Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: The Agrarian Vision by Paul Thompson [Vol. 3, #32]

A Review of

The Agrarian Vision:
Sustainability and Environmental Ethics.

(Culture of the Land Series)

Paul B. Thompson.
Hardback: U Press of KY, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

The Agrarian Vision: Sustainability and Environmental Ethics by Paul Thompson is the newest installment in the Culture of the Land series, in which Thompson narrates a long history of philosophical thought relating to agriculture, environmentalism, ethics, and most thoroughly, notions of sustainability. Along the way, the background argument is that agrarianism, as practiced and as an ideal, can underwrite and give shape to the language of sustainability, the popular meaning of which is often nebulous.

Agrarianism is directly tied to a specific place, and people, and its very embeddedness is perhaps its fundamental mark:

“[the agrarian vision] serves as an ecology of virtues, a generator of values that structures, ennobles, and gives purpose to life, not only for farmers but also for the vast majority of participants in the food system. It makes humanity’s dependence on nature and natural systems more obvious… the agrarian steward looks to nature for a sense of place, an understanding of the underlying structure that informs personal values and gives meaning to human life” (82).

For the bulk of The Agrarian Vision, then, Thompson goes on to pick apart philosophies that have a stake in that statement, but does so generously so as to draw out parts of any philosophies related to agrarianism that might still be useful. Efficiency and Utilitarianism, for example, are both critiqued in their overreaching presence in industrialized agriculture, but neither are rejected in whole. For this reason, the book can seem to wind around, covering whole histories of philosophical thought, but in doing so, Thompson perhaps invites conversations with other ways of thinking, rather than rejecting any flat out.

In many ways, The Agrarian Vision shares the central thesis with the previous Culture of Land title, Fred Kirschenmann’s Cultivating an Ecological Consciousness, which uses Aldo Leopold’s quote (“A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity”) as its starting place. Each of these books asks that human practices are seen as embedded and connatural with the rest of the creation, as well as formational: “the relevant system includes not only geology, climate, flora, and fauna. It also includes human institutions: habits, traditions, standing practices… As a people’s daily practice reinforces habits of industriousness, community solidarity, citizenship, husbandry, and solicitude, the virtues needed to ensure the integrity of both natural and social patterns of interaction are produced and reproduced” (229).

One of the practices described within is eating together, which Thompson cites as one material practice that forms people in a certain way, namely, encouraging agrarian ideals and community health: “Members of a community share common memories, common rituals, common traditions, and even a common biological constitution. Eating together is a practice that unites all these ontological realms. The offer to share one’s table with another is thus rich in community significance” (151). While this might be the clearest practice named in The Agrarian Vision, there are many more, and these will be the work of rooted communities daily living into a vision of wholeness, and ultimately, God’s reconciliation of all things.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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Reading for the Common Good
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