Pondering the Nexus of Nature, Politics and Affection

            I have commented in this column on the implications of the challenge of alterity for democracy and occasionally, too, I have remarked on the role of imagination both in defining community and for leadership. Now comes an opportunity to reflect on both of these themes at once. It is occasioned by the delivery of the prestigious 41st Thomas Jefferson lecture in the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities last Monday evening by the eminent and irrepressible writer, thinker and rural philosopher, Wendell Berry.

            The plain-spoken 77-year-old Kentuckian chose as his theme the ongoing destruction and degradation of the human landscape by our modern corporate economic engine. Berry pulls no punches and lays blame squarely at the feet of the nation’s capitalist leaders who, he argues, have lost all capacity to consider anything but their profits as they employ the nation’s (and globe’s) resources. Unlike some, I do not in fact, doubt the ongoing degradation of the nation’s and the world’s ecology, but rather than seek to fix blame on this or that party in this essay, I want instead here to describe a concept Berry raised in his lecture and examine its political implications. Berry argued for an imaginary of shared aspiration in which Nature is not treated as an “other,” to be “used” as humans see fit, but as an integral stakeholder in all political action. The glue that occasions this turn for the author is “affection,” while in this column I have often used the construct of imaginary and empathetic imagination to point up a similar idea.

Berry ties his idea of affection to imagination. As he put it in his lecture:

The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. … To imagine … is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. … It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. (http://www.neh.gov/about/awards/jefferson-lecture/wendell-e-berry-lecture)

            For Berry, affection arises from a shared imagination of place rooted in a love for that home that grows daily and through time with family and community interactions born in that space. Place includes one’s barn, house and other outbuildings (in Berry’s case), but also notably, the land—indeed, most critically the land or space—of which they are a part. One cannot and should not imagine oneself apart from the land and, more generally, apart from Nature. Nature is not the handmaiden of human desire and cannot be employed and ravaged as people might wish in the moment (whether understood as the time it takes to spoil a river with chemical plant effluents or the longer time span it requires to reshape a landscape to acquire its coal via mountaintop removal), not only for the obvious reasons that such choices can despoil the very environment on which those individuals depend for survival, but more deeply, because Nature itself should be considered an important stakeholder in all human action. We cannot escape the fact we live with and within Nature. That reality should shape how we behave in Berry’s view. More generally, it should create in human beings a positive affection for their environment undergirded by an ongoing imaginary that unites Humankind and Nature in daily life.

            Were it broadly accepted, this sort of community imaginary would have enormous implications for our politics as it would undo any claims-making that the environment should be sacrificed per se in favor of human desires of the moment, since Nature would not be regarded as an “other” in our politics and communities, but as an integral part of “us” as we consider choices. We would not have political candidates contending we should sacrifice the environment in favor of this or that immediate objective because the citizenry would literally look at them collectively as if they were severely off balance. In lieu of such false dichotomous claims to sacrifice an “othered” Nature, our political imaginary would instead include weighing the costs (and benefits presumably) of all of our choices for our environment and for us as one unified entity. In Berry’s terms, our shared affection for the place and space in which we live our lives, whatever that may be, would underpin this sea change in perspective. The essayist’s vision is not utopian, but it would have a dramatic effect on the character and distributive consequences, near-term and long-term, of our political process. In any case, our politics would likely be much healthier and more prudential were we to become a more “affection-centered” society in Berry’s terms, both outcomes to be pursued and celebrated strongly.