Oil Sands Truth: Shut Down the Tar Sands

The Ecology of Work

Environmentalism can't succeed until it confronts the destructive nature of
modern work - and supplants it. (Last of a two-part series)
by Curtis White
Orion magazine (May / June 2007)

Environmentalists see the asphalting of the country as a sin against the world
of nature, but we should also see in it a kind of damage that has been done to
humans, for what precedes environmental degradation is the debasement of the
human world. I would go so far as to say that there is no solution for
environmental destruction that isn't first a healing of the damage that has been
done to the human community. As I argued in the first part of this essay, the
damage to the human world has been done through work, through our jobs, and
through the world of money.

We are not the creators of our own world; we merely perform functions in a
system into which we were born. The most destructive aspect of our jobs is that
in them we are mere "functionaries", to borrow Josef Pieper's term. Just as
important, we have a function outside of work: consumption. Money in hand, we go
into the market to buy the goods we no longer know how to make (we don't even
know how to grow and preserve our own food) and services we no longer know how
to perform (frame a house - might as well ask us to design a spaceship).

Challenging our place in this system as mere isolated functions (whether as
workers or consumers) is a daunting task, especially for environmentalists, who
tend to think that human problems are the concern of somebody else (labor unions,
the ACLU, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, et cetera). We're about
the "Earth first". My argument is simply that the threats to humans and the
threats to the environment are not even two parts of the same problem. They are
the same problem. For environmentalism, confronting corporations and creating
indignant scientific reports about pollution is the easy stuff. But these
activities are inadequate to the real problems, as any honest observer of the
last thirty years of environmental activism would have to concede. The "last
great places" cannot be preserved. We can no more preserve them than we can keep
the glaciers from melting away. Responding to environmental destruction requires
not only the overcoming of corporate evildoers but "self-overcoming", a
transformation in the way we live. A more adequate response to our true problems
requires that we cease to be a society that believes that wealth is the
accumulation of money (no matter how much of it we're planning on "giving back"
to nature), and begin to be a society that understands that "there is no wealth
but life", as John Ruskin put it. That is the full dimension and the full
difficulty of our problem.

Unfortunately, on these shores the suggestion that there is something
fundamentally destructive in work, money, and capitalism leads quickly to
emotional denials. This is so even among self-described environmentalists,
card-carrying members of the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. So we try
to persuade ourselves that capitalism can become green. I don't believe that
capitalism can become green, simply because the imperatives of environmentalism
are not part of its way of reasoning. Capitalism can think profit but it can't
think nature. It's not in its nature to think nature. What is part of its nature
is marketing ("We're organic! Buy us!"), even while its actions - industrial
livestock practices that masquerade as Earth-friendly, for instance - are really
only about market share, dividends, and stock value.

Capitalism as a system of ever-accelerating production and consumption is, as we
environmentalists continually insist, not sustainable. That is, it is a system
intent on its own death. Yet the capitalist will stoically look destruction in
the face before he will stop what he's doing, especially if he believes that it
is somebody else whose destruction is in question. Unlike most of the people
living under him, the capitalist is a great risk-taker largely because he
believes that his wealth insulates him from the consequences of risks gone bad.
Ever the optimistic gambler with other people's money, the capitalist is willing
to wager that, while there may be costs to pay, he won't have to pay them.
Animals, plants, impoverished people near and far may have to pay, but he bets
that he won't. If called upon to defend his actions, he will of course argue
that he has a constitutionally protected right to property and the pursuit of
his own happiness. This is his "freedom". At that point, we have the unfortunate
habit of shutting up when we ought to reply, "Yes, but yours is a freedom
without conscience".

Being willing to say such things about capitalism does not mean that one has
a special access to the Truth, but it also doesn't mean that one is a mere
ideologue, or that most dismissible of things, a communist. It merely requires
honesty about what looks us right in the face. It requires intellectual

For instance, as a matter of conscience we should be willing to say that the
so-called greening of corporate America is not as much about the desire to
protect nature as it is about the desire to protect capitalism itself.
Environmentalists are, on the whole, educated and successful people, many of
whom have prospered within corporate capitalism. They're not against it.
They simply seek to establish a balance between the needs of the economy
(as they blandly put it) and the needs of the natural world. For both capitalism
and environmentalism, there is a hard division between land set aside for nature
and land devoted to production. Environmentalists consider the preservation of a
forest a victory, but part of the point of that victory is (usually) that humans
can't live in this forest. Private interests have been bought out. The forest is
now "set aside". We could draw a national map that showed those spaces that we
imagine conform to a fantasy of natural innocence (wilderness, forests,
preserves, parks) and those spaces given over to the principles of extraction,
exploitation, and profit. The boundary lines within this map are regularly
drawn and redrawn by the government in some of our most bitter political fights.
("Mineral extraction! Why, that's a national wildlife area!" "Snail darter!
Why, that's economic development!") But regardless of which political party is
drawing this map, we humans are left right where we have always been, at the
mercy of the boss, behaving like functionaries, and participating in the very
economic activities that will continue to eat up the natural world. For all
its sense of moral urgency, environmentalism too has abandoned humans to the
inequalities, the exploitation, and the boredom of the market, while it tries
to maintain the world of nature as a place of innocence where a candy wrapper
on the ground is a blasphemy. It's a place to go for a weekend hike before
returning to the unrelenting ugliness, hostility, sterility, and spiritual
bankruptcy that is the suburb, the strip mall, the office building, and the
freeway (our "national automobile slum", as James Howard Kunstler puts it).
Ideally, the map of natural preservation and the map of economic activity
would be one map.

Here's a bald assertion for which I have no proof scientific or otherwise: a
human society would never willingly harm nature. This is a way of saying that
violence is not a part of human nature. This of course contradicts the opinion
commonly held by Christianity and science alike that humans are by nature
violent. This fatalism has the effect of making us accept wars, the
victimization of the vulnerable, and the rapacious destruction of the natural
world as tragic but inevitable. But what this fatalism about our "nature"
ignores is the fact that the violence with which environmentalists are most
concerned is not the aberrant violence of the individual human but the violence
of organizations. In particular, the violence that we know as environmental
destruction is possible only because of a complex economic, administrative, and
social machinery through which people are separated from responsibility for
their misdeeds. We say, "I was only doing my job" at the paper mill, the
industrial incinerator, the logging camp, the coal-fired power plant, on the
farm, on the stock exchange, or simply in front of the PC in the corporate
carrel. The division of labor not only has the consequence of making labor
maximally productive, it also hides from workers the real consequences of
their work.

People outside of such social and economic organizations might hunt in nature,
fish, gather, harvest, use nature to their own ends in countless ways, but
they would never knowingly destroy it, not because they are by nature good and
benevolent, but because destruction is not necessary, it's a lot of hard work,
and it's self-evidently self-defeating. For example, the near extinction of the
buffalo was not driven by the thought "Well, if I shoot one I might as well
shoot them all", or game sport gone mad, or sheer maliciousness toward the
animal. Ultimately, it was driven by the market for buffalo hides in that
far-off place that was never once home to a buffalo, New York City. The
extermination of the buffalo was driven by the same logic that drives the
clearcutting of forests and the construction of high-pollution coal-fired
power plants today: entrepreneurial freedom, the desire for profit, and
"jobs for working people".

If all this is so, it is only possible to conclude from our behavior for the
last two hundred years that ours is not a human society; that it is a society
outside of the human in some terrible sense. And, in fact, it was one of the
earliest insights of Karl Marx that the kind of work provided by capitalism was
alienating. That is, it made us something other than what we are. It dehumanized
us. And so, in our no-longer-human state, it became perfectly natural for us to
destroy nature (which should sound to you just as perverse as the situation
really is). Alienation in work means that instead of knowing something about a
lot of things concerned with human fundamentals like food, housing, clothing,
and the wise and creative use of our free time, we know one small thing. One
task in an ocean of possible tasks.

Aldous Huxley provided a very different and a very human account of work in The
Perennial Philosophy {1}. He called it "right livelihood" (a concept he borrowed
from Buddhism). For Huxley, work should serve other people, provide learning
experiences that deepen the worker, and do as little harm as possible. (You will
note that there is nothing in this description about a competitive compensation
and benefits package.) But what percentage of American jobs conforms to this
description? Five percent? Even in the new "creative" information economy where
the claim could be made that computer designers and software technicians are
constantly learning, is it a learning that deepens? That serves others broadly?
And what of the mindless, deadening work of data processors and telemarketers -
our modern, miserable Bartlebys and Cratchits - locked in their cubicles from
San Jose to Bangalore? Our culture's assumption that there is virtue in work
flatters us into thinking that we're doing something noble ("supporting our
families", "putting food on the table", "making sacrifices") when we are really
only allowing ourselves to be treated like automatons. We all have our place,
our "job", and it is an ever less human place. We are diligent, disciplined,
and responsible, but because of these virtues we are also thoughtless.

To end the reign of work as something for "functionaries", and to end the
destruction that results from that fractured form of work, we have two options.
First, we can simply wait for the catastrophic failure of global capitalism as
a functioning economic system. Books on peak oil, sinking water tables, and
the impending doom of global warming are abundant and convincing. Huge human
populations, especially in the East and Africa, are at risk of mass starvation,
civil war, and the disastrous loss of human habitat due to rising ocean levels
and desertification. Capitalism will have no choice but to retreat from
responsibility for these crises even though they are part of the true costs
of doing business.

Unfortunately, simply waiting for catastrophe doesn't ensure that anything good
will follow from it, as Darfur has illustrated. It's true that there will be
opportunities to create locally based and sustainable communities, but it's also
true that fascism, barbarism, and regression are possible. So a second option is
in order. We can start providing for a different world of work now, before the
catastrophe. We need to insist on work that is not destructive, that deepens the
worker, that encourages her creativity. Such a transformation requires a
willingness to take a collective risk, a kind of risk very different from
capitalist risk taking. The kind of risk I'm suggesting is no small matter.
It means leaving a culture based on the idea of success as the accumulation of
wealth-as-money. In its place we need a culture that understands success as life.
For John Ruskin, humans should make "good and beautiful things" because those
things will re-create us as good and beautiful in their turn. To make cheap and
ugly and destructive things will kill us, as indeed we are being killed through
poverty, through war, through the cheapening of our public and private lives,
and through the destruction of the natural world. Of course, many will argue
that leaving capitalism behind is not "realistic". "Oh, certainly", we're
assured, "there are inequalities in capitalism, but on the whole it provides
for everyone's prosperity, it provides the greatest good for the greatest number.
Why, you'll kill the goose that lays the golden egg! Look, if there's a patch of
forest somewhere you want to save, fine, I'll write a check. But this sort of
talk is dangerous and un-American." What we need to recognize is that the real
realism for capitalism is in the consequences of its activities. As even Al Gore
understands, we are living now in the early stages of an era of consequences:
catastrophic climate change, species extinction, and human population collapse.
It is not naive or unrealistic to say that we ought to change; it is only tragic
if we don't.

But let's be honest. For the moment, not even the pleasantly affluent people who
regularly support the major environmental organizations (people like me) want to
hear about how bad capitalism is or to think seriously about abandoning it as an
organizing principle. Most of us want to believe that our quarrel is just with
rogue corporations, a few "bad apples" as President Bush likes to say, and not
with capitalism as such. But thinking this is simply a form of lying. We deny
what we can plainly see because to acknowledge it would require the fundamental
reshaping of our entire way of living, and that is (not unreasonably)
frightening for most people. Nevertheless, our loyalty to capitalism makes us
fools. Worse than that, we know we're being fooled, and yet we lack the ability
not to be fooled. Not for nothing did the philosopher Paul Ricoeur once observe
that capitalism is "a failure that cannot be defeated".

I am inevitably asked at this point in my argument just what exactly it is that
I am proposing that people do. What would I put in capitalism's place? In reply,
I am always tempted to quote Voltaire's response to the complaint that he had
nothing to put in the place of the Christianity he criticized. "What!" he said,
"A ferocious beast has sucked the blood of my family; I tell you to get rid of
that beast, and you ask me, what shall we put in its place!" Unlike Voltaire,
I would also suggest that what has the best chance of defeating the "beast"
is spirit. In accepting science as our primary weapon against environmental
destruction, we have also had to accept science's contempt for religion and the
spiritual. This is the unfortunate legacy of science's two-century-old
confrontation with what it has always called "religious dogma and superstition".
But this attitude is myopic; it is science at its most stupid. Environmentalism
should stop depending solely on its alliance with science for its sense of
itself. It should look to create a common language of care (a reverence for and
a commitment to the astonishing fact of Being) through which it could begin to
create alternative principles by which we might live. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in
his famous essay My Religion {2}, faith is not about obedience to church dogma,
and it is not about "submission to established authority". A people's religion
is "the principle by which they live".

The establishment of those principles by which we might live would begin with
three questions. First, what does it mean to be a human being? Second, what is
my relation to other human beings? And third, what is my relation to Being as
such, the ongoing miracle that there is something rather than nothing? If the
answer to these questions is that the purpose of being human is "the pursuit of
happiness" (understood as success, which is understood as the accumulation of
money); and if our relation to others is a relation to mere things (with nothing
to offer but their labor); and if our relation to the world is only to
"resources" (that we should exploit for profit); then we should be very
comfortable with the world we have. If it goes to perdition at least we can say
that we acted in good faith. But if, on the other hand, we answer that there
should be a greater sense of self-worth in being a human, more justice in our
relation to others, and more reverence for Being, then we must either live in
bad faith with capitalism or begin describing a future whose fundamental values
and whose daily activities are radically different from what we currently endure.
The risk I propose is simply a return to our nobility. We should refuse to be
mere functions of a system that we cannot in good conscience defend. And we
should insist on a recognition of the mystery, the miracle, and the dignity of
things, from frogs to forests, simply because they are.

Such a "religion" would entail a refusal to play through to the bloody end the
social and economic roles into which we happen to have been born. What lies
beyond the environmental movement is not only the overcoming of capitalism but
self-overcoming. We take some justifiable pride in the idea that we are
environmentalists, but even that identity must be transcended. A "beyond
environmentalism" movement would be a sort of Party of Life. It would be a
commitment to thriving, and a commitment to what is best in us. Does this mean
that, for the time being, we stop working under the banner of environmentalism
to oppose corporations when they are destructive? Of course not. But it is
important to know that there is a problem more fundamental than a perverse
"power" standing opposed to us (in villainous black caps with "Monsanto" on the
brim). That deeper problem is our own integration into an order of work that
makes us inhuman and thus tolerant of what is nothing less than demonic, the
destruction of our own world.

The principle by which the west has lived for the last two centuries has been
"It's okay to use violence if you can gain something by it". Violence against
the poor, violence against the vulnerable, violence against those who possess
something you want, and violence against the natural world. That is capitalism
as a religious principle. What is beyond environmentalism, what is our Party of
Life, is actually a return to our oldest spiritual convictions: a reverence for
creation and a shared commitment to the idea that religion is finally about
understanding how to live in faithful relation to what has been given to us in
creation. In the end, our problem is that the busy, destructive work of
functionaries has taken the place of a thoughtful, spiritual understanding about
how to live. Our problem is not that we are ignoring what science has to tell us
about environmental destruction. Our problem is that we are spiritually
impoverished. Bankrupt, if you will.

Spiritual rebirth will mean the rediscovery of true human work. Much of this
work will not be new but recovered from our own rich traditions. It will be
useful knowledge that we will have to remember. Fishing as a family and
community tradition, not the business of factory trawlers. Agriculture as a
local and seasonal activity, not a carbon-based scheme of synthetic production
and international shipping. Home- and community- building as common skills and
not merely the contracted specialization of construction companies and urban
planners. Even "intellectual workers" (professors and scholars) have something
to relearn: their own honored place in the middle of the community and not in
isolated, jargon-ridden professional enclaves.

Such knowledge was once the heart of our lives, and not that long ago. Before
1945, survival meant that most families would have all of these skills to some
degree. These families were certainly materially poorer and perhaps more naive,
but they were richer in human relations, less bored, less depressed, less
isolated, less addicted to food and drugs, physically healthier, and they had
the rich human pleasure of knowing how to make things. It's clear that we
haven't forgotten these skills and their pleasures entirely, but their presence
for us is strange and a little unreal. What used to be life is now "fine
living": an array of expensive hobbies for the affluent that are taught through
magazines, cable and PBS programs, and local guilds dedicated to gardening,
basket weaving, cooking, home remodeling, quilting, and woodworking. Although we
rarely recognize it in this way, through these "hobbies" we express a desire for
a world that is now lost to us.

My argument is not, I assure you, a longing look back to the wonderful world of
pre-war rural America. But it is to say that in the course of the last century
of global capital triumphant we have been further isolated from what Ruskin
called "valuable human things". In exchange, we have been offered only the cold
comfort of the television and computer monitor, and the GPS device that can
locate you but only at the cost of being located in a place that is not worth
knowing and certainly not worth caring about.

The turn away from this ugly, destructive, and unequal world is not something
that can be accomplished by boycotting corporations when they're bad or through
the powerful work of the most concerned scientists. It will not be delivered
with glossy brochures by the President's Council on Sustainable Development, and
it will certainly not be sold to you by Martha Stewart. A return to the valuable
human things of the beautiful and the useful will only be accomplished, if it is
ever to be accomplished, by the humans among us.


{1} http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780060570583-3

{2} http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=61-9780766175082-0

{3} http://www.powells.com/biblio/1-9780977825318-1


Curtis White's essays have appeared in Harper's magazine, the Village Voice,
and In These Times. His most recent book is The Spirit of Disobedience {3}.
He teaches at Illinois State University.

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