Friday, February 10, 2012

Work and Ecology: Less Is More

Originally published May 22, 2011

As for the agrarian Romans, the insatiable mouth of empire devoured the land, clearing it for agriculture and leading to irreversible erosion in regions that were once the most fertile in the world. It is hard to imagine that a civilization as brilliant as that of the Greeks, or an empire engineered and administered so efficiently as that of the Romans, could remain so blind in their practices as to bring about the ruin of the ground on which their survivals were based.
—Robert Pogue Harrison, Forests: the Shadow of Civilization

Herring, if any desire them, I have taken many out of the bellies of Cods, some in nets; but the savages compare their store in the Sea, to the hairs of their heads: and surely there are an incredible abundance upon this Coast. In the end of August, September, October, and November, you have Cod again, to make Cor fish, or Poor John: and each hundred is as good as two or three hundred in the New-found Land.
—John Smith, A Description of New England (1616)

Spring has unfolded haltingly this year, the snow hanging on in the forest almost into May, the skies grey and cool, the normal seasonal warmth slow to return. The robins are back though, and we are awakened at five o’clock by their daily morning song, which lasts for more than an hour. The forest green is interrupted with delicate bursts of white Juneberry flowers, and the aspens, birches, and apples are all unfurling tiny leaves. From our cultivated gardens we’ve already harvested rhubarb, asparagus, violets, sedums, giant Solomon’s seal, cat-tail shoots, ostrich fern fiddleheads and the young leaves of bluebead lilies, which taste like cucumbers. Only two of those plants, asparagus and rhubarb, are from away, as native Mainers say. (They’re native only in the sense that their families have been here for at least several generations, but they’re of European descent like most of us more recent arrivals. We’re all usurpers). The others we’ve bought or transplanted ourselves, and are encouraging their spread in various places in our forest gardens.

From a gardener’s perspective, the great thing about the natives—the plants, not the non-native native Mainers—is that they require so little work. They’re already adapted to the thin, acidic forest soils and New England’s variable climate, so most of what we have to do is stick them in the ground in the kind of habitat they like—wet, dry, full shade, part shade—and watch them grow. There’s a lesson here, though it’s one we’re slow to learn: Work, for an individual or a society, begins with the effort required to modify or eradicate the ecology that’s there and replace it with something else. For most of history, this is in fact exactly what was meant by the word work. Even more specifically: in most places it meant cutting down forests and then hoeing, plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting fields. In another word, farming. That was the first work and it is still the one that is prior to all others. 

The Puritans who settled around Massachusetts Bay are well known for their vaunted work ethic, but I suspect that they had no choice in the matter. Their food came from fields planted with crops that weren’t native to anywhere within 3000 miles, which meant making wholesale changes to the ecology. Since economies create cultural values as much as vice versa, it seems reasonable to assume that the Puritan faith in the redemptive powers of hard work was no more than an effort to make a virtue of necessity. If unremitting toil is the price you have to pay to get your daily bread, you may as well tell yourself that Providence is smiling on your efforts. And there’s no doubt about it, waging daily war on a native ecology, trying to make it grow one thing when its collective DNA tells it to grow another, is hard work and risky business. The power of stories to bend a culture’s collective thought should not be underestimated: the Puritans turned their noses up at the mussels and lobsters that were there on the coast for the taking, thinking them fit only as food for their servants. 

Meanwhile the lifestyles of the real natives, i.e. the various Algonkian tribes of the northeast, whose claims on the land go back millennia rather than a century or two, offended the Puritan belief in work as virtue. Among the tribes who raised corn, beans, and squash, only the women did the work of planting, weeding, and harvesting. The Puritans applauded their industry, but condemned as wastrels the men who spent their days hunting or fishing or making weapons or playing games. But since they got their food from the ecologies that was already there, i.e. forest, river, and sea, they did little that the Puritans recognized as work. They modified the forest to facilitate their hunting, but that involved no more than burning the understory in Spring or Fall. In the world of English social and economic relations, there was a name for people who spent their days hunting and fishing and sporting rather than in the real work of tending fields and growing food: royalty. And it was only royalty that ate a diet rich in game animals and birds, since only they had access to the royal forests.

Today of course not one person in a hundred takes up the hard work of farming, and most of that work, and the other work of modifying or eradicating native ecologies—mining, drilling, paving, damming, logging—is performed by big machines running on fossil fuels. Today when most of us in the developed world speak of going to work, we mean something else entirely from altering the landscape in one way or another. Mostly what we mean by work is one of the nearly infinite forms of administration and communication that have either come into being or become common endeavors since the advent of fossil fuels. At the end of the day, nothing is created in this work but words, which means the work itself is in essence no more than elaborate, highly ritualized and mostly institutionalized forms of storytelling. Made possible because the essential work, the making of food, clothing, shelter, energy, and other things, is carried out by machines that need only a very small number of people to operate them.

This level of abstraction in most people’s daily experience of work has made it difficult for us as a culture to remember that work, and the wealth it creates, inevitably begins with an assault against native ecologies, an effort to make the land more productive than it is in a wild, or only slightly modified state. From this perspective, work is the necessary agent of the ideology of conquest and control that are at the heart of the agricultural and industrial enterprise. Since the work is unpleasant and antithetical to how most people would choose to spend their days given a choice, for most of history it has been done by forced labor, i.e. slaves, indentured servants, or masses of landless peasants constrained by economic necessity. Only when fossil fuels and industrialization came along was it possible to gradually eliminate the more coercive of those relationships.

Knowing that work is at its most elemental a war against ecology gives us yet another reason to modify our native ecology as little as possible in our efforts to get our food, clothing, energy, and shelter from it. This is a (small p) protestant non-work ethic. It is a protest against engaging in wanton violence against an intact ecology, a protest against unnecessary toil, whether performed by us, other people, or machines, and a recognition that if we want to benefit from all of the embodied energy and intelligence in a native ecology, we have to do less, not more. 

Put more specifically: If we want to grow a forest here in eastern North America, we can go on permanent vacation and let the forest take care of the work of growing itself, which it inevitably will. In energy terms, the energy returned over energy invested, or net energy, is just about the maximum possible. (We only have to deduct the energy we use to harvest whatever grows in the forest that we want or need). So is the time we have to do other things we might find more enjoyable than work, such as hunting, fishing, exploring and studying the forest, telling stories, making or listening to music, reading books, visiting friends, or a hundred other things that gather under the general headings of culture and leisure. On the other hand, if we want to grow a field of wheat, say, the odds of its growing itself here are effectively zero. Which means if we want wheat grown locally, some body or machine is going to have to do a lot of work, beginning with removing whatever is now growing on the future field. History shows that when the work is done we can expect an energy returned over energy invested just a little better than parity, at least in the short term. In the long term, the return may be less than zero, depending on local conditions.

Lacking the Puritan’s conviction that the creator of the universe wanted nothing so much as a field of wheat where forest had always grown, or even the conviction that the universe has a creator with an active interest in horticultural practices here on Earth, or that if the universe does in fact have a single creator, that his, her, or its mind is knowable, if we want to kill the native ecology and grow that field of wheat we’re going to have to justify it on some other terms. By our reckoning, the net return of waging war against an ecology in psychological, cultural, ecological, and even economic terms, is less than zero.

It’s no wonder that the native people here, the Wabanaki, never developed a work ethic, at least not one recognizable to Europeans. Of what use would it have been? They had figured out that by letting the forest and coastal ecologies do most of the work of creating food, and by finding a place for themselves in those ecologies, they could meet all of their needs, enjoy a lifestyle that suited them, and inflict little or no long-term damage on the land or sea. Our own culture, the one that arrived here with the Puritan farmers, took the opposite approach, relying on long days of labor and a conviction that proper food came from a small selection of domestic plants and animals that were superior to any found in a native uncultivated ecology. 

It isn’t surprising then that our own culture’s rediscovery of the benefits of local food has little to do with plants and animals that actually belong to a region’s ecology, but is limited to the practice of both raising and eating food in a single place. Most of the plants and animals—greens, beans, root vegetables, apples, herbs, chickens, cows, sheep—are the same that the Puritans brought here almost four hundred years ago. The local food movement helps solves the problems of reducing transportation miles traveled by the food, increasing the food’s freshness, and supporting local farm economies, but it does nothing to help alter or alleviate our culture’s principal occupation of assaulting every native ecology it encounters. If anything it encourages that work.

Of course many of the practices that the Wabanaki relied on are no longer available to us. The ocean and rivers especially are depleted to a point where they may never recover. The Grand Banks cod fishery alone supplied Europe with 60% of all the fish it ate in the seventeenth century. John Smith, who made himself a small fortune from the cod he caught in the Gulf of Maine, and other English explorers claimed that the fishery here was even better. And that’s just one fish. The inshore waters and rivers here also hosted prodigious runs of herring, salmon, shad, mackerel, eel, and alewives. In our household we all love seafood, and I would be more than happy to be able to catch enough fish to feed us for a week or a month by spending a day fishing from a canoe on the inshore waters of the coast or on the Penobscot River, but the fisheries have all been so abused that those days are long gone. 

On land the forest we have now is radically different from the one hunted by the Wabanaki. The nut-bearing oaks, beech, hickories, and chestnuts that provided nuts (and nut flours and nut oils) for people and fed so many of the game animals that they hunted have mostly been logged and sold off, and the forest is now mostly spruce and red maple, which provide much less food for mammals. Game birds were far more abundant also; some, such as the auk and passenger pigeon are gone forever, having been hunted to extinction. The passenger pigeon was by all accounts delicious, and so numerous that it is estimated that they accounted for more than half the birds in America. Early settlers reported flocks so large that they darkened the skies for hours at a time as they passed overhead.

The important point about these rich ecologies and the food they provided, the salient fact of culture and economy, it that people had been living among this abundance for more than 10,000 years. The stories our culture tells about resource use have a hard time reconciling the twin facts of long human habitation with almost unbelievable abundance. We much prefer to scour the planet for examples of overexploitation and collapse—Easter Island for example, or the Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis. They comfort us with the notion that what our culture and economy are doing to the planet and our own resource base is inevitable, that other human cultures have done the same, and that the scale of our destruction is only the result of our superior technological prowess and numbers. 

So we ignore the stories that don’t fit that model. You’ve probably come across more magazine articles and book chapters about the people of Easter Island and the ecological collapse of that small Pacific Island than about the Wabanaki, who lived here (and still do) on the coast of Maine and Maritime Canada. The Easter Islanders are practically celebrities among societies covered by ecological historians, but the Wabanaki have far more to teach us. They lived here where we live. Somehow, they found a balance between themselves and the rest of the ecology in their homeland. Their long tenure here puts paid to the fiction that human culture and ecological health are fundamentally at odds. Some cultures make a mess of their homes. Others don’t. 

One of the fundamental differences between the two is in the nature of work. For cultures based on agriculture, work is mainly the hard labor of making fundamental changes to an ecology and ongoing efforts to make the land produce things that won’t grow without significant inputs of energy. For other cultures, work means making slight modifications to an ecology to make it produce more of certain food species, and then harvesting those products. In these cultures, there’s generally less work, the harvests are more reliable, and the quality and variety of the diet is far superior. In designing and implementing a homestead economy, we have tried to follow the model of native cultures that lived within the means of their homeland, and so didn’t rely on frontiers. For us, homesteading is as much a form of restoration ecology as it is a means to provide ourselves with as much food, shelter, and energy from our own land as possible. But it is a long-term project, the work of several or perhaps many generations, and we’ve only just begun…


  1. Your writting quenchs a thirst in me like a long draught from a shady spring. Is there a collection on the horizon? Or, do I need to print out each essay individually?

  2. Trog: Thanks. I never thought of these posts as permanent or finished in any sense. Mostly a way for me to work out certain ideas and create a sense of focus/discipline as I gradually return to writing after a ten-year hiatus. I publish them as is for the benefit of other people thinking along similar lines. At some point I'll complete the book that they are notes for, but right now I'm having enough trouble finding the time to resume the blog posts. I hope to have a new one up in the next day or two...