air and water. The land itself continues to flow or blow away, and in some places erosion is getting worse. High grain prices are now pushing soybeans and corn onto more and more sloping land, and “no-till” technology does not prevent erosion on continuously cropped grainfields.

Climate change, supposedly, is recent. It is apocalyptic, “big news,” and the certified smart people all are talking about it, thinking about it, getting ready to deal with it in the future.

Land abuse, by contrast, is ancient as well as contemporary. There is nothing futurological about it. It has been happening a long time, it is still happening, and it is getting worse. Most people have not heard of it. Most people would not know it if they saw it.

The laws for conservation of land in use were set forth by Sir Albert Howard in the middle of the last century. They were nature’s laws, he said, and he was right. Those laws are the basis of the 50-Year Farm Bill, which outlines a program of work that can be started now, which would help with climate change, but which needs to be done anyhow. Millions of environmentalists and wilderness preservers are dependably worried about climate change. But they are not conversant with nature’s laws, they know and care nothing about land use, and they have never heard of Albert Howard or the 50-Year Farm Bill.

II. [2014]

If we understand that Nature can be an economic asset, a help and ally, to those who obey her laws, then we can see that she can help us now. There is work to do now that will make us her friends, and we will worry less about the future. We can begin backing out of the future into the present, where we are alive, where we belong. To the extent that we have moved out of the future, we also have moved out of “the environment” into the actual places where we actually are living.

If, on the contrary, we have our minds set in the future, where we are sure that climate change is going to play hell with the environment, we have entered into a convergence of abstractions that makes it difficult to think or do anything in particular. If we think the future damage of climate change to the environment is a big problem only solvable by a big solution, then thinking or doing something in particular becomes more difficult, perhaps impossible.

It is true that changes in governmental policy, if the changes were made according to the right principles, would have to be rated as big solutions. Such big solutions surely would help, and a number of times I have tramped the streets to promote them, but just as surely they would fail if not accompanied by small solutions. And here we come to the reassuring difference between changes in policy and changes in principle. The needed policy changes, though addressed to present evils, wait upon the future, and so are presently nonexistent. But changes in principle can be made now, by so few as just one of us. Changes in principle, carried into practice, are necessarily small changes made at home by one of us or a few of us. Innumerable small solutions emerge as the changed principles are adapted to unique lives in unique small places. Such small solutions do not wait upon the future. Insofar as they are possible now, exist now, are actual and exemplary now, they give hope. Hope, I concede, is for the future. Our nature seems to require us to hope that our life and the world’s life will continue into the future. Even so, the future offers no validation of this hope. That validation is to be found only in the knowledge, the history, the good work, and the good examples that are now at hand.

We must act daily as critics of history so as to prevent, so far as we can, the evils of yesterday from infecting today.

There is in fact much at hand and in reach that is good, useful, encouraging, and full of promise, although we seem less and less inclined to attend to or value what is at hand. We are always ready to set aside our present life, even our present happiness, to peruse the menu of future exterminations. If the future is threatened by the present, which it undoubtedly is, then the present is more threatened, and often is annihilated, by the future. “Oh, oh, oh,” cry the funerary experts, looking ahead through their black veils. “Life as we know it soon will end. If the governments don’t stop us, we’re going to destroy the world. The time is coming when we will have to do something to save the world. The time is coming when it will be too late to save the world. Oh, oh, oh.” If that is the way our minds are afflicted, we and our world are dead already. The present is going by and we are not in it. Maybe when the present is past, we will enjoy sitting in dark rooms and looking at pictures of it, even as the present keeps arriving in our absence.

Or maybe we could give up saving the world and start to live savingly in it. If using less energy would be a good idea for the future, that is because it is a good idea. The government could enforce such a saving by rationing fuels, citing the many good reasons, as it did during World War II. If the government should do something so sensible, I would respect it much more than I do. But to wish for good sense from the government only displaces good sense into the future, where it is of no use to anybody and is soon overcome by prophesies of doom. On the contrary, so few as just one of us can save energy right now by self-control, careful thought, and remembering the lost virtue of frugality. Spending less, burning less, traveling less may be a relief. A cooler, slower life may make us happier, more present to ourselves, and to others who need us to be present. Because of such rewards, a large problem may be effectively addressed by the many small solutions that, after all, are necessary, no matter what the government might do. The government might even do the right thing at last by imitating the people.

In this essay and elsewhere, I have advocated for the 50-Year Farm Bill, another big solution I am doing my best to promote, but not because it will be good in or for the future. I am for it because it is good now, according to present understanding of present needs. I know that it is good now because its principles are now satisfactorily practiced by many (though not nearly enough) farmers. Only the present good is good. It is the presence of good—good work, good thoughts, good acts, good places—by which we know that the present does not have to be a nightmare of the future. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand” because, if not at hand, it is nowhere.

Copyright © 2015 by Wendell Berry, from Our Only World. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.