Monday, February 11, 2008

in concern of the ends

Last year I wrote a paper describing the virtues of a shorter work week. I started working such a week (4 days, 36 hours) over a year ago and find it a fantastic alternative to the standard 5 day, 40 hour work week. The paper was published at Groovy Green and over at The Oil Drum where some of the comments were really useful in sharpening the argument for a shorter work week. Two specific critiques stand out in my mind as I contemplate an even greater shift in the American idea of labor. I believe such a shift is inevitable in light of declining energy availability and the urgent need to drastically cut carbon emissions.

One of the comments repeated went something like this. “You’re a wimp. I work 75 hours each week!” It was clear that some of the readers base their self-worth, in large part, on the amount of time they spend working. I’m not sure what those proudly bragging about their really long work weeks actually do during those hours. Perhaps it is something genuinely satisfying but increasingly the work in America is more about servicing ever increasing desires and not meeting the needs of our fellow citizens. I’m sure that those people who plan the spectacularly extravagant sweet sixteen birthday parties as seen on TV spend an enormous amount of time planning the events. I bet they make a lot of money too. Good for them but their work is not the kind of worthwhile work my grandparents looked back on at the ends of their lives and described as deeply fulfilling.

The second of the useful critiques I mentioned went something like this. “If everyone get a 3 day weekend every week, they’ll just spend more time driving to the beach, eating up resources and pumping out more pollution!” I agree there is no guarantee that less time spent at the office means more time spent at home reading to the kids or growing a garden or some such other low impact activity. But it seems unlikely that given a shorter work week, the average American worker will spend that increase in leisure time spending a lot more money and spewing a lot more carbon. For one thing he or she is less likely to have the financial means to do so. I couldn’t afford to go winging off to the coast every weekend. And a shorter week will probably mean a reduction in formal compensation. Personally it costs me a few thousand dollars each year. More time to do stuff probably means less time making US dollars in the formal economy so less US dollars to pay for trips to the beach.

But I mention all of this merely as a warm up. The really important thought that occurred to me after reading the comments came months later as I pondered what has become of our society. The American way of life as it stands today is described in admiration and in disgust as a culture of consumption. But even some of those who admire an annual increase in our GDP or praise the notion of unending growth are beginning to at least consider that more stuff is not necessarily making us happier people.

It is an often retold truth that money does not lead to happiness. We hear such a notion in graduation speeches, in wedding rehearsal toasts or at funerals as loved ones comfort each other with notion of what really is important during our time here on this planet. Very quickly though we get right back to business as usual after such ceremonies. We often hear of people going back to work sooner rather than later after the death of a loved one to, “keep me mind off of it,” the person says. Back to the grindstone of doing specialized tasks to earn money to pay for the needs and ever increasing wants of American life; the mind numbing simplicity of it will lessen the pain. Besides, that’s what the Joneses do.

The National Opinion Research Center has been polling Americans annually for decades and their finds show hat while we have more than 3 times as much material wealth as those who lived in this country in the 1950s, fewer and fewer of us report being very happy since that decade. It seems that as Bill McKibben (who also references the National Opinion Research Center polls in his excellent book Deep Economy) says, “new research from many quarters has started to show that even when growth does make us wealthier, the greater wealth no longer makes us happier.” This is an old adage, the notion that wealth doesn’t lead to happiness. It has been taught for ages, perhaps since the first surpluses of agrarian life led to the amassment of wealth. How is it that the message of temperance has been so soundly defeated in modern America?

It seems too simple to just blame television commercials or even the idea of advertising itself for our failure to heed the old message of restraint. Because of course those who preach the notion of temperance have at their disposal some of the very same modern methods of spreading their word. A large percentage of the population attends weekly religious worship services in the United States and all of the major religions (with specific congregational and historical exceptions) teach the value of restraint and self control. Some stress it as an exercise of self strengthen while others focus on the possibility of charitable giving through self sacrifice. The religious communities still teaches that greed is not good and that to contain one’s desires is a virtue. Just turn on the TV Sunday morning and you can watch. And yet, we’ve adopted an economic system that is predicated no exactly the opposite, the growth of consumption at all costs.

I’ll admit that he allure of a sexy television commercial or the bright packing of a supermarket product, when repeated from our days as children into adulthood, has a lot to do with why we seem less able to control our wants. It’s a hell of a lot more sensational than those Sunday morning worship service broadcast. But it seems that a more fundamental change has taken place in terms of how we see the world and what we value in it. We were once a culture of creation, a nation of people who prided ourselves on what we grew and made and built ourselves. Now it seems we pride ourselves on what we can buy from others. And this is a more fundamental change than it might seem at first read. We used to focus on the ends and now we focus only on the means.

In years past what was important to Americans was a goal that was aspired to either personally, as smaller communities or as a nation. Individuals might pride themselves on being able to grow a great tomato or cook an excellent family meal. The idea of cooking good food for her family was such an ingrained idea in my grandmother’s mind that it was inseparable from whom she was as a person. Suggesting that we call for take out would have been to challenge her ability to create a wonderful family meal. That is she was investe3d heavily in the ends of cooking that meal. The means to do so were skills she learned and practiced to be able to achieve her end- a great meal.

Communities too have invested in education as a means to achieve the ends of a knowledgeable population. Usually this is some combination of means- taxation, private donations, fund raisers, volunteerism, and others are used to try and achieve a certain goal; educate our youth.

As a nation we have had similar goals. During WWII we changed many of our regular ways of doing things with a focus on winning the war. US citizens accepted rationing, even came to view self limitation as patriotic in light of the goal of winning the war. The Victory Garden movement is another example of adaptation or the adjustment of the means by which we met our ends. Still desiring some of the foods placed off limits in response to the war, many citizens took charge of their own food production and served to both conserve wartime resources and still eat good, nutritious food. I think this serves as an excellent example of how changing the means can be beneficial in more ways than one, but first we have to know what we want.

The problem is though that there’s been an important shift in the way we think about what is important. We no longer value the ends but more the means. Work, whether that of our own labor or that of other tradesmen and craftsmen, is no longer valued, only the thing which we gain as a product. This is of course one of the reasons globalization has been able to out source the labor of so many Americans. Multinational corporations can take their manufacturing operations overseas and take advantage of cheap labor, lax labor laws, limited environmental restrictions and other dubious incentives to offshore American jobs. But they can do this because we don’t care if they do it. We think that consuming those goods is more important than the way in which they were produced. Our means of life, our need to consume more cheap goods, trumps the ends such a way of life creates. Who cares about lives lived by poor, often mistreated factory workers overseas. For that matter who cares about Americans who lose their jobs to those overseas workers. Who cares about the environmental impacts left to our children by such a system,. Those ends- those devastated lives and overwhelmed ecosystems- pale in comparison with upkeep of our consumptive way of life.

The means by which we get our ends, that is the pattern of growth capitalism, has become the focus of our attention. But as E.F. Schumacher describes it writing in Small Is Beautiful, “The trouble with valuing the ends- which, as confirmed by Keynes, is the attitude of modern economics- is that it destroys man’s freedom and power to chose the ends he really favours; the development of means, as it were, dictates the choice of ends.” That is, by accepting as unalterable our pattern of unending economic growth, we are in fact limiting ourselves and perhaps prescribing the end of the success of the human species as this means of living hurls us towards a future of ecological, agricultural and social collapse.

Industrial agriculture operates within an economic framework that says the cheapest food possible is the best food. It operates within a social framework that says machines are better suited than people to the backbreaking work of growing food because machines are more efficient. (Notice the assumed notion that the work is back breaking in the first place!) It operates within a cultural framework that says citizens don’t grow their own food, multinational corporations do it for them. It operates within a political framework that favors the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. It operates within an environmental framework that says the natural world is not a system to be worked within but a system to be dominated by humans. And it operates without paying attention to other real issues facing the people who eat the food, namely food security, resource stewardship, and the fostering of a relationship between humans and the natural world that sustains them.

By all of this I mean that instead of focusing on what we want on our table, namely tasty, nutritious food that supports our friends and neighbors who grow it and protects the resources that make it possible for our children to eat in the future and reminds us daily of just how much the natural world has to offer if we work with it- instead of focusing on the ends of this sort of food on our tables, we are focusing instead on the means mentioned above. In other words we take it as a given that the frameworks mentioned above are simply unchangeable facts of life. We buy into the notion that cheap food is good or even possible. We avert our eyes at the real costs. We believe it when we’re told that machines not people should be growing food and that we can not and should not grow our own. That would just be too hard! We accept without question the notion that a small number of companies should be in charge of the decisions that dictate what we can and can not eat. Surely Monsanto and the US Federal government know what we want for dinner! And sadly we’ve grown to suppose that the natural resources of this world will be able to supply as much cheap food as we want forever without any thought given to how the land itself is cared for. That last supposition might prove the most dangerous for as we are seeing, our world has its limits, and we are currently eating beyond them.

But within these limits there is a bounty available for our harvest. Earth does offer an amazing opportunity for growing what we need to feed the people of this planet. It’s important then to ask ourselves not what ends are available given our current means of production, but what means of production will give us our desired ends. It is here in this refocusing of our attention that we can reverse the trend of America, away from a land of consumers and back towards a nation of people who know what they want to eat and who can retool how to grow it and cook it.

Part of this of course goes back to the very idea of work as described by those who critiqued my idea of a shorter work week. The more general criticism I think was a notion that time is in fact divided into two distinct categories. We are either working or we are enjoying ourselves. The notion is that labor is awful, something we must receive compensation to endure not something we genuinely enjoy and do out of desire. The popularly used acronym T.G.I.F. stands for Thank God It’s Friday, meaning how wonderful Fridays are because they signal the end of the dreary work week and the beginning of the wonderful workless weekend! The notion of enjoyment associated with work in this country is no longer the norm. And that’s something we’re going to have to recognize and try to change if we’re going to convince more people to do more work for themselves.

The truth is, gardening and farming can be hard work. Some of its labors, especially done without the use of machines powered by fossil fuels, can be really hard work. I’ve double dug enough beds in compacted clay soils to know that doing that chore is very labor intensive. I can guess that digging a small pond by hand would even more so but very little of the work of growing our own food should be described as backbreaking. Even some of the more laborious stuff is it in fact is very enjoyable. It’s not the physical effort that keeps more of us from taking on this work but perhaps the idea that it is work and therefore not enjoyable. That is, in this country we have come to view “work” as the opposite of fun and therefore it should be avoided at all costs. Really though this is not true. Even really physically strenuous work can be fun. We have allowed a sort of pina-colada-by-the-beach fun to replace the idea that some kinds of fun might actually require physical effort. And this is a shame because an afternoon spent working diligently and laboriously on a project can be great fun. The notion that work is to be avoided at all costs is regrettable. This seems to stem from the fact that the duality of work and leisure- the notion that there is a time for work and a time for relaxation and the two are mutually exclusive- has expanded into the notion that work itself can not be fun. Both work and leisure can be enjoyable.

And of course there are ways of maximizing the enjoyment of physically demanding or otherwise toilsome projects. The Amish are famous for their barn raising, a task that literally demands more effort than any one man can offer. So they get together as a community to do the work. This has the benefit of being more fun because of the social aspect of the project but also allows individuals to offer their own personal tools and talents. A tough job that might seem like torture to an individual undertaking the task alone will find the task actually enjoyable when done with others, especially those who know how to do parts of it better or faster. The same is true of course for tasks that aren’t as much physically demanding as they are monotonous or boring. Shelling thousands of beans might seem like the dreariest way possible to spend a weekend. And left alone those chores do sounds incredibly uninteresting. That is one reason the projects were done together as a family or even at a community gathering. The seemingly tedious work of shucking acres of corn is actually a lot of fun if you get together with friends and neighbors, share some food and some stories and all shuck together fir an evening. The point is that growing food, and for that matter, living life from self sufficiently in general will require effort. Anything worthwhile in this life seems to. Now is not the time to shy away from work but to engage in the notion that the hard is worthwhile, the real hard can be a community effort and a little creativity can keep work from just being dull.


Anonymous said...

You have taken the words from my mouth, Your Spot on. Gardening is hard work, and I do do it by hand, and no it is not "back bracking" I'm 51 and of those I have grown 38 gardens. My grand mother showed me how as a little boy. This is just what one did in her day. I love gardening. I have been told that I was born in the wrong time, but maybe not...
I know that I spend less time in the garden thanI do at work, I also know that I save more time than it takes to work for the money to buy the food that I eat at the quality and quantity I want.
mark in Colo.

riverbird said...

sorry i didn't read the full length of your post, i have an aversion to multiple page writinigs these days.

regardless, gardening is a time consuming activity.

and in terms of labor, remember that all of Capitalism is built on Labor, so when you withold it, is becomes more valuable.

the (moron) who argues that a person is lazy or wimpish if they don't work 75 hrs/ week is only accomplishing one thing, devaluing their own labor by selling it for pennies on the dollar; or elsewise, they are the said capitalist and wanting to devalue labor by having You work these many hours.

what gets left out of most econ 101 discussions, in terms of supply and demand of goods - is labor itself, supply and demand. the less there is available, the more it's worth. it's certainily a catch-22; if folks would refuse to work all these excessive hours, wages would go up. and vice versa.