Wendell Berry: How to Love a Neighbor in the Anthropocene: Christian Faithfulness Via the Unsettling Agrarianism


Stephen Mitchell

Article ID:



Apr 2, 2024


Sep 13, 2023

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​In the not too distant future, an interdisciplinary group of scientists, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), may conclude that Earth has come into a new geological age.1 If they do so, they will name this age the Anthropocene, described by Paul J. Crutzen in the journal Nature as a “human-dominated, geological epoch….[in which human actions represent] ‘a new telluric force which in power and universality may be compared to the greater forces of earth.’”2 Although final arguments are yet to conclude and important counter-perspectives remain, this particular group seems ready to designate the Anthropocene as beginning between 1950 and 1954.3 Crutzen concludes that “A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene.”4 That a scientist would call for scientific guidance in circumstances as punishing as those we now face is no surprise. Such guidance is essential if we wish to grapple responsibly with the growing influence of humans upon Earth’s systems.

A Strong and Consistent Ought

The problems we face are not, however, only scientific. They are also moral because they invoke questions not simply of what can be done, but of what ought and ought not to be done on this Earth. Besides, the human influence that marks the modern world has been enacted with advanced technologies, meaning scientists and engineers per se are themselves at least partly responsible for the very problems Crutzen wishes them to guide us through. Scientists have given us nuclear medicine, nuclear power, and nuclear bombs — the first a clear good, the second equivocal in the waste that it produces, the third a potential horror. Oppenheimer was, after all, a world-class physicist. We need, therefore, not only scientific but also moral guidance. And because no one can, properly speaking, be an ethical expert, we need the best of our religious and moral traditions to help us navigate our influence on our world. Fortunately, the Christian tradition offers needed wisdom for our decisions, good news for one who believes (as I do) that we belie our faith when we plunder and pollute our planet.

In this vein, the farmer-writer Wendell Berry offers a strong and consistent voice. His corpus conveys a profound moral vision: an articulate, clear-eyed agrarianism grounded upon personal experience, historical research, and a biblical understanding of creation stewardship. Berry elaborates agrarianism as follows:

dependence of the human economy — like human life, like all life — upon the natural world….[the conviction] that land in human use must be used well, must be well loved and cared for, not wasted or degraded in any way….[that we] not scorn or hold in contempt the work of the body and the hands — the arts, the skills, the knowledge, the passion and patience and devotion — required by the best use and care of the land.5

Berry’s agrarian ethic makes the care of people dependent upon the care of land, challenging thereby the technologically oriented economy within which most of us now live and work.

Born in 1934, Berry spent his childhood in an agrarian community that was changing but not yet wholly changed by the industrialization of American agriculture. By way of grandparents and community elders, his personal knowledge of American history reaches back as far as the Civil War. Further enriched by his own experience, Berry renders the life of rural communities — real and fictional — both before and after the post-WWII industrial boom, evincing special concern for the effects of the modern consumer economy upon such places as Port Royal, Kentucky, the small farming community where he has lived his life. This capacity to straddle two epochs gives Berry a perspective unusual in our time, allowing him to cast a critical eye upon the values, the habits, and the economics of the industrialized world. He does so by describing ways of life that preceded this shift and by articulating in essays, novels, and poetry the effects upon land, people, animals, and communities of the post-war industrial shift.

In the novella Remembering, Andy Catlett (Berry’s alter ego) reproaches a panel of scientists gathered to present papers on American agriculture, accusing them of moral myopia.

We’ve been sitting here this morning, hearing about the American food system and the American food producer, the free market, quantimetric models, pre-inputs, inputs, and outputs, about the matrix of coefficients of endogenous variables, about epistemology and parameters — while actual fields and farmers and actual human lives are being damaged. The damage has been going on a long time. The fifteen million people who have left farms since 1950 left because of damage. There was pain in that departure, not shown in any of the figures we have seen. Not felt in this room. And the pain and the damage began a long time before 1950.6 (emphasis added)

Like Andy Catlett, Berry is frustrated by the callous way rural people are treated by academics and bureaucrats. From the ground of his own small farm, he casts a critical eye upon the modern economy, finding it void of wisdom or virtue. For example, in his non-fiction work The Unsettling of America, he notes,

if [the agricultural specialist] puts a machine into the field to ‘save labor,’ he does not ask the fate of the replaced people. He is working ‘in the future,’ which puts him at liberty simply to leave out whatever is displaced or whatever does not work. That is why there are no more people in these scenes of future farms than in the landscape photographs of conservation magazines; neither the agricultural specialist nor the conservation specialist has any idea where people belong in the order of things.7

Drawing from a Very Deep Well

Although Berry’s ire here burns hot, his critique of technologists who carelessly displace people is informed by more than mere anger. He deepens it by appeal to the classical Western tradition in both its Greek and Christian streams, taking Homer, Virgil, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, and Milton as moral guides.8

Berry’s work, in fact, aligns closely with the biblical prophetic tradition, which subjects to fierce moral questioning the habits and allegiances that professed God-fearers too often take for granted. Thus, as an aid to moral discernment, his writing is inimitable.9 In his essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” Berry contends, “It is hardly too much to say that most Christian organizations are as happily indifferent to the ecological, cultural, and religious implications of industrial economics as are most industrial organizations. The certified Christian seems just as likely as anyone else to join the military-industrial conspiracy to murder Creation.”10 Claiming that greed and violence drive the modern economy, Berry often portrays as vices habits we might otherwise consider morally neutral — our insatiable appetite for consumer products, the ever-expanding girth of our cities, which seem determined to swallow the surrounding countryside, converting rural land first into suburban enclaves and eventually into the urban core. In protest, Berry contends:

destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God’s gifts into His face, as if they were of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. To Dante, ‘despising Nature and her goodness’ was a violence against God. We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on earth or in the heavens above it or the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of nature but not to ruin or waste them. We have the right to use what we need but no more, which is why the Bible forbids usury and great accumulations of property.11

The religious predicament herein described is real, nor can I read his words without distress at the part I play in the desecration wreaked by our consumer economy. Thus, Berry lifts our heads, so to speak, out of the water in which we swim so that we might conceive other possibilities.

An Inconsistent Neighbor Love

Repeatedly, Berry argues that modern economic growth enacts a crass and violent disregard for what it replaces — people, communities, local economies, animals, and plants. He insists that such disregard contravenes the reverence for creation that marks the biblical tradition, implying that Christians who yield uncritically to this crass and violent economy are unfaithful to their own professed religion. Berry argues further that the Scriptures do not, in fact, place humans at the center of creation, that they do not support untrammeled use or abuse of the Earth and its resources, that the dominion mandate of Genesis 1:28 is qualified by other Scriptural passages, which state that the Earth is the Lord’s, not humanity’s, and that God Himself acts with regard for the animals — even the birds of the air and the lilies of the field.12 The upshot is that how we live implicates us in a set of virtues or vices. When we capitulate uncritically to the pressures of the modern economy, we undermine both our faith and our virtue, making difficult any meaningful witness by setting our lives at variance with our profession.

In particular, the practice of neighbor love becomes difficult, if not impossible, when we consent to displace communities of people, land, plants, and animals to fulfill our desires for ease and luxury. For Berry, the abuse of land always coincides with the abuse of people; for we live — inescapably — from the earth. “How,” he asks, “can we love our neighbors by abusing or destroying the watershed or the ecosystem or the ecosphere on which they and we mutually depend.”13 To those who object that people are wealthier, healthier, and generally better off in this new economy, Berry replies that they are begging the question, assuming the values that propel this new economy as the standard by which to judge the difference between it and the ways of life that it has replaced. His recurring example is rural Kentucky, whose economy, founded upon small family farms, supported small towns that maintained themselves relatively intact until WWII, when industrial scale farming began to undermine locally focused economies, consolidating wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. An example Berry treats at some length (though it preceded WWII) is the tobacco monopoly of James B. Duke, founder of Duke University, whose control of the tobacco market drove multitudes of farmers to destitution.14 If our economic practices result in harmful impacts on land or people, if we place human desire, undisciplined by anything transcendent, at the center of human decisions, if we build a world in which wealth is conceived strictly in monetary terms, as a measure of the luxuries one can acquire and use, then, so Berry argues, we have built an inhumane world. Though designed to flourish under our care, creation is reduced more and more to the service of our appetites unquestioned. In such a milieu, what breaks down is the practice of neighbor love.

The Land Ethic

For Berry, a neighborhood is not simply the houses, businesses, and people that inhabit a certain limited geographic space. It is the land itself and the diverse forms of life that land could support. Drawing upon Aldo Leopold’s land ethic to develop his own thinking about neighborliness, Berry, quoting Leopold, explains, “The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively, the land.”15 He portrays this ethic in the fictional character Old Jack, whose struggle to farm his land well results in his becoming, by way of the art of husbandry, “the true husband of his land.”16 We ought, so Berry argues, to live in our neighborhoods, but more and more we live upon old neighborhoods that we have wiped clean as we extend the consumer-driven ways of life that derive from, reinforce, and reproduce the modern consumer economy. Like the monocrops that distinguish industrial farming, or the invasive kudzu, bamboo, and English ivy that mar landscapes of the deep south, modern economic life is — despite some surface diversity — a monoculture, extending itself over ever-widening swaths of people and places.

To love a neighbor, one must reverence that specific neighbor. For “Love,” insists Berry, “is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.”17 Thus, Berry’s work raises a troubling question: Is it possible to be a neighbor in a consumer economy? To love our neighbors we must know them, honoring their integrity, which means honoring the relationships they have established with the place in which they live. Neighbor love requires, therefore, that we not carelessly disrupt any established way of life or anything that contributes to the flourishing of a community or neighborhood already in place. It is — in this specific sense — essentially conservative, while our economy is essentially consumptive.18 “The question,” insists Berry, “that must be addressed…is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others” (emphasis in original).19

Neighbor love requires further that we acknowledge and practice mutual dependence, whereas the modern economy bends us toward independence from our neighbors and dependence upon money. As an example of such love, Berry offers the practice of mutual aid in farming communities like the one in which he was raised. Here neighbor helped neighbor with such things as planting and harvesting simply because each one needed such help. Berry’s deeper point, however, is that these people knew each other well enough — their economic and geographic lives were sufficiently intertwined — that they could yield one another significant help.

Berry admits that these communities were far from perfect. Of his own rural community, he writes:

Race prejudice, institutional and customary and personal was too much among us, and the white people were not paying it enough attention; we were not respectful enough of nature and the natural world; we were suffering a long-established separation between our economic life and our religion…and our people were still sometimes inclined to settle their differences by killing each other.20

Despite (and without excusing) such vices, Berry contends, his rural community provided a measure of economic independence from the vagaries of an industrialized consumer economy and encouraged economic interdependence among people living lives closely enough aligned to be of real aid to each other. Of course, they could also do one another real harm, of the murderous sort portrayed in Berry’s A World Lost (Counterpoint, 1996). But though such harm does not require an intact neighborhood, such help as they gave each other does.

Playing God

Whether we have entered an Anthropocene or not, we inhabit an economy marked by extraordinary indulgence of human desire; yet the Christian tradition teaches us that human desire is marred by the human propensity to play God. Furthermore, as Pope Benedict XVI observes, when humans seek to be gods, they necessarily damage their created natures as relational beings. In fact, he describes original sin as the inherited tendency to distort relationships, because the desire to determine good and evil for oneself is intrinsically selfish. This desire will brook no alternative perspective, no limitation, no mutuality. “Sin,” argues Benedict, “is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god.”21 A human trying to be a god can tolerate no equal, nor any whose claims might limit his own. Unlike the Triune God who is constituted as a relationship of mutual love, the human who tries to be like God in this ill-founded sense tries simultaneously to be autonomous.

As the desire for autonomy grows, it begets an individualism that further violates human nature. Genesis reminds us that not as male or female, but as male and female (as a relationship), God created us, granting us dominion over the Earth within the confines of His command that we keep and till it, preserving and extending in all its diversity the paradise we had been given — a dominion we hold as vassals of a suzerain God. Therefore, any act that degrades land degrades our relationship with God. Such acts also degrade people, for it is always from the ground that we live. Yet we fence ourselves off from our dependence, erecting barriers of luxury against the unflattering awareness that we come from the dirt. These barriers become walls of separation between us and our neighbors too, hiding or distracting us from our need for each other. Thus, neighborhoods proliferate wherein we know deeply few, if any, of our neighbors, with whom we share no significant practices of mutual dependence. Here is a moral and theological problem worth the attention of serious Christians, as it calls into question our faithfulness to the Scriptural imperative that we love our neighbors and steward the creation.

Unneighborly Structures and Neighbor Love

Unfortunately, I know no easy way to address this problem. We are, by now, some four generations out from WWII and thus beyond any shared memory of other ways to live upon our land. I, like my contemporaries, was raised in a consumer economy, graduating from college at the turn of the twenty-first century. Though my church and family taught me to suspect consumerism and to seek a faithful Christian life, the social patterns that Berry credits with encouraging neighbor love and care for the Earth had mostly passed away. I grew up in the new patterns of an industrial-information economy, patterns that catechized — and reduced — my understanding of how to be a neighbor. I was taught to be kind when called upon to be so; but I lived (and still live) in a milieu in which technologies work to reduce the chances that kindness will be asked for, though I have no doubt it is still needed.

Thus, I am myself enmeshed in the unneighborly structures of the contemporary world. If asked, I could not provide the names of the couple that share the right-hand wall of my townhome. Berry’s questions, therefore, trouble me: “How can [neighbors] know one another if they have…never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”22 Though I have, I think, rich and deep friendships, people who have stood with me through the vagaries of life — sickness, bereavement, losses of many kinds — our friendships are enacted almost entirely on the margins of our economic lives. We do not, generally speaking, work with or near each other; and our financial lives are almost wholly individualized, such that each would be reluctant to call upon the other to meet a significant pecuniary need; nor could most of us provide meaningful monetary assistance to a needy friend. In short, my life does not often display the virtues of neighbor love, at least not as those virtues are envisioned by Berry.

He often praises the Old Order Amish for how their habits have preserved their communities intact, strengthening them to practice neighborliness and to resist the lure of consumer economies. “The Amish,” observes Berry, “alone among the Christian denominations known to me, have understood Jesus’ second commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ as requiring a practical, economic commitment. Neighbors are to love one another by work as well as by kindness” (emphasis added).23 I do not possess sufficient knowledge of the Amish to assess their choices, but Berry writes from a lifetime of friendship with at least one such community. Perhaps their habits and patterns could provide wisdom for us who find ourselves deeply, yet uneasily, integrated with the modern world. “I can, and I do,” Berry insists, “believe in the possibility of a kinder, more loving and lasting American civilization, but I cannot imagine such a thing coming to be if it does not inherit and embody this agrarian vision of a people stably and conservingly settled upon the land.”24 We who live in cities and inherited no such vision still need rich ways to practice neighbor love toward the people, the land, the animals, and the plants — toward the whole living community — with whom we share creation.

Joyful Kinship

One hopeful example of urban kindness is Kinship Plot, a work begun by Stephanie and Wes Vander Lugt in my own city of Charlotte, North Carolina. The people of Kinship Plot believe:

humans are created for kinship with God, each other, and the other-than-human world. This kinship is not limited to blood ties and natural connections but moves us into surprising intimacies and boundary-breaking bonds. As people of Christian faith, we affirm that joyful kinship reflects a God whose very essence is kinship and who has designed the whole universe for resonant relationships and vibrant wholeness.25

To cultivate such wholeness, Kinship Plot is developing tangible practices of neighbor love in particular urban settings; for however necessary rural renewal is to those who would restore humane culture, the problems of urban alienation, problems as old as cities themselves, will not be solved by rural renewal alone. Our cities require solutions specific to them, solutions Berry does not address. Nevertheless, his work remains an important source for those who wish to develop more ecologically faithful Christian lives, in part because it prevents urbanites like me from being complacent. His incisive criticism of modern economics coupled with his care for and defense of vulnerable places troubles any shallow view of neighbor love, recalling us to a deeper sense of neighborhood and widening the scope of neighborly kindness. He reminds us just how complex, demanding, and difficult it is to love well our neighbors as ourselves.

Stephen Mitchell lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, teaching English and humanities at Covenant Day School in Matthews. He holds a PhD in humanities.


  1. See “Anthropocene Working Group Proposes Crawford Lake as GSSP Candidate Site of the Anthropocene Series,” Max Planck Institute of Geoanthropology, July 12, 2023, https://www.shh.mpg.de/2347073/anthropocene-working-group-crawford-lake-candidate-anthropocene-site.
  2. Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature, Vol. 415, January 3, 2002, 23.
  3. Raymond Zhong, “For Planet Earth, This Might Be the Start of a New Age,” New York Times, December 17, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/17/climate/anthropocene-age-geology.html; and “The Human Age Has a New Symbol. It’s a Record of Bomb Tests and Fossil Fuels,” New York Times, July 11, 2023, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/07/11/climate/anthropocene-epoch-crawford-lake.html. Note: For the purposes of my argument, the AWG need not reach this specific conclusion. I point them out because their efforts highlight the power we humans have to shape our own planet, a power that remains significant whether we have entered a new geologic age or not.
  4. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” 23.
  5. Wendell Berry, The Need to Be Whole: Patriotism and the History of Prejudice (Berkeley, CA: Shoemaker and Company, 2022), 363.
  6. Wendell Berry, Remembering: A Novel (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2008), 19–20.
  7. Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), 72.
  8. See Wendell Berry, Standing by Words (North Point, 1983); Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (Pantheon Books, 1992); and Life Is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition (Counterpoint, 2000).
  9. Editors’ note: In an often-cited interview, Berry was asked, “Why are you a Christian and not something else?” He responded, “I’m a Christian in a sense I’m uneasy to talk about. From a sectarian point of view I’m a marginal Christian. But then I’m a marginal person, I’m a marginal writer. But I do know the Bible; I’ve had the sound of the King James version in my ears and mind all my life. I was never satisfied by the Protestantism that I inherited, I think because of the dualism of soul and body, heaven and Earth, Creator and creation — a dualism so fierce at times that it counted hatred of this life and this world as a virtue….Nevertheless, I am devoted to that old translation of the Bible, and I’m devoted to the literary tradition that we call Christian….I don’t think the truth is going to turn up anywhere without a divine origin. I think if it’s true, then it’s of the party of truth and it’s allied to the truth of our tradition.” Conversations with Wendell Berry, ed. Morris Allen Grubbs (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007), 192.
  10. Wendell Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (New York: Pantheon Books, 1993), 94.
  11. Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” 98.
  12. Berry, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation,” 98; The Need to Be Whole, 158–59; cf. Jonah 4:11.
  13. Berry, The Need to Be Whole, 158–59.
  14. Berry, The Need to Be Whole, 86–87, 178–180.
  15. Aldo Leopold, “The Land Ethic,” quoted in Berry, The Need to Be Whole, “Introduction,” 9.
  16. Wendell Berry, The Memory of Old Jack (Washington, D.C: Counterpoint, 1999), 125.
  17. Wendell Berry, “Word and Flesh,” What Are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 200.
  18. Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture,” What Are People For?, 158.
  19. Berry, “Word and Flesh,” 200.
  20. Berry, The Need to Be Whole, 93.
  21. Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), ‘In the Beginning…’ A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, trans. Boniface Ramsey, O.P. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1990), 73.
  22. Berry, “The Work of Local Culture,” 157.
  23. Berry, The Need to Be Whole, 376.
  24. Berry, The Need to Be Whole, 364.
  25. “What Is Kinship?,” Kinship Plot, https://www.kinshipplot.org/about 
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