Wednesday, February 20, 2008

jack works or jack plays

For more than a century we've been doing our best to trash the notion agricultural work. As a result we've come to regard the labor of growing food as a nasty, backbreaking effort best left to all those machines and a few of their handlers. The average age of a farmer in this country, 55 years old, is a reflection of the message we've been sending to our children as they grow up. "Don't get involved in that awful work of farming. Move to the city and find real work." When we further examine this change in attitude though, we find a deeper modification in the way we think about work.

Humans have been developing tools since the beginnings of our evolution. In fact many people think of the advent of tool making as the distinction between apes and man. That is, we were just animals until we started using tools to better out lives. One of the reasons for developing tools was undoubtedly the time savings advantageous of some of our tools. Fast forward a few thousand years and consider the invention of a more modern time saving tool, the cotton gin. Eli Whitney is credited with creating this machine, an updated version of the Indian Charkhi used to pick the seeds and seed pods out of cotton. Before its invention someone, very often a slave in the case of the cotton producing regions of the Southeastern United States, had to pick them out by hand. A very tedious and time consuming job indeed. In the cotton gin we can see a fairly low tech tool that reduced the amount of human labor needed to produce a particular agricultural product.

It is worth noting that because the cotton gin made the labor of removing seeds so much easier and less time consuming, cotton harvests grew tremendously in the years following its invention. This meant more people needed to plow the fields, plant the cotton and harvest it. The net result of the cotton gin was not fewer slaves but more. It is also worth pointing out that our modern way of life offers us more time saving devices than any other society in the whole of human history. We have machines to can food for us and machines to open the cans. We have machines that wash our clothes and bake our bread and dry our hair and transport us out and over the landscape at consistent speeds not dreamed of by the people of only a hundred and fifty years ago. And yet, the average worker in the US works more now than ever. Why, in this age of time saving tools are we still working so much?

If you factor in the time it takes you to earn all the money needed to own and operate a car, and all the time you spend sitting in traffic, the average speed of driving is slower than a human being can walk. Of course walking doesn't offer the range needed by many of us to travel all the daily miles we become accustom to driving. And the actual act of driving is faster than walking. It would take some commuters days to walk to work. But this notion that all our modern tools of convenience have actually given us more time in life is a fallacy that points to the way we think about work.

Before these modern time saving tools were invented, before the industrial revolution led to the invention of all these tool, human activity wasn't divided so acutely into labor and leisure. There were no time clocks to stamp on the way into the office. Life was a collection of daily activities that sustained life. For farmers, which meant for majority of people living 150 years ago, daily activities included what we would think of as chores: putting animals out to pasture, milking cows, mending fences, sewing seeds, harvesting food, etc. These chores were obviously necessary to the continuation of life. That is, the work was required if a particular farmer wanted be able to feed his family so the work was really important. But it was also ingrained in those who did such work in a way we have trouble understanding today.

For most Americans the concept of work is a negative one, associated with a job that is visited where labor is done in return for money with which to buy all that a person needs and wants. The work was required if a particular laborer wanted be able to feed his family so the work was really important. But there is a palpable distinction between the work of directly feeding your family and the work done to buy money to feed your family. It's a distinction that informs not only the way we think about food but the way we think about work.
We work more now than many agricultural societies of the past so it's important to point out that if the goal of getting the farmers into he factories and mechanization agriculture was to offer us more time, then industrial agriculture is a failure. Not just because it is destroying our soil and poison our land and our waterways and our children. Not just because it is warming our planet. And not just because it is unsustainable in the future just ahead, a future with fewer fossil fuel resources to do the job of growing food. Industrial agriculture fails because it's part of a system of living that takes time away from us as it forces us to work longer and harder just to feed our families and meet our needs.

But it robs us of our time in another way, a way in which I alluded to above. Our divisive way of thinking about labor has caused us to compartmentalize our lives and scorn the time we don't consider leisure. It's doubtful that preindustrial farmers worked each and every day while whistling through the easy chores of farming. There are always unpleasant jobs that must be done. That is as true now as it has always been, but the difference is that now we tend to scorn any and all work as the opposite of the way we strive to spend our time. These days we tend to think in terms of having a fixed number of hours during which we are required to work and then we are free again to have fun. We talk longingly about the day we can retire and do no more work at all! (I can't find statistics to back up my claim but isn't it interesting to note the number of people who die shortly after they stop working. I mention this as I note the passing of a family friend and mailman of my town for decades. He had just retired. Most people retire when they are older and therefore closer to their inevitable passing, but might not the regular work of life, regardless of its form, help keep humans healthy in all the many senses of wellbeing?) As the baby boomers, noted for their, shall we say, lack of modesty, drag us all along with them on the story of their most recent life stage, retirement, we are reminded that near the end of life we're expected to stop the efforts that sustain our families and get back to the fun of living- the golden years!

Retirement is defined as "the withdrawal from one's position or occupation or from active working life." In the future, retirement as considered by today's baby boomers will not be possible. Sipping Mai Tais on a tropical beach while spending money accumulated over years of work at a job will probably be the destiny of fewer and fewer people. Retirement itself is a fairly new concept, not mentioned in the English language until about 350 years ago and not a common occurrence for most people who, up until the 19th century, worked until they died.

Of course the type of work they did changed as they got older. 85 year old men were not leading teams of horse to work the soil early in the spring. The labor of the elderly in years past fit both their physical capabilities and the wisdom they had accrued. But the notion of contribution went beyond weekly volunteerism or story telling. Older people remained active in the patterns and habits that sustained life on the homestead. Again the idea of labor as a more inclusive part of life precluded the notion that one day older people would just stop working.

The same is true of children of course. Least I be accused of championing the return to labor conditions of the industrial revolution before child labor laws went into affect, let me make it clear that there are jobs both suitable and unsuitable for children. But children adore being outdoors. They love to play in natural settings and work in the garden and grow food. My daughter truly enjoys our chickens. She likes to watch them, to gather their eggs, to feed them and visit them at night to shut them in safely. She is only two and not especially helpful in taking care of them at this age. ;-) She also gets a bit scared when they fly but in only a few years I hope it will be part of her duties as a part of our household to take care of the chickens, a job not outside the skill range of a seven year old. Much of the work of starting seeds, planting and weeding and harvesting, (and cooking! My daughter also "helps" to bake bread) can be done safely by people under the age of 18. Traditional this has been how farming families got through the annual periods of time when more labor was needed. Many agricultural regions of our country historically operated school systems around the need for seasonal labor provided by the younger members of the family. Of course it is important to protect the younger, more vulnerable member of our society at large. And it is important that children have access to education that teaches a wide range of thoughts, skills and ideas. But it would be foolish to assume that means children and those who get too old to do heavy labor should be excluded from the work of feeding ourselves in the future.

Again it is the idea of labor as something other than an integrated aspect of life that leads us to carve up our time and make such a distinction between when we are working and when we are having fun. Life is work, but that doesn't make it less fun. We have the tools, some of them old and some of them new, to keep most of the labor of growing our own food from being the nasty, backbreaking work it is often described as being. But it's important to understand that only when we change our minds about what "work" means in the context of our lives will we be able to fully embrace a change in the way we live. Only after we've become accustom to the notion that working is living and doing that work is just as enjoyable- in some ways more enjoyable- than the mindless leisure we've come to expect from our current way of life, will we believe in a change.

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