Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Nature of Work: Earth, Community, and Healing Alienation Part II

Rooted in “ecological science and systems theory” (Holmgren, 2004, p. 4) as well as community research, religious traditions, and native cultures of place (ibid, p. 6), permaculture stems from three interrelated ethical maxims: “Care for the earth (husband soil, forests and water)”; “Care for people (look after self, kin and community)” ; and “Fair share (set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus)” (ibid, p. 6). Furthermore, the word permaculture not only means permanent and sustainable agriculture but also permanent and sustainable culture (ibid, p. 1). Bill Mollison, one of the co-originators of the concept, maintains that a stable social order is not possible without some form of permanent agroecology (Carr, 2004, p. 150) and method of human habitat design, which has too often reinforced our schism with nature (Suzuki, 2007, p. 261). Permaculture’s design principles are applicable from the home garden scale to entire cities (Carr, 2004, p. 152) as well as to politics and economics. In permaculture’s view, caring for people and caring for the earth cannot be divorced from one another, and caring for the former cannot happen without caring for the latter. Human societies can and should be based on mutualisms in natural ecosystems, such as mycorrhizal fungi on tree roots, in order to foster a “fundamental ethic of interdependence and kinship” (ibid, p. 150).

This suggestion is not an impossible pipedream. David Suzuki reminds us that for nearly all of human existence we lived wholly immersed in nature and are still utterly dependent on it (Suzuki, 2007, p. 255). Ninety-nine percent of human existence has been lived in small egalitarian hunter-gatherer/horticultural band societies that imitated their bioregional habitats (ibid, p. 248), which was and is the norm for many indigenous cultures. Because of this ecological context of human evolution, Suzuki argues, it is extremely probable that the human genome has “a genetically programmed need to be in the company of other species” (ibid, p. 256). The biologist and myrmecologist E. O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe this engrained need, defined as “‘the innate tendency to focus on life and life-like processes,’” thus producing an emotional connection between humans and other forms of life (ibid, p. 256) that will certainly be culturally shaped and embodied. Because of this, Suzuki asserts that it is scientifically verifiable that human creatures have an evolved need for intimacy with nature and, citing Roger S. Ulrich, purports that much of humanity’s search for meaning and fulfillment depends on our relationship to the earth (ibid, p. 259).

Mary Clark agrees by claiming that purposeful meaning and a sense of belonging comprise two of humanity’s most basic needs (Clark, 2002, p. 364). These two central needs, along with the need for nature, have enormous power to heal trauma, and Clark also references research by Ulrich which suggests that views of nature substantially reduce time needed to recover from surgery (ibid, pp. 226-227). On a similar note, inmates in a Michigan state prison with cell windows viewing farms and forest required twenty-four percent fewer medical visits than inmates with windows facing the interior courtyard (Suzuki, 2007, p. 257).

Moreover, Clark stresses that humans need interactive communities, which means “belonging in a physical place, shared by known others,” because without “this grounding in [our] physical surroundings,” community disintegrates into apathetic societies (ibid, p. 395). As perceptual psychologist James J. Gibson notes, sentient beings can only survive if they actively explore their surroundings, which requires that they actually physically move through them (ibid, p. 164). This physical movement concretizes and contextualizes recognition of place and begins to uncover both preventative and curative approaches to trauma and violence. Indeed, Clark suggests that the nature and practice of community presented here, which reflectively roots humanity within the earth’s ecosystems, can begin to address both our human and environmental problems (ibid, p. 306). We won’t save places we don’t love, and we can’t love places we don’t know, and we can’t know places with which we aren’t intimately familiar. Perhaps some exceptions are conceivable, but proximity matters: where I live, who I live there with, and how I live define my relationship to the world.

From his Kentucky farm, Wendell Berry submits that the name of this relationship to the world is work, and the name of an appropriate relationship to the earth is good work (Berry, 1993, p. 35). For Berry, good work is given shape in particularity, because the diversity of the world and of those who work is contextually shaped and named (ibid, p. 36). But this particularity is informed by the common need to consciously and carefully decide “[h]ow we take our lives from this world, how we work, what work we do, how well we use the materials we use, and what we do with them after we have used them” (ibid, p. 109) because caring for the earth is an ancient responsibility, and one that must be done well if humanity is to survive (Berry, 2002, p. 46).

Clearly, by work I do not mean any task done in exchange for payment or something grueling which distracts us from more productive pursuits. I mean work, at least good work, as the union of the body and mind in creative and responsible engagement with the world. In this case, work and play are not antithetical. Permaculture’s rigorous design principles and cooperatively-managed agroecosystems reduce the amount of labor hours because they let ecological succession to take its course, thus allowing far more leisure time. This is important because, as psychiatrist James Gilligan notes, unalienated labor is only possible if it expresses “spontaneous and voluntary creativity, curiosity, playfulness, initiative, and sociability—that is, the sense of solidarity with the community, the fulfillment of one’s true and ‘essential’ human nature as ‘social’ and ‘political’ animals, to be fulfilled and made human by their full participation in a culture” (Gilligan, 2001, p. 103).

This articulation resonates with traditional societies that believed good work is the en-fleshing of wisdom, which is not only intellectual but is “any activity that stands in a consistently productive relationship to the material world and nurtures the creative imagination” (Davis, 2009, p. 144). Imagination must include the ability to conceive of others not ourselves, including humans, nonhumans, and places, and so work, if it is to be good work, in one place cannot deal destructively with other places. If society is interconnected, then this imagination must be focused on victims and offenders as well.

Unfortunately, modern Western societies have unimaginatively prized the intellectual at the expense of the physical and the ordinary, even if such work is skilled, to the extent that such work is shamed (ibid, p. 144). While Karl Marx never questioned capitalism’s foundation on progressive industrialism, and so did not make the distinction made here between work and good work, he nevertheless attacked this alienation of labor. According to Marx, modern life is tainted by alienation, which can only be remedied by the fair opportunity to pursue a desirable life (Kupperman, 2010, p. 145), understood as “a balanced work life and also satisfactory connections with other human beings in general” (ibid, p. 143), which should sound familiar by now. The present division of labor, however, prevents this balance because workers are alienated from work: they have no ownership or input into the kind of work being done (ibid, p. 148) because they are mechanistically relegated to one simplified task in an operation system (ibid, p. 149). As such, alienation chips away at any possible participation in meaningful community (Clark, 2002, p. 25). Economic and social arrangements must be transformed in order for diversified modes of fulfilling work to take place. Such could be the case in networked and diversified urban or rural permaculture systems that viewed work like Berry and Gilligan, a movement already happening.

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