Monday, August 15, 2011

Wendell Berry | The ethics of 'innovation' | The Courier-Journal |

Wendell Berry | The ethics of 'innovation' | The Courier-Journal |

In a Courier-Journal column on Aug.1, H. Dan O'Hair and Michael T. Childress, both of the University of Kentucky, come out strongly in favor of innovation. “Innovation,” they say in their title, “is key to Kentucky's economic future.” They support this proposition by citing experts, statistics, and studies, but they never say what innovations, or what kinds of innovations, they advocate. They do not venture even so far as the ordinary hope that the innovations in Kentucky's future might be good rather than bad.

This is a startling omission. People who know even a little history are aware that over the millennia humans (and other creatures) have experienced many innovations, not all of which have been good. One might think, then, that these gentlemen, calling so eagerly for more innovation, would exhibit some concern for the health of Kentucky's landscapes, ecosystems, and watersheds, on which Kentucky's people depend for their physical and economic health. But their article reveals not the faintest sign of any such concern.

Like nearly all economists, O'Hair and Childress do not even mention the land economies of farming, forestry, and mining. They advocate, vaguely, “innovative ways to create new sources of wealth,” forgetting that the one ultimate source of wealth, now and ever, is the land. And the land's wealth is delivered to us humans only by the land economies, which humans must conduct either well or poorly, either by husbanding the land's productivity or by destroying it. But finally there can be no increase of human productivity beyond the productivity of the land.

And so it appears that ecological health might serve as a reasonable standard for determining the difference between good and bad innovations. But O'Hair and Childress are far from any notion so plain and useful. They are hot to develop “Regional Innovation Ecosystems,” which suggests that they have no idea of the meaning and importance of actual ecosystems. Their only measure of innovation is “the number of patents.” Thus, according to the ethical hypothesis of this article, anything that can be patented is good. Coming from some people, this might be passed off as childish. Coming from the dean of a college at the University of Kentucky and another who is “with” that university, it looks like the institutional or official indifference that continues to plague our state.

The telltale paragraph of this article is the one in which the authors inform us that “the intellectual prowess found at the nation's universities has tremendous innovation and commercialization potential . . . Policies and practices to facilitate the commercialization of university research should be at the center of Kentucky's economic development strategy.” This does not require much interpretation. Signed by the doctors O'Hair and Childress, it is in fact more self-promotion, characteristically high-toned and indefinite, by the University of Kentucky. Like other such institutions, our “flagship university” has made itself too pretentious, too costly, and too dependent on too much money. It is desperate for public funds, for gifts and grants, and for every penny it can wring out of its students. It would like nothing better than to receive from the General Assembly a large allocation of money for something so ill-defined as patentable innovation. I hope the General Assembly will have better sense.

Wendell Berry is a farmer, poet, essayist and environmentalist who lives in Henry County, Ky.

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