Labor and the Work of New Creation

Posted August 29th, 2014 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Labor and the Work of New Creation

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

On this  Labor Day weekend, I suspect few people in this culture will be thinking about labor. If they are able, they will use this weekend for one last summer bash, one more family time at the beach, one more picnic, some sports, some preparation for the new school year and the changing of the seasons.

But we do need to start thinking about work, about labor, about the meaning of human labor in a time of vast economic and ecological changes.

Part of old industrial corridor in Milwaukee. Talgo's factory was nearby.

Part of old industrial corridor in Milwaukee.

Since World War II and the rise of the industrial economy, the big machine manufacturers, the big assembly factories that make all those consumer items we, well, consume and then discard, and the rise of the labor movement that for a while allowed for a middle class of consumers and some protections in the form of working conditions, health benefits, and pension – since that time, we have believed that this model was the way into the future for “working families,” a path to decent wages and the good life, as defined by the Myth of the American Dream.

No one wants to pronounce those days over, but they are. Humans are replaced by robots, production moves to the cheapest labor market, wages are depressed, pensions virtually gone, benefits sharply reduced, and few families can survive anymore on one job, or two, or three… Now we have full time workers on federal assistance as our tax dollars make up for what private corporations used to provide for their employees.

Rusted copper mine left behind in Calumet MI

Rusted copper mine left behind in Calumet MI

Meanwhile, the global economy simply needs fewer workers as technology replaces them, as population growth and job growth go in different directions. Much of the profit-making is now in the financial sector, less in production of goods, and that is one dynamic leading to vast inequalities in wealth and income.

But all of this is part of a scenario that has created the most ecologically destructive economy in human history. Efforts to salvage it are not saving good-paying jobs or the disappearing middle class of the last century. What those efforts are doing is helping to facilitate the destruction, helping to entrench the low-wage/no-benefits labor regimen, and helping to empower the destructive corporate culture that will lead to the end of most jobs in any case – by way of ecological, and therefore economic, collapse.

In the meanwhile, human labor has become demeaned. Maybe a Walmart greeter really does find great meaning in that job, or someone slinging unhealthy food in a fast food restaurant. I suspect mostly they are just grateful for any income at all. But what happened to the work of one’s hands having anything to do with the meaning of one’s life, of having the ability to put one’s talents to work for a greater good, to feel like each of us is contributing something meaningful to this world?

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker turned down $810 million in free federal money to build high-speed rail. I mean, it was in the bank and he sent it back to Washington. Meanwhile, Talgo, a Spanish company that makes railcars, had refurbished an old factory in a blighted part of Milwaukee and hired hundreds of workers to build and maintain the cars that would service that project. Two had been completed and more contracted. When Walker and state legislators backed away, Talgo tried to remain, hoping for different politics. But eventually they left, workers were laid off, and now the state is being sued for $66 million for breach of contract. The completed cars went to another state.

Imagine the long-term employment and economic activity that would have been sparked by such a project. Oh, and did I mention that Walker has received huge campaign contributions from the road-builders lobby?

Walker and Co. have also discouraged a vibrant wind and solar energy industry that was really getting off the ground under the previous state government.

I present this example for a reason, and not just because it’s an election year here. It is about the work of “new creation.” Because what has been happening in Wisconsin and much of the country is a retrenchment of some of our dirtiest industries, those that have powered industrialization – and altered the chemical make-up of the atmosphere while polluting air, water, and land – for the last hundred years, and especially since the World Wars.

Not only is this not “new” creation, but it continues a very bleak creation of toxic wastelands, a depleted planet, more vulnerable populations, and the promise of a world of more misery.

New well rising out of the corn field

Fracking the corn fields of Western PA

Thomas Berry famously said that we need a “new story.” No kidding, because this one is wrecking our lives and our future. Now, we think of “labor” as deeply embedded in this old industrial model and many workers and unions are having a hard time letting it go. But the old model is letting them go without a moment’s pause, so maybe it’s time to rethink labor itself and the meaning of unions, of organized workers bargaining for their rights to decent wages, working conditions, the promise of a future for their kids, and a reconnection between labor and meaning.

I would wish for this Labor Day weekend that we might start pondering what it would mean for workers to commit, collectively and with great spirit, to the work of “new creation,” the work of dismantling this ecologically destructive industrial model and creating a new economic model in which their labor – well paid and deeply respected – becomes part of the effort to move humans in a new direction on this planet. When I think of the public money that supports the old model of dirty industries, like tax subsidies for the fossil fuel industry or for industrial agriculture, and how that money could be redirected to this new focus on clean renewable energy sources, mass transportation systems, cleaning up our planet, dismantling old factories and refineries, and on and on – I know that it is only a matter of will to do this work of “the great turning.”Anti-Fracking Protest

It won’t be the same kind of middle class that will result. It won’t – and can’t – be the same kind of consumer society that is devouring the planet. But we also might find that simpler lifestyles and less consumption will meet happily with the rediscovery of work as meaningful, that all the tech toys in the world cannot replace that feeling of contributing to something so essential and significant for the future of life on the planet.

That’s my reflection for this Labor Day weekend. As this project shifts to the work of the Center for New Creation, we are going to be focused on themes like this one a lot more in the days to come. Most anyone coming to this blog has some idea of how bad our situation is. We will continue to share some of that news. But now it is also time to really hone in on the work to be done and the short time we have to do it.

Mostly, it is time to do all we can to shift the values of an industrial culture from one that no longer works on this planet to one that loves the Earth and all it wonders, and wants to contribute the work of our hands and our hearts to preserving them.


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