Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Meaningful Work"
Thank you, Kent Klitgaard, for your reflections on the centrality of meaningful work in envisioning more socially and environmentally sustainable futures. The topic touches all of us also on very personal levels as we struggle to find meaningful work or seek meaning through work in our own lives. I want to bring to this debate attention to the form of caring labor that engages my attention, which is environmental care labor.
The literature on caring labor often narrowly focuses on care and caring practices in relation to humans, but there is also caring labor that goes into taking care of land, plants, and “nature” in general. Ecological restoration is “the great work” of our times, and it demands investment of human creative energies and attention to make new kins (with the nonhumans)1. The work of restoring our damaged planet demands enormous effort and vast amounts of caring labor. Human energies that are freed from the pursuit of limitless growth and production to feed mindless consumption can be redirected to ecological restoration activities—planting trees, assisting natural regeneration, taking care of them, growing food, trying out agroforestry systems, cleaning up, recharging water bodies, etc. People rendered surplus due to productivity gains brought about by technology can be engaged in all sorts of caring activities not only for the enrichment of human communities but also for ecological restoration (as well as restoring our ways of relating to nature).
These are activities that many rural communities engage in or take up when they see their local environment degrade. This work is also craft work and caring labor. I have used the term “affective labor” (following Michael Hardt) to talk about the caring labor of rural communities in Odisha involved in growing forests (or assisting it to regenerate)2. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri use the term affective labor to draw attention to labor that engages the mind and the body, the intellect and emotions simultaneously, especially forms of immaterial labor that are less about producing material goods than about producing affects3. I found it productive to apply the term to the conservation practices of rural communities (patrolling labor, attention to facilitate natural regeneration, care, etc.) and bring attention to several dynamics: 1) the flow of affects in the caring practices which transforms not only the landscapes but also people; 2) the seamless flow between work and leisure that often defines agricultural and related activities and subsistence life; and 3) the biopolitical potential of this labor to bring about alternate ways of being. At a time when one of our most critical challenges is how to rework our ways of relating to nature (and to each other) and change our mentalities to bring back a sense of responsibility for others (including the more-than-human others), considering the potential of such forms of caring labor to transform mentalities is a critical opening that we need to explore.4
What are the ways in which the caring labor involved in environmental care can be valued and remunerated? Of late, there is an ascendancy of market-based approaches to “pay” local people for their labor or restraint involved in maintaining the flow of so-called ecosystem services. This approach threatens to commodify people-nature relations and lead to crowding out of intrinsic motivation (i.e., the diminishing of the joy that one gains from an activity when it is perceived to be done for pay). How can we retain the joy and transformative potential of craft or caring labor and yet not exploit it? Feminist scholars have pointed out how women’s caring labor gets exploited and taken freely in a society that values what anthropologist David Graeber aptly terms as “bullshit jobs” more than work that is useful and life-sustaining.5 We need to safeguard against similar appropriation of the caring work of ecological restoration. One way of doing so can be to use the logic of gift and reciprocity instead of the logic of market for flow of resources to “ecosystems people” engaged in environmental care.6 A guaranteed basic income can be one way of remunerating or valuing such work.
The links between work and the production of humans—and between value (of work) and value regimes in general and the societies we produce—are critical pieces of the quest for more socially and environmentally just and sustainable futures. Klitgaard refers to these links, but the connections can be made more explicit to emphasize that meaningful work is central to the creation and nurturance of more caring people who are less likely to trash the planet. More meaningful work is thus not just crucial and critical for the satisfaction at individual levels but for countering the alienated existence that leaves us trying to fill the void with mindless consumerism and addiction to short-term pleasures.7
1. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6, no. 1 (2015): 159–165.
2. Michael Hardt, “Affective labor,” boundary 2, no. 26 (1999): 89–100. Neera Singh, “The Affective Labor of Growing Forests and the Becoming of Environmental Subjects: Rethinking Environmentality in Odisha, India,” Geoforum 47 (June 2013): 189–198.
3.Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).
4. Félix Guattari, The Three Ecologies (London Bloomsbury, 2008).
5. David Graeber, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs,” Strike! magazine, Summer 2013.
6. I have argued for using the paradigm of gift to drive transactions in ecosystem services instead of the current market-based approaches and as a way to share the burden and joy of environmental care work, see “Payments for Ecosystem Services and the Gift Paradigm: Sharing the Burden and Joy of Environmental Care,” Ecological Economics 117 (September 2015): 53–61.
7. Peter Sterling, "Why We Consume: Neural Design and Sustainability," Great Transition Initiative (February 2015), http://www.greattransition.org/publication/why-we-consume.