A case for manual labour

Updated: Apr 2

What do you do with time? You spend it with friends and family, you go to the gym, you paint, hike or maybe you end up binge-watching Netflix series. Either way, we all love time so therefore we should strive to maximize our efficiency! This is the prevailing way to think but it’s flawed and it deserves some critical questioning. Its underlying assumptions need to be scrutinized. Agree or disagree, here comes a broadening of the prevailing idea that it’s good to strive for maximum efficiency.

If we start at a small scale, half a hectare. A garden is going to be established and paths need to be dug. Now at this point, you could say that the goal is to have the paths done so that we can all move on with our lives. This kind of thinking, the prevailing one, would see you hire a digger and be done in a day, time spared and life can go on. This thinking, however, excludes questions like what are the environmental costs and more importantly, what opportunities have we missed out on? To answer that, we have to imagine an alternative option to the digger. My alternative is to invite the locals, provide them with shovels and snacks and then get your hands dirty. This will not be time effective, more people will have to take time out of their schedule and the digger will probably still be faster… Why on earth would we ever turn to manual labour when technology has given us the opportunity to avoid it?

Well, how about the opportunity to meet new people, connect as citizens? The societal gains of more people connecting with each other and learning from each other? Or the physical exercise that will reconnect you to the potential your body has? Not satisfied? How about the feeling of soil between your fingers, the realization of the soil composition, the number of worms, the microclimates of the site? How about the fresh air in your lungs, the sun in your face? If these all seem irrelevant to you, then how about the exclusion of fossil fuels from the process? How about avoiding soil compaction? See where I’m going?

Sure the digger has one benefit but the manual labour has tons of benefits. Why privilege efficiency over social connection? It seems narrow-minded and short-sighted to me. Unlearning this way of thinking requires some training but in order to create a culture where we live in harmony with the natural world we better practice. For even at a large scale we should open up our minds to the opportunities of thinking about all the values we can acquire by stepping back from the industrial large scale thinking. Take forestry for example. Sure clear-cutting with massive machines is efficient and will give the owner an economic boost. But what would the value be if instead of clear-cutting, we harvested trees for specific reasons using horses and our own bodies? Well then we could probably quadruple the number of jobs(at least), we would get more resilient ecosystems, no leakage of heavy metals and other pollutants to our streams. Better wood quality. Again, more air and physical activity with better health as a consequence. No fossil fuels, more birds, and bees and a deeper connection to the natural world are just some of the benefits.

Another classic example is car vs bike in the city. A car is more efficient in terms of time but a bike frees up space to green the city, improves air quality, general health and cuts out the dependency on fossil fuels in our society. This is, however, about more than comparing industrial efficiency with collective and manual labour. This is about trying to find all of the positive benefits in everything and then trying to utilize them to improve our lives. Great examples of this can be found in farming. What is a chicken to an industrial farmer who holds thousands of them in massive facilities? From the outside, they seem to exist solely for the purpose to feed people and make money. And I mean sure, packing the chickens tightly together will increase efficiency but it will not utilize all of the services that the chickens can provide and certainly not give them the respect they deserve (but that’s a different topic). A chicken seen through a wider lens could provide both eggs and meat but also fertilize and work/improve the soil, feed on harmful bugs and thereby save the plants, feed off weeds, provide down and create compost. Utilizing the chickens in this way may not be as efficient (in terms of meat production) but it opens up a world of opportunities to make pesticides and fungicides unnecessary and help combat the terrifying prospect of soil erosion. In short, it has several benefits and while that is not always a preferred thing to efficiency it most certainly is the case in the majority of cases.

Examples like these are endless. Developing the ability to think about the opportunities of taking a step back from our high-speed industrial world, or seeing the potential of every member in your environment, will not only help to get us through the ecological crisis but will also teach us great virtues that our ancestors held, virtues that will make our society a nicer one. One where cooperation triumphs competition and social bonds are strengthened. Remember that culture is a mindset so be reflective about who gets to set yours!


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