The Art of the Commonplace

by Wendell Berry

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"The Whole Horse" Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 947

Industrialism depends on the separation of people, places, and products from their histories. In this economy, people are nameless, and we do not care about where our food or commodities came from. This is why things are not made to last: we are encouraged to buy new things and not to worry about the history of our products. It is usually impossible to identify the histories of the things we buy.

There are reasons for this. If we don't know where things come from, the industrial economy does not need to be responsible or sustainable and can therefore avoid the criticisms of the conservation movement.

Many modern conservationists rely upon the nature-romanticism of the nineteenth century, but this is often extremely sentimental and not very practical. Many conservationists aim to make the economy sustainable, but they do not think of scrapping it entirely as uncorrectable.

Agrarianism, on the other hand, is a practice, a set of attitudes, and a passion. If you are raised agrarian, you know what it is, but it is rarely defined. Berry defines agrarianism as both an economy and a culture, but a culture first. It emerges from the fields, woods, streams, and soils; it is communal, local, and intimate with the soil and the animals of an area. Agrarianism is never abstract, is always local, and is a subsistence economy centered on the household.

Agrarian people understand that land must be cared for in a stable way; holdings must be passed down through generations, and the agrarian mind longs for independence and self-sufficiency. Farming in this economy fits the farm; the agrarian mind is inherently religious and does not view people as machines or the land as a resource.

Some argue that agrarianism is a “phase” that humans should have passed through in order to advance to the industrial stage. Berry argues that industrialism unchecked by agrarianism is “monstrous,” in that industrialism defies the agrarian desire to establish stable, sustainable, and local economies that are authentic and fit the farm to the farmer and the land.

The economy is being globalized. Conservatives profess to abhor big government, but this is defied by the fact that the economy is becoming more and more global. Contracts are large and international. The secondary program run by agrarian conservatives, to preserve local economies, is much smaller.

Globalization is an idea that draws in a lot of money from big investors, who would destroy local adaptation everywhere by eradicating the differences between places. But local economists wish to see the rural economies as valuable and as communities to which we have responsibilities.

Agrarianism does not propose that everybody should be a farmer or that we do not need cities. It simply insists that manufacturing enterprises should be appropriately scaled and should not cause destruction to local communities.

A global economy relies upon ignorance, in which people know nothing about each other. But a sound local economy privileges understanding. It is a healthy group of neighbors all working for the common good.

Many have argued that agrarianism is hopeless. Berry argues that a move toward agrarianism can succeed because good farmers can sell at a premium to local customers who value local knowledge. As industrial agriculture increases, its abuses become more obvious, and greater, and more difficult to hide. As consumers become aware of animal abuses by large corporations, they are more inclined to turn to small businesses. At the same time, community-supported agriculture is on the rise, as consumers demand organic food that cannot be produced by large-scale organizations.

The industrial age is one that has sought to divorce producer...

(This entire section contains 947 words.)

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from consumer. Consumers usually only see the outrages of producers when there is a loss or a threat of loss. If the conservation movement involves itself here, and builds upon this outrage, it can help to point out how many people are trying to save things of value, including small farms and small communities. There need be no conflict between these groups of people.

It is tragic that there have been conflicts between conservationists and ranchers and farmers. This conflict is resolvable. We need to study working models of farms that are working to bring “economic practice in line with ecological reality.” This is the sort of land stewardship which can make an area sustainable in the long term.

Conservationists, then, must all begin working toward models of conserving local economies as the best possible way of stewarding and protecting the land we have.


Wendell Berry questions the usefulness of the approaches that have been taken by many modern-day conservationists. For the first time in this series of essays, he defines agrarianism as he understands it: it is not the same, in his mind, as conservationism, which does not necessarily have its roots in local economies and local farming structures of community. For Berry, while the goal of modern conservationists is laudable, he feels that there are difficulties drawing from the fact that conservationists are too romantic and not sufficiently practical. In order to defeat the global economy, which is ever-expanding and seeking to eradicate the differences between communities and places, it is important that we connect with local economies and offer practical models that might show means of replacing the destructive corporate agenda of the primary global economy. In this essay, Berry is targeting those conservationists who are broadly in support of his ideals by seeking to explain in more explicit terms what agrarianism is and how those who were not brought up within it can be inducted into its ideas. For Berry, the utmost importance is evidently placed on establishing alliances between the varying groups who would oppose the destructive and capitalist global economy.


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