Something I read the other day made me ponder about the nature of work. Or, more precisely, how many of us of Occidental cultures view work. I now know we have it wrong.

In mankind’s rush from an agrarian society to an industrial one, increases in human productivity seemed to be gained through mechanization. In fact, this increase in efficiency was lauded as miraculous – it still is today.

Now that we have largely left the industrial age to move into an age of data, efficiency still seems to be the objective. Or, maybe naïvely stated, the objective is to liberate humans from having to do things, especially physical work.

There is a lot of attention being paid to agriculture on the continent of Africa. Articles written on the subject often described how many of the laborers are women who are working long hours in the fields. A key message of one particular article I read was the promise that GMO crops and industrialized agriculture will help keep these women from “spending long days stooped over” in the fields. The tenor was that those who oppose GMO crops are forcing these women to “back-breaking” work. The careful choice of words in the article was intended to make the reader feel shamed into supporting GMO crops.

Lately I’ve been studying essays about economics, especially as practiced in the highly developed world, and how different economic theory will advance our societies. Most of the economists call for hyper-efficiency in how things are done. Few of these economists make human physical work the central pivot of their theories.

Free from work?

Now, I’ve set up my essay this way because I wanted to point out that there is tremendous pressure to liberate humans from physical work. Because we’re reared to, we assume that life is better without physical work and that gains in efficiency are a primary objective in the home, at work, and at leisure. At the heart of this is a mindset that believes physical work is less desirable than brain work or no work at all. Chart the course of your average day step by step. How much of your daily personal environment is designed to reduce physical work? Our lives are so used to the things that reduce our physical work that we can’t even think of them because we take them for granted.

So, to my main point. When it comes to agriculture, we applied the lessons of the industrial revolution and layered over those our developments in technology and now shout from the tops of grain elevators how efficient we are. We publish reports and write news articles highlighting how a single farmer can now feed some number of people. Often this is compared to a past figure to, presumably, show how advanced we are today.

Denigration of work

The result of all this is that we now denigrate physical work. Apparently, physical work is beneath humans and we should do all we can to eliminate it. That may be putting too fine a point on it, but think of how we rear our children and try to guide them not into vocations, but into careers. The modern parent says, “why on Earth would I send my daughter to private school and then to college only to have her herd sheep and goats on a small farm?”

Now when you add the idea that we’ve lost the intrinsic and inherent value of physical work to the true costs of what we’ve done to eliminate it, especially in agriculture, we turn our back on a smarter way to think about the world around us. These true costs are even winked at by intelligent economists who adhere to the concept of creative destruction – a notion that says the losses experienced in advancement of technology are more than made up for in gains of efficiency. Will advancement of technology be worth it when the soil no longer will grow crops?

Impact on creation

Instead of seeing an integrated creation, we see too narrowly and often with self-centric eyes. In our desire to both artificially sate ourselves and reduce our physical work we have destroyed our work ethic, handicapped our ability to compete in a global economy, and have started irrevocable damage to the creation in which we find ourselves.

To that last point, because we devalue work, we force an ever-increasing mandate for hyper-efficiency to support this kind of society. This is especially true in agriculture and our subsequent food supply. According to Jonathan Benson writing for Natural News, “All around the world, the push to globalize the food supply by consolidating food production into large-scale, corporatized agricultural systems controlled by a select few is causing massive environmental destruction and immense poverty.”

So, the back-breaking work the industrial system was supposed to save us from is forcing more and more people into leaving their homes, collapsing rural communities, over populating urban centers and creating far more poverty for more of the world’s people than ever before. The exact opposite from what was claimed would happen.

Industrialism has failed

Since the push to greater productivity through technological improvements and cultivation of marginal land, we are on a path to eventual elimination of our land’s ability to produce and the complete destruction of rural society and the continuation of mass urbanization. And, we’re doing this in the name of profit for a very few and giving only token notice to the impact on the biosphere and the impact on society. Just because we can do a thing – in this case have a farmer operate 5,000 acres single-handedly through advanced mechanization and technology – doesn’t mean we should do a thing.

What is the value of physical work? Ask those who are not employed. Or, better yet, ask those who now live in the ghettos, barrios, and slums of the world’s cities infested with disease, crime, and inescapable poverty. That is what industrial agriculture is doing to Africa, South America, and even the United States. That is what happens when physical work no longer has value in a society.

Dan Grubbs

Dan Grubbs, editor of Stewardculture, lives in northwest Missouri where he is implementing and managing a permaculture-style design on his 15-acre homestead. A weekly teacher of the Bible, Dan believes that an agrarian lifestyle is one in which he can answer God's calling to steward creation through regenerative techniques that attempt to mimic God's design.

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