Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Good work and the idea of 'vacation'

Knowing something of my experiences among subsistence farming communities in Asia, the editors of a popular online travel magazine recently asked that I supply a short piece on ‘agro-eco-tourism.’ They wanted me to explain why, in their words, “Working on a farm beats sitting on a beach.”

The audience of this online magazine, according to the editors, consists predominantly of young travelers (late teens, early twenties) who are more or less “green” in both their political leanings and their degree of life experience. I was asked to “point them in the direction of enlightenment through sage travel advice,” a tall order, to say the least. I – reluctantly – accepted the challenge.

The charge issued me by the magazine’s editors caused me to think precisely why I would recommend this type of travel, what makes it superior to more conventional forms of tourism. This turned out to be a difficult question, a question for which I found it hard to provide answers that were substantially more than platitudes and pablum such as, “You gain a deeper experience of the culture and the ecosystem when you work alongside the locals.” In fact I’m not sure what I submitted to the magazine in the end represents much more than that.

The reason, I think, that I have had such a difficult time providing a meaningful answer to the editors’ question is that my travels are not, in the first place, motivated by recreation. Rather they are an extension of my work and research. The particular experiences I’m going for under the (admittedly contrived) rubric of ‘agro-eco-tourism’ follow logically from my studies and work as a researcher in environmental science and ecological economics.

In my travels, I’m motivated to uncover holistic approaches to life being lived out in situ – communities thriving in obvious interdependence and synchronization with local eco-systemic cycles and processes. My purpose is to identify cultures and practices that provide for both human well-being and ecological sustainability, and are extensible to other communities worldwide. I’ve chosen this purpose because my studies and life experiences in the West have indicated that civilization has veered dangerously off-course in both of these dimensions (human well-being and ecological sustainability). The aim of my travel is to gather experiences and information that will help to correct the currently errant and destructive course of human society.

Thus, how I travel is an extension of my world-view, to paraphrase Virginia farmer Joel Salatin (who maintains that, “how he produces a chicken is an extension of his world-view”). Choices regarding the particular communities and experiences I engage with flow naturally from my motivation to discern how best to spend my life energy undertaking activities that are both pleasing to me and that I can consider, with a high degree of confidence, to be beneficial to the world.

Accordingly, it is difficult for me to reduce the benefits of ‘eco-agro-tourism’ into a kind of brochure for the enticement of travelers whom, I presume, are engaged in travel from primarily a recreational perspective. Let me be clear that by this I do not intend to insult these prospective travelers, or denigrate their motivations for traveling. A life without recreation is certainly not conducive of human well-being, and is in all likelihood unsustainable as well. It’s just that I’m not sure I can adequately characterize the benefits of my form of purpose-driven travel for an audience that is perhaps more in the mind-set of recreation-motivated travel.

In other words, working on a farm and sitting on a beach are not commensurable or substitutable activities – both are appropriate and necessary, depending upon the intentions and desires of the traveler. “For everything there is a season,” as Ecclesiastes admonishes us to remember.

Even in my travels, which are geared firstly according to the criterion of making progress in my research and projects, I take periods of time out to go backpacking in the Himalaya, snorkeling in tropical seas, or plunging down a river on a rickety bamboo platform. Also, I try and maintain a daily schedule of recreation during “productive” periods as well, going jogging through the villages, swimming in lakes, etc. In this way my traveling life is not unlike my non-traveling life when I’m based in the US.

Which brings up a point that I think deserves attention – the idea, in mainstream Western culture, of the ‘vacation.’ I began my essay for the travel magazine with the following statement:

“Let me start by offering the disclaimer that I have no particular use for what is commonly called a ‘vacation.’ Vacations are for people who find their jobs unpleasant, and so desire to ‘get away from it all’ as often as possible and for as long as possible. For these folks, sitting on a beach is probably the most appropriate option, simply because the idea of working while on vacation would seem repugnant. Even so, I would ask them why they despise their jobs and so need to ‘get away,’ and if this is the case why they keep showing up every Monday AM…”

While it is undoubtedly inaccurate to presume that most people positively hate their jobs, it is surely safe to assume that most people would not turn up for work if they weren’t being paid to do so. It is for these people, who essentially require bribery to do the work that they do, that the concepts of ‘vacation’ and ‘leisure’ exist. The common conception is that one endures one’s work in order to enjoy oneself at a later time – in off-hours or while ‘on vacation.’ The implicit assumption is that one’s work is mainly constituted by undesirable activities – activities one would not choose to do if one were free to choose, or that one would not perform voluntarily if one were not being paid.

Upon making this realization, the two questions that spring to mind are, “Why is work necessarily onerous?” and “Must it be so?” Why do most of us draw a distinct line between work and play, between “business and pleasure”? And is this distinction a necessary and ineluctable fact of life, or simply a mutable facet of the culture we find ourselves – at least for the moment – embedded in?

I tend to think the latter is true, although my belief is perhaps more of a religious, rather than scientific, nature. I don’t believe that our work has to be onerous, or that we must compartmentalize it separately from ‘enjoyment,’ ‘leisure,’ and ‘recreation.’ In fact, I will go further to assert that very often work has been made separate and devoid of pleasure by industrialization and ‘market culture.’ If this is correct, then agrarian values and lifestyle practices present the potential for re-harmonization of work and pleasure.

In an essay published in Resurgence magazine in 1974 entitled “Insane Work Cannot Produce a Sane Society,” E. F. Schumacher states that:

“It has been universally recognized, in all authentic teachings of mankind, that every being born into this world has to work not merely to keep himself alive but to strive towards perfection. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.’ To keep himself alive, he needs various goods and services, which will not be forthcoming without labour. To perfect himself, he needs purposeful activity in accordance with the injunction, ‘Whichever gift each of you have received, use it in service to one another, like good stewards dispensing the grace of God in its varied forms.’ (I Peter, 4:10).”

And Schumacher continues:

“From this, we may derive the three purposes of human work as follows:
First: to provide society with the goods and services which are necessary or useful to it,
Second: to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards; and,
Third: to do so in service to, and in co-operation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our in-born egocentricity.”

Schumacher contrasts this characterization and purposing of work with the conditions experienced by British factory workers, exemplified by a statement from The Times that

“Dante, when composing his visions of hell, might well have included the mindless, repetitive boredom of working on a factory assembly line. It destroys initiative and rots brains, yet millions of British workers are committee to it for most of their lives.”

Given this characterization, it is plain why such workers would feel in need of a vacation, and would make a clear distinction between work and pleasure.

Furthermore, this statement pertains to factory workers, but much the same could be said of office workers as well, and workers in the so-called “service economy.” How many of our corporate jobs entail a high degree of mindlessness? How many employees of huge corporations can claim to feel a healthy sense of initiative on the job? And, perhaps surprisingly to some, these questions can only be answered in the negative even by many university students and professors. (I can personally attest to this last, given the many frustrating years I spent in academia.)

This is so, according to Schumacher, owing to overly complicated and outsized societal and economic structures. In other words, when structures such as businesses, bureaucracies, industries and other social, political and economic units grow beyond their optimal size and degree of complexity, the result is the reduction or elimination of the ‘human factor,’ or the ‘human touch.’ Overlarge structures necessarily entail excessive specialization, fragmentation of the parts, and division of labor – an individual begins to ‘feel like a number,’ rather than a person, and becomes “too specialized to be able to attain wisdom,” according to Schumacher.

That our many of our scientists and industrial technicians have become “too specialized to be able to attain wisdom” is obvious, I think, in the advent and proliferation of such technologies as nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; various forms of corporate biotechnology such as GMOs and the ‘terminator’ technology of seeds; the patent absurdities of mainstream economic theory; and the wasteful, frivolous and destructive use of non-renewable energies (which often entail the destruction of renewable sources of energy in their procurement and use, such as forests in the case of mountain-top-removal coal mining).

However, as stated above, I believe that agrarian values and lifestyle practices present the potential for re-harmonization of work and pleasure, and furthermore of consilience between the technological and the ecological. Discovering such values and practices in their particularity is the object of my research and travels.

Considering Schumacher’s statements on the purpose of human labor in turn, we see that, first and foremost, agrarian work serves to “provide society with the goods and services which are necessary or useful to it,” such as nutritious, clean food, grown without harmful chemicals and in a manner that is not destructive to the soil or the local ecosystem. Agrarian life also involves the needful activities of providing comely and well-made shelter for members of the community, and the varied necessary community support services such as childcare and care for the elderly and infirm, assistance with household duties for those in need (such as at the time of death of a family member), and so on.

Second, agrarian life enables “every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards.” In the agrarian tradition (much of which is still intact in the remote Himalayan villages of Ladakh, for example) young children work in the fields alongside their grandparents. The older children are very involved in caring for and teaching the young. This contact between the ages and generations is crucial for passing on culture, wisdom and traditions. However, by dividing society into age categories (beginning in grade school and continuing ever-afterwards, until the elderly are consigned to geriatric ghettos called “nursing homes” to await death or the occasional visit of younger family members) these links are severed and the age groups alienated from one another.

Additionally, agrarian work is necessarily generalist work. It takes a huge variety of knowledge, wisdom and experience to be a good farmer, a good husband to animals, a skillful and thrifty employer of appropriate, human-scale technologies, and a good community member. There is great need for diversity of talent, both within and among individuals. And there is ample opportunity for practice and development of talents towards the goal of perfection and harmony with the local community and the local ecosystem. There is always room for improvement, and infinite opportunities for learning and the accumulation and sharing of wisdom.

Thirdly, agrarian life lays bare humans’ interdependence with one another and with the ecosystems that comprise our life support system. Two of the most dangerous illusions of modern society are its obscuring of our vital connection with nature, and its promotion of highly exaggerated forms individualism. Agrarianism seeks to heal this discord by placing us “in service to, and in co-operation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our in-born egocentricity.” Liberation from this egocentricity permits us to leave behind the hubris with which the modern lifestyle regards the environment – as an inert, formless mass awaiting our intellect and energies to re-form it into whichever conformation gives us the maximum momentary pleasure. Agrarianism involves our inhabiting a niche within nature, rather than supplanting ourselves as dominators over it.

Furthermore, in agrarian philosophy cooperation is the rule, as opposed to competition. The modern social paradigm segregates us by age group and professional specialty and pits us in intense competition with one another. To wit: standardized testing, the extremity of emphasis placed on young peoples’ performance in competitive sports, and the draconian regime of “no child left behind” in our educational institutions. And these examples can all be witnessed at once in a single visit to a very ordinary grade school or high school. Adults face similar pressures in the job market and competitive world of professional careers.

Competitive pressures play upon the ego and develop the most base of human instincts for selfishness and greed. Thus we come to regard one another, and just as perniciously, nature itself, as simply a means to satisfying our own selfish desires for possessions, consumption and personal glorification. On the other hand, agrarianism necessarily entails our transcendence, as individuals and as a society, of these destructive manifestations of egocentricity.

When Schumacher’s three conditions for ‘good work’ are met and the rifts between ourselves and nature healed, I think we cannot help but enjoy our work. The escapism that characterizes many workers’ present need for ‘vacations,’ for ‘getting away from it all,’ will be rendered obsolete. The need for recreation, on the other hand, will remain intact, as it is an irreducible requirement for human well-being. Even farmers and goat-herders need to “just sit on the beach” sometimes.

So as to whether “working on a farm beats sitting on a beach,” the answer, I’m afraid, is wholly dependent upon one’s purpose for traveling and one’s relationship to one’s work.


Anonymous said...

Excellent definition of most types of work. Also the need for vacation. Although many vacations are spent visiting historical sites, museums, forts, etc, - if you remember. Different types of "vacations" for different people. What is the magazine your article is in?

I love you.

Love, Mom

Tim said...

Terrific blog, Josh - I devoured it, start to finish.

But you did write a great article for BNT after all - it's due for publication tomorrow, and I think it will open a few eyes.