For millennia man had to work by the sweat of his brow. A thing didn’t get done unless he got up and did it. Work – physical labour – was as inescapable as the need to eat, drink and have shelter.
That sun that pours its rays down onto our world, and passes its energy into the food we, in turn, take into our bodies, has always been our ‘solar power’, enabling us to actively perform our allotted tasks – that of providing for ourselves and our families.
This was, and is, the natural order of things. The carbon cycle, and ecological balance, is dependent on it. We partake of the energy, and impart it in our labours, and our labours, if executed wisely, gave back to the natural world that feeds us. In this, we are the same as all the other creatures we share this planet with.
Admittedly, throughout those same millennia, there were always a few that sought, and found, an alternate way. This ‘alternative’ way of life came through the violent process of turning the people around us into ‘machines’, enslaving them to do our will. We harnessed their energy, and in our stead they fulfilled the tasks we somehow came to regard as beneath us.
Although this kind of social injustice still continues today in its human form, the rise of the machine age enabled us to transfer a large portion of the work to our new, fossil fuel powered mechanical slaves – and the belief that manual labour is not befitting an advanced member of the human race has not only persevered, but has now become all-pervasive. Those we would have, without the machine, continued to enslave, are now inspired by the belief that physical work is unseemly. They too seek to become masters of the machine and to partake of its supposed benefits.
I’ve lived and travelled in countries which many in the west would regard as ‘backwards’ and ‘under-developed’, countries where physical labour is still applied to the majority of tasks. For the purposes of comparison, a road-repair exercise in such a country might be accomplished over the course of several days, with a team of twenty men armed with hand-tools and brute strength. The same project in the west may take four men a single day – two of whom will stand still, in one spot, directing traffic at each end of the construction zone; a third will sit in a fossil-fuel powered digger, with the fourth directing the driver.
We regard the latter scenario as more efficient, but in reality, is it? The former is a carbon neutral exercise and requires no ‘offsetting’ – no building of solar panels or wind turbines in an attempt to negate the fact we’ve wasted the energy we already possess within ourselves. The former requires no destruction, no factories to build the machinery, and there’s no environmental clean-up or consequences. By relegating to a machine a task we could have done for ourselves, we’ve created additional tasks – which we in turn delegate to yet more machines.
Putting aside the ecological costs, the greenhouse gases, and the realities of the finiteness of our energy sources, what is the result for the individual – the lucky recipient of this new world without physical labour? The irony, you see, is the result itself. We’ve endeavoured to escape something that is, in fact, inescapable – a physiological need to move and work and exercise. In our road-construction example above, the physical proportions of the men in each respective team make an obvious statement on their own. The pot-bellied man in control of the digger forms a stark contrast to the ruddied and muscular form of the labourer – and as physical and mental health are as intimately entwined as the brain is to the body, the state of mind are also in contrast. Physical ailments and psychological maladies rise up in our cities faster than our skyscrapers.
In an unnatural environment,
we perform unnatural tasks
And, with the berating of health practitioners, we endeavour to make up for this short-fall in our exercise quota by expending even more fossil fuel energy in our recreational and leisure pursuits. We drive to energy-consuming gyms where we transform ourselves into a kind of hamster-on-a-treadmill, becoming a slave to the machine, reluctantly expending our internal energy in our precious free time – energy that could have been put to practical use in our daily work, if only that kind of work wasn’t disappearing as fast as the CO2 content in our atmosphere is increasing.
Yet we seek to ‘advance’ yet further. The digger driver studies, and strives, and works to become something ‘more’. He lands an office job and finds himself in a wonderful new cubicle world where, for a while, he feels he’s arrived; but just for a while.
Historically treadmills were big wheels, like old-fashioned water wheels, powered by the weight of prisoners endlessly walking forward and, of course, getting nowhere.
Today we’re virtual prisoners, chained in our cubicles, toiling to further corporate profits.
To compensate for the boredom and futility of work we chase the ‘rewards’ of consumerism, the existential emptiness inside is filled up with huge quantities of food and comfort snacking as well as borrowing more money to buy status symbols, and then have to work harder to pay off our debts.
… Wasn’t that what school was all about? Sitting behind a desk for six hours, mindlessly bored. Just being ‘trained’ to fit into the new-style treadmill of work. – Cubicle World
But the reality is we never escape from being enslaved. From the person on the end of the broom to the CEO working for shareholders, we become just one small component in an ever-enlarging machine. It’s a Wal-Martisation process that turns us into the very thing we sought to escape – giving us a new and unhealthy kind of drudgery that leaves us without any feeling of accomplishment, creativity or inner moral satisfaction.
An article from a couple of years ago describes just how well enslaved we are to ‘the machine’:
Wal-Mart—the largest private retailer in the United States—is about to completely change the system it uses for scheduling workers’ shifts.
Last year, the company implemented the new system for a portion of its workers, including cashiers and office personnel. This year, Wal-Mart will begin using the system for all of its 1.3 million workers.
The system, developed by Kronos Inc., uses data from previous years along with new information on individual store sales, transactions, units sold and customer traffic to create a “cost-cutting” schedule.
Workers will now be asked to work shifts during those times in which potential profits are the highest.
Wal-Mart is not alone in implementing the so-called scheduling optimization system. Payless Shoe Source expects to have this system in 300 of its 4,000 stores by the end of January 2007. Radio Shack and Mervyns are also implementing the new system.
Nikki Baird of Forrester Research said, “There’s been a new push for labor optimization.”
“Labor optimization” is a euphemism for an attack on worker rights. While the implementation of this system is a new tactic in the bosses’ constant drive to increase the exploitation of workers, it is anything but a new push.
The bosses must compete with each other to constantly increase the rate of profit. They consistently work to undermine workers’ job stability, wages and benefits while increasing their workloads.
… The sweat shop of old has now become the corporate cube-farm where employees are still required to work long hours without sufficient pay. Instead of paying workers by the hour, the corporations came up with the ego-assuaging idea of designating nearly all positions as “salaried” which means they are free of overtime costs. Workers are laid off, their pensions diverted to deceptive “401K” plans that often means they will not be free to retire ~ ever. – Cubicle World
Perseverance is an attribute, depending on the goal. In our bid to avoid work, while we run roughshod over our environment, and each other – trying to clamber our way to our own distorted view of success – it would be timely to stop and take stock of what we really want from our life, or more importantly, to ask ourselves what we could do with it instead.
There is nothing more absurd, to give an example that is only apparently trivial, than the millions who wish to live in luxury and idleness and yet be slender and good-looking. We have millions, too, whose livelihoods, amusements, and comforts are all destructive, who nevertheless wish to live in a healthy environment; they want to run their recreational engines in clean, fresh air….
The growth of the exploiters’ revolution on this continent has been accompanied by the growth of the idea that work is beneath human dignity, particularly any form of hand work. We have made it our overriding ambition to escape work, and as a consequence have debased work until it is only fit to escape from. We have debased the products of work and have been, in turn, debased by them. Out of this contempt for work arose the idea of a nigger, at first some person, and later something, to be used to relieve us of the burden of work. If we began by making niggers of people, we have ended by making a nigger of the world. We have taken the irreplaceable energies and materials of the world and turned them into jimcrack “labor-saving devices.” We have made of the rivers and oceans and winds niggers to carry away our refuse, which we think we are too good to dispose of decently ourselves. And in doing this to the world that is our common heritage and bond, we have returned to making niggers of people: we have become each other’s niggers.
But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it with impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis – only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.
Thus we can see growing out of our history a condition that is physically dangerous, morally repugnant, ugly. Contrary to the blandishments of the salesmen, it is not particularly comfortable or happy. It is not even affluent in any meaningful sense, because its abundance is dependent on sources that are being rapidly exhausted by its methods. To see these things is to come up against the question: Then what is desirable? – Wendell Berry, The Agricultural Crisis, A Crisis of Culture. p. 16, 17
It is of no use to romanticise and gloss over the troubles of our ancient past. We have battled each others’ greed and excesses throughout history. Likewise we cannot ignore the benefits that have come hand in hand with our industrial woes. But where from here? What is desirable? Just as the urbanisation of our world is accelerating, the collective minds of our race are being brought to bear on this very question.
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.
… for at least three millennia we have been engaged in a cumulative and ambitious race to modify and gain control of our environment, and in the process we have come close to domesticating ourselves. Not many people are likely, any more, to look upon what we call “progress” as an unmixed blessing. Just as surely as it has brought us increased comfort and more material goods, it has brought us spiritual losses, and it threatens now to become the Frankenstein that will destroy us. One means of sanity is to retain a hold on the natural world, to remain, insofar as we can, good animals. – Wilderness Letter
Sixty years ago, Thomas Hardy wrote these stanzas:
Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
– Thomas Hardy
Today most of our people are so conditioned that they do not wish to harrow clods either with an old horse or with a new tractor. Yet Hardy’s vision has come to be more urgently true than ever. The great difference these sixty years have made is that, though we feel that this work must go onward, we are not so certain that it will. But the care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope. – Wendell Berry, The Agricultural Crisis, A Crisis of Culture. p. 19
We’re being offered a last opportunity to make good, to learn how to become successful stewards of ourselves, our fellows, and our resources. It’s our last chance to realise the beauty, and experience the satisfaction, of our own activity – to make use of our forgotten energy.