Scott Nearing: One Man's Century of the Good Life

Farmer Scott Nearing recalls the good life, which he lived for more than a century.

| July/August 1983

  • the good life
    Farmer Scott Nearing is the co-author, with his wife, of Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life.

  • the good life

A few years ago, when Maine's Commission on the Arts and Humanities cited Scott Nearing for "making an art of his life," Governor Kenneth M. Curtis wrote: "Scott Nearing has lived in Maine since 1952 on a saltwater farm that looks out upon Penobscot Bay, a farm that he and his like-minded wife, Helen, have returned, by bread labor, to bountiful production. There the doors are open to hundreds of people of all ages who come each year to learn the secrets of living off the land, and yet, within that rigorous discipline, [Scott has found] the energy and leisure for writing, for music, for civic affairs. Long before many of us were born, this man was doing battle. He spoke out against child labor, against war; he predicted the decay of great cities, the pollution of air and waters, the decline of personal independence. Economist, environmentalist, sociologist, lecturer and writer, he prescribed the Good Life and practiced what he preached."

In spreading his "gospel," Scott has written literally dozens of books — and though his subject matter has ranged from making maple sugar to the past, present and future of civilization, the constant theme of both his writings and his daily existence has been the crying need for a better way of life for all humanity.

In Living the Good Life and Continuing the Good Life, Helen and Scott told how they managed — on a personal level — "to live safely and sanely in a troubled world." But it's from Man's Search for the Good Life, a book Scott wrote in 1954 and dedicated "to all who envision and seek a better future," that we offer the following glimpses of the vision that has guided this very good man.

On Nature

Man may press back the natural forces, may shield himself against them, may modify them to a degree, may seek permanent escape from their pressures. There is the possibility of postponement, but no real avoidance. Man may upset the nature-balance. Nature's response is a tireless and ceaseless effort to reestablish the balance.

Nature is as inexorable as fire, as persistent as water, as merciless as frost, as implacable as sunshine, as penetrating as wind, as tireless as the proliferating grasses of the prairies, the trees of the forest, the bacteria of the soil, and the myriads of living creatures which swarm on the earth, in the waters and the air. Nature is all these things. Let man the seeker turn where he will, in his deepest burrowings, his fastest flights, his moments of most complete self-absorption, he is still in the arms of mother nature, and subject to her all-pervasive forces and powers.

On Armed Agression

The year 1910 was the last year when no war went on anywhere in the world. Since 1910, decade by decade, war preparations and military operations, conventional and undeclared, have been woven into the warp and woof of civilized life. Those of us who were born before 1910 had an opportunity to compare peacetime life with life under conditions of declared and undeclared war. Those born since 1910 can make no such comparison. They were born into a human society divided and confused by double-think and double-talk. A community in which the makers and shapers of public opinion talked life, liberty and happiness and practiced death, conscription and monotonous, desperate misery.

Conflict breeds conflict. One war leads into another. Victory brings not peace, but intensified military preparedness. Thus step by step the life of the militarized community is concentrated on destruction rather than production. War disrupts and bankrupts financially, economically, socially, morally. Of the civilizations known to history, Toynbee notes, all twenty have been crippled or destroyed, and in every case the proximate cause of the disaster has been war. The forces implicit in a competitive, acquisitive, expansive community lead to war as inexorably as water runs down hill. The same pattern appears in every one of the civilizations of which history has a record. Toynbee's conclusion is sinister — "militarism is suicidal." Hence, the formula: civilization equals social suicide.

On Employment

Taken at its best, the exchange of labor-time for goods and services restricts and limits the wage and salary worker to a life of routine which is lacking in interest and devoid of essential purpose.

Most city dwellers enter the treadmill voluntarily, lock the door after them, and toss the key into the trash basket — lightheartedly assuming that all will be well. If they come to themselves and decide to escape from the city, it is usually too late. They have given too many hostages, made too many commitments, become entangled in too many alliances. No longer are they free to go. They must stay and take the consequences. Thus the individual is caught and held in the web of urbanism.

On Western Civilization

Depression is one of the prices which the West has been paying for the growing volume of its comforts and conveniences. Through the years the depressions have extended in area and increased in intensity, become less and less periodic and more nearly chronic.

Comforts, conveniences, depression and war were four children of the same parent — the western way of life with its "highest standard of living on earth."

Western man had found the sources of abundance. He had built his "highest standard of living" for himself, if not for others. But he had gained neither happiness nor blessedness. On the contrary, the aggressive, cynical, ruthless, unjust means which he had employed in erecting his Standard of Living tower, had brought a terrible harvest of economic breakdown, political upheaval, destruction and death. Evidently it is not enough to build. To endure, the social structure must embody order, justice and harmony as well as productive efficiency.

Our analysis of civilization leads to an inescapable conclusion: The pattern of social life which is how being followed in the West is economically inefficient and self-defeating, socially corrosive and disruptive, and morally indefensible. By no stretch of the imagination could anyone suppose that its end product will be a good life.

If, as we have been assuming in this discussion, western civilization is dying, we must treat the event as we treat the death process elsewhere. That is, we must separate ourselves, psychologically, from the old ("The king is dead.") and dedicate ourselves enthusiastically to the new ("Long live the king.").

On the Good Life

Life is not only eternal in the sense of duration. It is also becoming, in the sense of unfolding like an opening flower.

To say one thing and to do another keeps a human being divided against himself. Seekers after the good life are perfectionists, satisfied with nothing less than the best. Besides being perfectionists, they are whole-ists, aiming at that integration of the thought, the word and the deed which is the expression of wisdom and the basis of serenity and inner peace.

Those who decide what is right and determine to live accordingly have decreased their dependence on the folkways, placed habit in a position of secondary importance, and have sent conscience and reason into the front lines of the life struggle. Henceforth, acting in terms ofself-assumed obligations and duties, they have entered upon a supreme adventure choosing and following an intentional good life.

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