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The Ecology of Work

Environmentalism can't succeed until it confronts the destructive nature of modern work—and supplants it

by Curtis White

Published in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion magazine



Art by Teun Hocks

Last of a two-part series. See The Idols of Environmentalism for part one.

I
ENVIRONMENTALISTS SEE THE ASPHALTING of the country as a sin against the world of nature, but we should also see in it a kind of damage that has been done to humans, for what precedes environmental degradation is the debasement of the human world. I would go so far as to say that there is no solution for environmental destruction that isn’t first a healing of the damage that has been done to the human community. As I argued in the first part of this essay, the damage to the human world has been done through work, through our jobs, and through the world of money.

We are not the creators of our own world; we merely perform functions in a system into which we were born. The most destructive aspect of our jobs is that in them we are mere “functionaries,” to borrow Josef Pieper’s term. Just as important, we have a function outside of work: consumption. Money in hand, we go into the market to buy the goods we no longer know how to make (we don’t even know how to grow and preserve our own food) and services we no longer know how to perform (frame a house? might as well ask us to design a spaceship).

Challenging our place in this system as mere isolated functions (whether as workers or consumers) is a daunting task, especially for environmentalists, who tend to think that human problems are the concern of somebody else (labor unions, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, etc.). We’re about the “Earth first.” My argument is simply that the threats to humans and the threats to the environment are not even two parts of the same problem. They are the same problem. For environmentalism, confronting corporations and creating indignant scientific reports about pollution is the easy stuff. But these activities are inadequate to the real problems, as any honest observer of the last thirty years of environmental activism would have to concede. The “last great places” cannot be preserved. We can no more preserve them than we can keep the glaciers from melting away. Responding to environmental destruction requires not only the overcoming of corporate evildoers but “self-overcoming,” a transformation in the way we live. A more adequate response to our true problems requires that we cease to be a society that believes that wealth is the accumulation of money (no matter how much of it we’re planning on “giving back” to nature), and begin to be a society that understands that “there is no wealth but life,” as John Ruskin put it. That is the full dimension and the full difficulty of our problem.

Unfortunately, on these shores the suggestion that there is something fundamentally destructive in work, money, and capitalism leads quickly to emotional denials. This is so even among self-described environmentalists, card-carrying members of the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. So we try to persuade ourselves that capitalism can become green. I don’t believe that capitalism can become green, simply because the imperatives of environmentalism are not part of its way of reasoning. Capitalism can think profit but it can’t think nature. It’s not in its nature to think nature. What is part of its nature is marketing (“We’re organic! Buy us!”), even while its actions—industrial livestock practices that masquerade as Earth-friendly, for instance—are really only about market share, dividends, and stock value.

Capitalism as a system of ever-accelerating production and consumption is, as we environmentalists continually insist, not sustainable. That is, it is a system intent on its own death. Yet the capitalist will stoically look destruction in the face before he will stop what he’s doing, especially if he believes that it is somebody else whose destruction is in question. Unlike most of the people living under him, the capitalist is a great risk-taker largely because he believes that his wealth insulates him from the consequences of risks gone bad. Ever the optimistic gambler with other people’s money, the capitalist is willing to wager that, while there may be costs to pay, he won’t have to pay them. Animals, plants, impoverished people near and far may have to pay, but he bets that he won’t. If called upon to defend his actions, he will of course argue that he has a constitutionally protected right to property and the pursuit of his own happiness. This is his “freedom.” At that point, we have the unfortunate habit of shutting up when we ought to reply, “Yes, but yours is a freedom without conscience.”

Being willing to say such things about capitalism does not mean that one has a special access to the Truth, but it also doesn’t mean that one is a mere ideologue, or that most dismissible of things, a communist. It merely requires honesty about what looks us right in the face. It requires intellectual conscience.

For instance, as a matter of conscience we should be willing to say that the so-called greening of corporate America is not as much about the desire to protect nature as it is about the desire to protect capitalism itself. Environmentalists are, on the whole, educated and successful people, many of whom have prospered within corporate capitalism. They’re not against it. They simply seek to establish a balance between the needs of the economy (as they blandly put it) and the needs of the natural world. For both capitalism and environmentalism, there is a hard division between land set aside for nature and land devoted to production. Environmentalists consider the preservation of a forest a victory, but part of the point of that victory is (usually) that humans can’t live in this forest. Private interests have been bought out. The forest is now “set aside.” We could draw a national map that showed those spaces that we imagine conform to a fantasy of natural innocence (wilderness, forests, preserves, parks) and those spaces given over to the principles of extraction, exploitation, and profit. The boundary lines within this map are regularly drawn and redrawn by the government in some of our most bitter political fights. (“Mineral extraction! Why, that’s a national wildlife area!” “Snail darter! Why, that’s economic development!”) But regardless of which political party is drawing this map, we humans are left right where we have always been, at the mercy of the boss, behaving like functionaries, and participating in the very economic activities that will continue to eat up the natural world. For all its sense of moral urgency, environmentalism too has abandoned humans to the inequalities, the exploitation, and the boredom of the market, while it tries to maintain the world of nature as a place of innocence where a candy wrapper on the ground is a blasphemy. It’s a place to go for a weekend hike before returning to the unrelenting ugliness, hostility, sterility, and spiritual bankruptcy that is the suburb, the strip mall, the office building, and the freeway (our “national automobile slum,” as James Howard Kunstler puts it). Ideally, the map of natural preservation and the map of economic activity would be one map.

II
HERE’S A BALD ASSERTION FOR WHICH I have no proof scientific or otherwise: a human society would never willingly harm nature. This is a way of saying that violence is not a part of human nature. This of course contradicts the opinion commonly held by Christianity and science alike that humans are by nature violent. This fatalism has the effect of making us accept wars, the victimization of the vulnerable, and the rapacious destruction of the natural world as tragic but inevitable. But what this fatalism about our “nature” ignores is the fact that the violence with which environmentalists are most concerned is not the aberrant violence of the individual human but the violence of organizations. In particular, the violence that we know as environmental destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for their misdeeds. We say, “I was only doing my job” at the paper mill, the industrial incinerator, the logging camp, the coal-fired power plant, on the farm, on the stock exchange, or simply in front of the PC in the corporate carrel. The division of labor not only has the consequence of making labor maximally productive, it also hides from workers the real consequences of their work.

People outside of such social and economic organizations might hunt in nature, fish, gather, harvest, use nature to their own ends in countless ways, but they would never knowingly destroy it, not because they are by nature good and benevolent, but because destruction is not necessary, it’s a lot of hard work, and it’s self-evidently self-defeating. For example, the near extinction of the buffalo was not driven by the thought “Well, if I shoot one I might as well shoot them all,” or game sport gone mad, or sheer maliciousness toward the animal. Ultimately, it was driven by the market for buffalo hides in that far-off place that was never once home to a buffalo, New York City. The extermination of the buffalo was driven by the same logic that drives the clearcutting of forests and the construction of high-pollution coal-fired power plants today: entrepreneurial freedom, the desire for profit, and “jobs for working people.” 

If all this is so, it is only possible to conclude from our behavior for the last two hundred years that ours is not a human society; that it is a society outside of the human in some terrible sense. And, in fact, it was one of the earliest insights of Karl Marx that the kind of work provided by capitalism was alienating. That is, it made us something other than what we are. It dehumanized us. And so, in our no-longer-human state, it became perfectly natural for us to destroy nature (which should sound to you just as perverse as the situation really is). Alienation in work means that instead of knowing something about a lot of things concerned with human fundamentals like food, housing, clothing, and the wise and creative use of our free time, we know one small thing. One task in an ocean of possible tasks.

Aldous Huxley provided a very different and a very human account of work in The Perennial Philosophy. He called it “right livelihood” (a concept he borrowed from Buddhism). For Huxley, work should serve other people, provide learning experiences that deepen the worker, and do as little harm as possible. (You will note that there is nothing in this description about a competitive compensation and benefits package.) But what percentage of American jobs conforms to this description? Five percent? Even in the new “creative” information economy where the claim could be made that computer designers and software technicians are constantly learning, is it a learning that deepens? That serves others broadly? And what of the mindless, deadening work of data processors and telemarketers—our modern, miserable Bartlebys and Cratchits—locked in their cubicles from San Jose to Bangalore? Our culture’s assumption that there is virtue in work flatters us into thinking that we’re doing something noble (“supporting our families,” “putting food on the table,” “making sacrifices”) when we are really only allowing ourselves to be treated like automatons. We all have our place, our “job,” and it is an ever less human place. We are diligent, disciplined, and responsible, but because of these virtues we are also thoughtless.

TO END THE REIGN OF WORK as something for “functionaries,” and to end the destruction that results from that fractured form of work, we have two options. First, we can simply wait for the catastrophic failure of global capitalism as a functioning economic system. Books on peak oil, sinking water tables, and the impending doom of global warming are abundant and convincing. Huge human populations, especially in the East and Africa, are at risk of mass starvation, civil war, and the disastrous loss of human habitat due to rising ocean levels and desertification. Capitalism will have no choice but to retreat from responsibility for these crises even though they are part of the true costs of doing business.

Unfortunately, simply waiting for catastrophe doesn’t ensure that anything good will follow from it, as Darfur has illustrated. It’s true that there will be opportunities to create locally based and sustainable communities, but it’s also true that fascism, barbarism, and regression are possible. So a second option is in order. We can start providing for a different world of work now, before the catastrophe. We need to insist on work that is not destructive, that deepens the worker, that encourages her creativity. Such a transformation requires a willingness to take a collective risk, a kind of risk very different from capitalist risk taking. The kind of risk I’m suggesting is no small matter. It means leaving a culture based on the idea of success as the accumulation of wealth-as-money. In its place we need a culture that understands success as life. For John Ruskin, humans should make “good and beautiful things” because those things will re-create us as good and beautiful in their turn. To make cheap and ugly and destructive things will kill us, as indeed we are being killed through poverty, through war, through the cheapening of our public and private lives, and through the destruction of the natural world. Of course, many will argue that leaving capitalism behind is not “realistic.” “Oh, certainly,” we’re assured, “there are inequalities in capitalism, but on the whole it provides for everyone’s prosperity, it provides the greatest good for the greatest number. Why, you’ll kill the goose that lays the golden egg! Look, if there’s a patch of forest somewhere you want to save, fine, I’ll write a check. But this sort of talk is dangerous and un-American.” What we need to recognize is that the real realism for capitalism is in the consequences of its activities. As even Al Gore understands, we are living now in the early stages of an era of consequences: catastrophic climate change, species extinction, and human population collapse. It is not naïve or unrealistic to say that we ought to change; it is only tragic if we don’t.

But let’s be honest. For the moment, not even the pleasantly affluent people who regularly support the major environmental organizations (people like me) want to hear about how bad capitalism is or to think seriously about abandoning it as an organizing principle. Most of us want to believe that our quarrel is just with rogue corporations, a few “bad apples” as President Bush likes to say, and not with capitalism as such. But thinking this is simply a form of lying. We deny what we can plainly see because to acknowledge it would require the fundamental reshaping of our entire way of living, and that is (not unreasonably) frightening for most people. Nevertheless, our loyalty to capitalism makes us fools. Worse than that, we know we’re being fooled, and yet we lack the ability not to be fooled. Not for nothing did the philosopher Paul Ricoeur once observe that capitalism is “a failure that cannot be defeated.”

III
I AM INEVITABLY ASKED AT THIS POINT in my argument just what exactly it is that I am proposing that people do. What would I put in capitalism’s place? In reply, I am always tempted to quote Voltaire’s response to the complaint that he had nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. “What!” he said, “A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!” Unlike Voltaire, I would also suggest that what has the best chance of defeating the “beast” is spirit. In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental destruction, we have also had to accept science’s contempt for religion and the spiritual. This is the unfortunate legacy of science’s two-century-old confrontation with what it has always called “religious dogma and superstition.” But this attitude is myopic; it is science at its most stupid. Environmentalism should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to create alternative principles by which we might live. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his famous essay “My Religion,” faith is not about obedience to church dogma, and it is not about “submission to established authority.” A people’s religion is “the principle by which they live.”

The establishment of those principles by which we might live would begin with three questions. First, what does it mean to be a human being? Second, what is my relation to other human beings? And third, what is my relation to Being as such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing? If the answer to these questions is that the purpose of being human is “the pursuit of happiness” (understood as success, which is understood as the accumulation of money); and if our relation to others is a relation to mere things (with nothing to offer but their labor); and if our relation to the world is only to “resources” (that we should exploit for profit); then we should be very comfortable with the world we have. If it goes to perdition at least we can say that we acted in good faith. But if, on the other hand, we answer that there should be a greater sense of self-worth in being a human, more justice in our relation to others, and more reverence for Being, then we must either live in bad faith with capitalism or begin describing a future whose fundamental values and whose daily activities are radically different from what we currently endure. The risk I propose is simply a return to our nobility. We should refuse to be mere functions of a system that we cannot in good conscience defend. And we should insist on a recognition of the mystery, the miracle, and the dignity of things, from frogs to forests, simply because they are.

Such a “religion” would entail a refusal to play through to the bloody end the social and economic roles into which we happen to have been born. What lies beyond the environmental movement is not only the overcoming of capitalism but self-overcoming. We take some justifiable pride in the idea that we are environmentalists, but even that identity must be transcended. A “beyond environmentalism” movement would be a sort of Party of Life. It would be a commitment to thriving, and a commitment to what is best in us. Does this mean that, for the time being, we stop working under the banner of environmentalism to oppose corporations when they are destructive? Of course not. But it is important to know that there is a problem more fundamental than a perverse “power” standing opposed to us (in villainous black caps with “Monsanto” on the brim). That deeper problem is our own integration into an order of work that makes us inhuman and thus tolerant of what is nothing less than demonic, the destruction of our own world.

THE PRINCIPLE BY WHICH THE WEST has lived for the last two centuries has been “It’s okay to use violence if you can gain something by it.” Violence against the poor, violence against the vulnerable, violence against those who possess something you want, and violence against the natural world. That is capitalism as a religious principle. What is beyond environmentalism, what is our Party of Life, is actually a return to our oldest spiritual convictions: a reverence for creation and a shared commitment to the idea that religion is finally about understanding how to live in faithful relation to what has been given to us in creation. In the end, our problem is that the busy, destructive work of functionaries has taken the place of a thoughtful, spiritual understanding about how to live. Our problem is not that we are ignoring what science has to tell us about environmental destruction. Our problem is that we are spiritually impoverished. Bankrupt, if you will. 

Spiritual rebirth will mean the rediscovery of true human work. Much of this work will not be new but recovered from our own rich traditions. It will be useful knowledge that we will have to remember. Fishing as a family and community tradition, not the business of factory trawlers. Agriculture as a local and seasonal activity, not a carbon-based scheme of synthetic production and international shipping. Home- and community-building as common skills and not merely the contracted specialization of construction companies and urban planners. Even “intellectual workers” (professors and scholars) have something to relearn: their own honored place in the middle of the community and not in isolated, jargon-ridden professional enclaves. 

Such knowledge was once the heart of our lives, and not that long ago. Before 1945, survival meant that most families would have all of these skills to some degree. These families were certainly materially poorer and perhaps more naïve, but they were richer in human relations, less bored, less depressed, less isolated, less addicted to food and drugs, physically healthier, and they had the rich human pleasure of knowing how to make things. It’s clear that we haven’t forgotten these skills and their pleasures entirely, but their presence for us is strange and a little unreal. What used to be life is now “fine living”: an array of expensive hobbies for the affluent that are taught through magazines, cable and PBS programs, and local guilds dedicated to gardening, basket weaving, cooking, home remodeling, quilting, and woodworking. Although we rarely recognize it in this way, through these “hobbies” we express a desire for a world that is now lost to us.

My argument is not, I assure you, a longing look back to the wonderful world of pre-war rural America. But it is to say that in the course of the last century of global capital triumphant we have been further isolated from what Ruskin called “valuable human things.” In exchange, we have been offered only the cold comfort of the television and computer monitor, and the GPS device that can locate you but only at the cost of being located in a place that is not worth knowing and certainly not worth caring about.

The turn away from this ugly, destructive, and unequal world is not something that can be accomplished by boycotting corporations when they’re bad or through the powerful work of the most concerned scientists. It will not be delivered with glossy brochures by the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, and it will certainly not be sold to you by Martha Stewart. A return to the valuable human things of the beautiful and the useful will only be accomplished, if it is ever to be accomplished, by the humans among us.

 

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Curtis White's essays have appeared in Harper's magazine, the Village Voice, and In These Times. His most recent book is The Spirit of Disobedience. He teaches at Illinois State University.

Teun Hocks lives and works in Holland. He is represented by the P.P.O.W. Gallery in New York City, and has exhibited internationally over the last twenty years.

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