Excess human beings, and the meaning of labor

Posted August 28th, 2012 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Excess human beings, and the meaning of labor

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Since reading Charles M. Blow’s disturbing Op-Ed in the NY Times Sunday Review, Starving the Future, there is this one factoid among the many disturbing ones he cites that I can’t get out of my mind. I have seen it before, but it continues to unsettle as we ponder our future within the context of this globalized capitalist economy. It is this:

“…of the world’s five billion people over 15 years old, three billion said they worked or wanted to work, but there are only 1.2 billion full-time, formal jobs.”

Read it again – and then again. Then think about what it means that we have created a world in which we are making more and more people completely dependent on a global economy that cannot provide enough work for all those needing “formal” jobs. Think about this every time you hear any politician try to tell us that what we need to do is become more productive and efficient – because those are code words for needing fewer and fewer people to do the labor that this capitalist mode of production and wealth generation requires to keep the corporations and elites functioning as they do.

Keep this in mind every time you hear about how we need to ramp up the competitiveness of our schools, train more entrepreneurs, engineers, and scientists. Keep this in mind whenever you hear people say we need to bring more manufacturing jobs back to the U.S.

Mountaintop removal coal-mining. Is this really the kind of labor we were meant to do? Photo: Vivian Stockman, OHVEC

The workers of the world are going to be “competing” for these fewer and fewer “formal” jobs as population growth continues to spiral upward over the next few decades. And what this global economy is doing by the way it is functioning, and its purpose for functioning (which is not for the well-being of humans and the planet, but to generate profits) is creating a world of misery and desperation for the masses.

Without formal jobs, the informal economies all over the planet function for survival. The pressures this puts on local bioregions can be harsh. Poor people need fuel, and if they can’t buy it they will cut down more trees to get it. Poor people have to eat, and if they have no decent land on which to plant they will do so on marginal, vulnerable lands, causing more erosion and the death of soils. Poor young people who need to eat and survive will continue to participate in illegal drug markets, or form armed gangs, to get what they need to survive and to protect themselves – and rich westerners will blame them, of course, not themselves for creating this reality – and then they’ll build more prisons.

I could go on. What I’m trying to say is that this mode of economy, this way we do business, has no intention – none! – of creating the conditions in which most human beings on this planet can live decent lives. It is creating conditions in which a minority of people with control of most of the world’s wealth can live very well while conditions for the majority worsen.

And this greatly accelerates our ecological crises because, whether the wealthy of the world like it or not, the corporate bosses, CEOs, and their paid politicians, all of this is connected, deeply, profoundly, inescapably connected.

It is all well and good to rant about how the poor should have fewer babies, a racist rant that puts all the pressure and responsibility upon the poor – who did not make this world. But we know who made this world. Many want population to plummet so that the world can be rid of all this excess humanity so that the well-off can continue to have their nice lives. But all the research and the experience show that poverty is a major cause of population growth. It also shows that population growth rates plummet when women have access to education, financial independence, and access to reproductive services – what is being denied them all around the world, including here in the U.S. since the rise of the religious right and their allies.

What will we do with all these excess people? This is one of the major moral challenges of our time. There is not one claim on billions or millions in wealth that is free of that moral challenge.

This is why social justice and equity are deeply tied to the work of ecological hope and healing. To think we can create a healthy planet in an economy that so abuses and abandons billions of human beings is as insane as thinking we can do it while destroying the ecological integrity of our bioregions. You cannot do one, create a healthy planet, without doing the other, ending the abuse.

Meaningful work...

Which is why the challenge we face is so grave and so radical. This human economy created by western industrial “civilizations” (how can we claim to be civilized when we live like this?!) cannot give us a future of well-being. It cannot. And unless we finally face up to that and start inventing an economy that honors, protects, and allows for the healing and regeneration of the human-ecological integrity of the planet, we will continue on this course toward vast human suffering on a wrecked and sorrowful Earth.

Like it or not, this global economy needs to be intentionally unraveled. And we need to start rethinking the meaning of labor – which right now mostly means having a job at the service of an economy that alienates the worker from their labor like never before – like paying mere cents an hour to make shoelaces for Nike shoes, or keeping workers in China confined to dorms at low pay and enforcing brutal work hours to make Apple iPads.

Human labor needs to be returned to the production of what is needed for life in accordance with the dignity of the one doing the work.

And we need to be sure that whoever is elected come November is fiercely committed to the empowerment and freedom of women to make their own choices over their lives, especially their reproductive lives, free of the coercion of men, including spouses, or anyone else, for that matter.

When I work in my garden and then eat from my garden, I remember the meaning of human labor. When I worked for so long to change U.S. policy in Central America from supporting and actively training and financing some of the most brutal regimes in the history of the hemisphere,  I am reminded of what meaningful work can be. When I am with the much-maligned public school teachers or librarians who are friends and some of the most dedicated people I know, I am reminded yet again of what work-as-service ought to mean.

This lifestyle of individual consumers working jobs so that they can consume planet-wasting, empty-of-meaning things and distractions is harming us in so many ways that go deeply into the question of the meaning of being human at all within this magnificent story of evolution on this incredible planet. We won’t lose anything important by bringing down this voracious way of doing business, but we might gain a whole lot – like a future worth living in.


End of summer and the coffers run dry. Here’s a way you can help keep this project going in the months ahead. We can really use your help. Click here to support our work.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.