The Two Economies

Wendell-Berry“How long does it take to make the woods?
As long as it takes to make the world.”

The wise words of Wendell Berry from his collection of poems, “A Timbered Choir,” helping us understand the world we see, which is his gift to everyone everywhere.

Several times this week I have been in conversations with people where eventually we have come to Berry. Called “the most prophetic voice in American literature,” he has written widely and wonderfully. More often than not we have talked about an essay, “Two Economies,” where he sets forth a vision of life in the world where all of us live, whether we choose to or not, whether we like it or not, whether we believe in it or not.

Very simply, he argues that there are always lesser economies and a greater economy; the former make up metrics according to their hopes and skills—the city of Denver, the state of Colorado, the nation of the United States, are examples of lesser economies –while the latter is the world that is really there, whether we want it or not. Eventually the lesser economies have to play in the world that is there, the world of the greater economy– or face the consequences of the disconnect between their beliefs about the world, and the reality of the world. Think the Chesapeake Bay and its crabs, Detroit and its cars, or Wall Street and its subprime mortgages.

This is as true for individuals as it is for institutions. A person cannot eat ten Krispy Kreme donuts per day over the course of ten years without there being consequences, just like a person cannot eat Five Guys hamburgers into one’s twenties without there being consequences for the years that follow. The same principle is true across life. Simply because we want does not make the “want” good for us, or the world around. Our desires must be educated, nourished to love what is worth loving.

I have young friends who are bringing into being a business called TreeHouse, and they see Berry’s essay as foundational to their vision and practice. Gifted and serious, they have worked their tails off to create a company that is committed to responsible stewardship of our resources. It is not philanthropy; instead they have envisioned a more complex bottom line. We talked this week again about Berry, and what his vision means for theirs. Their tagline is “Smart Building, Better Living,” and coming to the end of their first month of business in their flagship store in Austin, TX, they are living into both their dream and the reality of the marketplace—remembering the weight of the words in “Two Economies.”

I have another friend who has been in Israel for the last ten days, and will return this weekend. The Telos Group lives for a just peace in the Middle East, believing that there will be no peace without justice for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. And so they argue the very unpopular vision that both histories and both hopes must be honored. Almost no one sees it that way. Over the years he and I have talked about the “two economies” essay many times, understanding it to have political meaning as well. The Israeli people or the Palestinian people can imagine whatever they want—we will do this! –but at the end of the day history is watching, and the reality of the greater economy is waiting. Unless justice is done, there will only be yet another day of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” – and of course not even a hint of honest peace.

One evening this week I talked with Berry, and along the way said to him, “If all you are saying to us are nice ideas for nice people who live in nice places, then it isn’t enough. But if your vision is true, then that changes everything. Our challenge then is to work out its implications where we are and in what we are doing.” I believe that with all that I am.

Whether we are building bodies, building businesses or building nations, our flourishing depends upon finding coherence between what we want and what is worth wanting, between what we love and what is worth loving—between our desires and reality itself.

Dr. Steven Garber is Founder and Principal of the Washington Institute and author of The Fabric of Faithfulness.

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