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How To Be Useful
What physics can teach us about work
Last week I spoke with Bob Jensen about the book he co-authored with Wes Jackson, An Inconvenient Apocalypse. What I loved about this episode was that rather than going through the book bit by bit, we got to the core of its message by swapping stories: stories of community resilience, stories of destruction, stories of creativity, stories of joy, stories of grief, and how all of these important facets of human expression may be rediscovered once the neoliberal agenda is destroyed, or destroys the world as we understand it.
Now, that’s not to pass over the devastating turbulence happening all over the world: 33 million Pakistanis were displaced by floods last year; 250,000 Somalians last week. The turmoil is already on our shores. What we must remember is our human capacity for love, resilience, creativity, innovation and connection lies untapped in a world which peddles cultural stories of opposition, polarisation and danger.
When those stories of greed and selfishness break down to the degree that our systems begin to fail, as we are already seeing, perhaps then news stories will be able to emerge. And these new stories are the ones that will see us through to the other side. In my work, I refer to this inbetween space as “wiggle room”—the possibility of uncertainty.
In a world where we cannot know what will happen, telling stories about what already is happening allows us to create what then may be. This is critical because right now we live in a world where the stories of what is happening are edited to fit the story of a future in which business-as-usual survives. We are living in the story of “the old future”, as Bob calls it, and these pervasive beliefs must be rewritten so we can see the world for what it is.
The story I’d like to tackle today is the story of work.
During the episode, Bob discusses the concept of hard work, and the bourgeoisie resistance to hard work, to manual labour. I have belonged to this camp in the past; thinking about transitioning to a low energy society made me squirm as I thought about having to work the land, having to go slow, having to use my body. I was deeply resistant to the idea of manual labour.
There’s a lot that’s understandable: Hard work is hard, it’s often uncomfortable, especially when exploited by a capitalist who profits from that discomfort. Hard work is also uncomfortable when it takes a toll on your body, and it's incredibly uncomfortable when you don't have a choice. I’m fortunate in that I haven’t had to participate in such work since waitressing as a teenager; it was exhausting, sometimes painful, and occasionally demeaning. I would never choose to return to waitressing, if possible.
However, I was wrong to conflate that kind of hard work—participating in an exploitative economy for survival as an individual—to the manual labour our low energy economy might demand. Bob talks about the hard work that he and his community in rural New Mexico participate in together to collectively manage the irrigation system. He says that once we remove the framing that everything has to be done by the individual in order for the individual to survive, hard work can become a collective force and a collective responsibility, making it much easier and an act of relationship-building, of connection.
There is another layer to this worth exploring. Let us think about work within the terms of physics: useful work. In thermodynamics, useful work refers to work that can be used to perform a specific task or accomplish a useful purpose. Our bodies are made up of useful work. According to physics, work is merely the expenditure of energy, and everything is expending energy all of the time as the universe grows and expands.
Every living things is expending energy in order to get energy. However, humans are the worst at it. Our system of industrial agriculture uses 10 calories of energy to produce 1 calorie of food. We are incredibly inefficient as an industrial societies. But the point remains that every living being expends energy to stay alive; perhaps being alive is a form of expending energy. We can reframe work, then, as being alive.
There are some pitfalls which must be avoided: if work as energy expenditure is being alive then those who cannot participate labour must not be devalued or viewed as lesser, as is the case in capitalism. This isn’t about productivity, it’s about removing the binary between work and leisure in order to enjoy the responsibility of being alive and in community.
I love to hike. My last big solo hike was Le Sentier Cathares in the South of France. Every day, I walked around 35 kilometres up and down craggy mountains, exhausted by the time I made camp in the evening. Utterly spent—and blissful. What was I doing? I was doing useful work. I was moving my body in order to spend time in nature, and exhausting myself in order to have that happy endorphin glue at the end of the day.
There really is no difference between that and, say, the manual labor of cleaning a home, or the manual labour of being in the wood shop all day as long as those are the things one chooses to do. That's not to say that we all get to live a life of doing exactly what we want when we want—those people are called the elite and they cause problems—but it is to say that when your labour benefits yourself, we will often happily expend energy to do it. Using this frame, working the land in order to grow food for those I care about can be just as pleasurable and meaningful as a hike through the French mountains. Perhaps more so.
We are all here, expending energy all the time. What we do may as well be useful.
© Rachel Donald
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