Written by E. B. White, November 1942:
I am beginning to believe that our new world that will open up after the war should be constructed round a repopulated rural America, so that a reasonably large proportion of the population shall participate in the culture of the earth. … and the country should be inhabited very largely and broadly by all the people who feel at home there, because of its gift of light and air and food and security, and because it supplies a man directly, instead of indirectly. The trend toward the ownership of land by fewer and fewer individuals is, it seems to me, a disastrous thing. For when too large a proportion of the populace is supporting itself by the indirections of trade and business and commerce and art and the million schemes of men in cities, then the complexity of society is likely to become so great as to destroy its equilibrium, and it will always be out of balance in some way. But if a considerable proportion of the people are occupied wholly or partially in labors that directly supply them with many things that they want, or think they want, whether it be a sweet pea or a sour pickle, then the public poise will be a good deal harder to upset.
The idea that we should ‘participate in the culture of the earth’ finds strong support in Christian theology. The opening narrative of the Old Testament tells how mankind was given the mandate to be fruitful, to multiply, to care for the land, to be in authority over the creatures who lived there (Genesis 1:28-30).
But ever since the fall, there has been a destruction of the ‘equilibrium’ of society. It is, indeed, ‘out of balance’ in many ways and the whole of creation groans in anticipation of the promised restoration and liberation from decay (Romans 8:21-22).
One of the main imbalances occurs in the way the global village produces and consumes. The ‘village’ aspect of our society means that our choices and actions affect everyone else – we’re all neighbors in that sense. However, the global aspect means that the end results of our choices aren’t usually visible. My ‘neighbor’ doesn’t necessarily live next door to me, which makes it easier not to care about them. So some people in the village end up getting their environment destroyed while working in slave-like conditions in order to ensure that other villagers can buy cheap clothes and eat chocolate.
White’s suggestion that people become more directly involved in producing what they want to consume feels extremely relevant, even though it was written almost seventy years ago. If you make something yourself, or have a real relationship with the person who made it, a whole new perspective can be gained on ‘stuff’ and, maybe more importantly, the people who make it.
For me this has recently occurred in the form of purses made for me from old bed-skirts, seven-foot wooden crosses being constructed out of wood from a friend’s garage, and meals made from things grown in another friend’s garden. Even though I couldn’t have made all those things myself, I know the people who did make them, who made them for me. And if someone takes a few minutes, or a few hours, or even a few days to make something you need or want, it places a whole different value on that thing which can’t possibly be expressed in financial terms.
Being much more closely involved with the production process can also shape you in unexpected ways.
It’s a lot more humbling to ask for help making something, or to receive a handmade gift, than it is to go shopping in a store. It provokes gratitude and an appreciation of the value of things way beyond what they cost in money. Being dependent on the kindness of others, even to the smallest degree, really heightens your awareness of grace.
Positioning ourselves to become more closely involved in making what we want to consume will take a great committment in terms of time and effort. But it can be a good way of restoring some balance to the global community. It may also be a way we can stop taking from those who already have less than us, and instead receive with humility from those who choose to give.
Ultimately we are called to be an interdependent community, fully reliant on the kindness of God to do for us what we can never do for ourselves; fully reliant on each other to be mediators of that grace to the earth and all who live in it.