Understanding the Debate Over “Work.” Can we “Transcend” this argument?

A floor I’m installing… why did Bill Mollison call this “the most important part of Permaculture?”

In a way, Permaculture began as a critique of “work,” so debate over the role of work has been a central discussion around the movement ever since. The basic debate is: should we be working harder and celebrating hard work, or should be working less and celebrating lazy ways? This is one of the most fierce debates in our movement.

Both sides make some good points, and since “work” is a major part of our lives, understanding these points can have a big transformative impact on our happiness.

The modern debate probably starts with the back-to-the-land movement of the 60s. These folks moved to the country, motivated by dreams of “the good life,” of “living off the land” in a pastoral setting instead of “working hard” in factories. That generation had a famous learning curve as they failed at farming, then looked to traditional American farm communities like the Amish for models. These models were based on tillage farming of grains and the raising of meat. These hippies figured out the lifestyle wasn’t all making love and smelling roses—living self-sufficient lives turned out to be long days of hard work (often the Amish labor 40-60 hour work weeks!) This notion of “hard work” became embedded in much of the environmental movement.

And so, “the party of fossil fuels is over!” became a major idea of the environmental movement. If climate change means we can’t live off our “oil slaves” (a term used in the movement) then we would have to do that work ourselves, and life will necessarily have to become much harder, and more brutish. For these folks, the Amish and late pre-industrial agricultural society are the models for what life will need to be like. But even more so! Because “doing things in a sustainable way will take even MORE work.”

To these folks, it is our modern aversion to “hard work,” and our preference for ease and disposable convenience which are the driving forces of environmental destruction. Western culture is just too soft and lazy, and it’s time for us to role up our sleeves and get back to work. These folks often feel there’s a “right” way to till, a “right” way to garden with clean straight rows and no weeds in sight, and a “right” way to save seeds with strict regimens and so on. And it’s good and right to do this extra work!

And when young people complain about crippling student loan debt, inequality, police violence or whatever, these folks respond that these young complainers just aren’t working hard enough!
Even today, farm businesses based off this model celebrate “hard work,” often requiring 60+ hours of labor per week in difficult conditions, rain or shine, for very low hourly pay.

It was from this context that Bill Mollison entered the debate.

The Permaculture movement began with a critique of this idea of “work,” with images of Bill Mollison lazing in his hammock and Fukuoka saying that humans should spend most of our time “making love and writing poetry” instead of “working.” For Bill Mollison and Fukuoka, it was not laziness that was the cause of environmental degradation, but work! “All work is pollution.” Bill Mollison famously said. And they wanted to get rid of rows, be tolerant of “weeds,” and casually save seeds or let plants sow themselves.

Instead of the Amish and exploitive western farming based on grains and livestock, Permaculturists took traditional horticultural societies as their models for “the good life.” Mollison himself grew up in such a village and then studied such societies as a researcher, so the myth that “hard work is necessary” probably didn’t match his experience.
These societies manage ecosystems, mostly based off easy tree crops and perennials, and anthropologists say they tend to only “work” around 12-15 hours per week. Most grow all their food on a few hours per week and have very high levels of food security relative to hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. They do indeed spend most of their time in cultural and social activities. And, by replicating their sort of food systems, it is very realistic for any of us to grow all our food (and probably all our energy and material resources) on just a few hours of work per week. Such societies are also far more egalitarian and equitable, with smaller differences between the wealthiest and the poor.

So, instead of vegetable farming, these Permaculturists built land-based businesses off these traditional models, with a goal of thriving on a few hours of land work per week, aided with value-added artisan and artistic income streams, and long-term investment strategies. “You spend part of your day playing in th3 garden and part doing some other kind of creative work.”

For Mollison and Fukuoka, when we cooperate with ecosysetms this way, they heal themselves and food production is quite sustainable. We don’t HAVE to work hard to heal ecosystems, they’ll heal themselves if we get out of the way and stop working so hard at turning them into money. It is only when we do EXTRA work to mine fossil fertility and amp up “yields” that ecosystems collapse and environmental degradation begins. It is only due to our worshipful attitude to “work” that we have the problems we have today.

There are 2 big take-homes of these societies. The first is that they evolved an understanding of the 80-20 principle, or Pareto curve. Any community that really works will figure out that work on the land follows this curve, and you get 80% of your returns for the first 20% of your labor. For example, you get 80% of the benefit of weeding from the first 20% of the work. After that, you can pull up every single weed, but it takes you 5 times longer and you only get 20% more yield. Same for watering, pest control, fertilizer, etc. Any smart community will quickly figure out that it doesn’t make much sense to keep going far beyond that 20% mark. So all these evolved systems are very efficient on labor.

It only makes sense to go past that 20% mark if you have a large labor force of exploited, underpaid labor… which is what evolved in Europe, and was imported by most American farmers. They are systems based on serfs, slaves, and folks willing to self-exploit. Then, that extra 20% of yield converts to “maximized profit.”

So, while I’m clearly in the Permaculture camp on this one, I think the “work” side makes excellent points.

Creating these systems from scratch will indeed take some work (though if we’re working too hard, we’re almost certainly fighting nature and creating forms of “pollution.”)

More importantly, work gives us a feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction, and even play. There is something to be said for “working” to create a better world and for the benefit of our families and communities.

And work keeps us in shape, IF we do the right amount. It’s important to understand that folks in these traditional horticultural societies have optimal health and long, healthy lives, while long-working agriculturalists live short, unhealthy lives plagued by health problems. And anybody who grew up around hard-work farmers knows it doesn’t make you “farm fit,” it makes you “farm fat.”

We now have oodles of work to show that this traditional evolved pattern of work is optimal for health. A good hour of hard, playful work increases your health and hormonal response, and that’s about what folks in most traditional human societies do. Just as rabbits or cats will spend a similar amount of time racing around in challenging, exerting “play,” then spend the rest relaxing. We know that the best way to build a good athletic physique is to work hard for an hour or two a few days per week, rather than to work hard physical labor every day for long days.

When we go over about 2 hours of physical work per day, our stress hormones and cortisol start increasing, and we start storing more fat, burning off more muscle, and increasing our inflammatory response and so on. Over time, this leads to poor health outcomes. This is one way “too much work” manifests as pollution: poor physical health.
So, if health is your goal, the horticultural (permaculture) model of physical labor for a few hours/week is the ideal, not the “farm” lifestyle of 8-10 hour days spent weeding and doing physical labor.
Finally, the second way these traditional societies got work right is that they “banked” their labor.

While the Amish lifestyle is based on endless yearly “annual” tasks , like tilling which must me done every season, traditional societies invested their labor in lasting community good. Instead of putting “hard work” into a one-off task like tilling, they INVESTED their labor into building and improving food forest systems and durable community assets like long-lasting stone houses and villages that survived for millennia. They invested enough labor to keep these systems producing for generations.
So when I “work hard” this is the kind of work I try to do: work that will pay me back for years to come, so that next year, I can work a little less and spend more time making poetry. So perhaps that’s the way to transcend this debate? Yes, let’s celebrate the value of good work!

Building a better work will take our work. And we should also make sure we’re doing work that actually does build a better world. And, we should stop celebrating self-exploitation and toxic ideas around work. We should celebrate working in a more balanced and healthy way.

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