Wendell Berry on Exploitation and Nurture

March 22, 2012

The earth is one of God’s gracious gifts to us, and we should not despise or abuse it.

Over the next several weeks, each Thursday, I plan to write about a Christian perspective of caring for God’s creation.

As a prelude to that, I want to share a passage from an essay by Wendell Berry that describes the difference between exploitation and nurture. For those with ears to hear, it applies not only to the care of creation, but to every aspect of sustainable Christian living—holiness, church, and relationships.

The terms exploitation and nurture . . . describe a division not only between persons but also within persons. We are all to some extent the products of an exploitive society, and it would be foolish and self-defeating to pretend that we do not bear its stamp . . .

The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not.

The standard of an exploiter is efficiency; the standard of a nurturer is care.

The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s.

Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?)

The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible.

The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order—a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to order and to mystery.

The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place.

The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, “hard facts”; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind. *

To be clear, Berry’s point is not that some people are exploiters and others are nurturers, but that we all are capable of both at different times.

What do you think? Does Berry make a valid distinction between exploitation and nurture?

* From Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America,” in The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2002), 39.

Kevin Scott

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Kevin Scott is a pastor, speaker, and author of ReCreatable: How God Heals the Brokenness of Life (Kregel, January 2014). He writes essays about sustainable Christian living, discipleship, and community.

3 responses to Wendell Berry on Exploitation and Nurture

  1. Kevin, yes, I agree with Berry’s thoughts here – and – I love that your sharing Berry with your readers.

    Bought a used copy of Wendell Berry’s collected essays at an estate sale in Nashville 11 to 12 years ago. His emphasis on the particularity of human lives and communities, and hence the need to think concretely about issues – not in vague abstraction – has shaped my approach to life in a multitude of ways. No doubt I have failed to immulate Mr. Berry’s knack for clear thinking, but I appreciate the path his writing set me on years ago.

    Here is one of my favorite Berry quotes (and it applies to religious denominations as well I think):

    “There are also no national, state, or county problems, and no national, state, or county solutions. That will-o’-the-wisp, the large-scale solution to the large-scale problem, which is so dear to governments, universities, and corporations, serves mostly to distract people from the small, private problems that they may, in fact, have the power to solve.”

    • Great quote, Charles. I absolutely agree that it applies to religious denominations. Glad to hear how Berry’s writing has shaped your life and thinking.

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