Can we have a “slow work” movement?

I often go along thinking that I understand the problems of the world and know many solutions. But then along comes someone who speaks a truth and a whole new reality is presented. That happened last week during my reading group discussion of The Dirty Life, On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristen Kimball, when I spoke about how inefficient they were in their farm work. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the book. I thought it was funny, moving, and inspirational. But, they were inefficient, not being totally prepared for what lay ahead of them. They were exhausted from the work and also from their blunders.

Louis shared our experience of visiting an organic farm in Cuba, where oxen were used, and where we observed several men spreading manure in a very inefficient way. We could of thought of several ways to make the work go faster and with fewer people. They repeatedly got down from the little cart pulled by the oxen, to shovel out some manure and then all jumped back up to ride a few feet ahead and then repeated the exercise. Why couldn’t they reduce the work to two people by having one work the cart, moving along slowly, while the other one shoveled out the manure. Wow, that would eliminate the need for the other two and they could be efficient elsewhere.

Then, one of the members of our group quietly reminded us that if we were more inefficient these days, more people would be employed. Wow, did that ever set me back. How right he was. I have complained about how automation in factories eliminates jobs and makes work less meaningful and less personal. But I hadn’t really thought it through further in its implications for all kinds of work in the world.

In my preparations for my visiting Transition Town and Sustainable City folks, I have wanted to ask them what their thinking is about meaningful employment for everyone. What is our vision of a future world where those who are able and wanting to work will have the opportunity? And how will all work be respected and appreciated. (That’s a whole other discussion.)

Today much is written about the unemployment problem facing so many in this country. On Public Radio we hear the interviews with those who lost their jobs, who are very qualified, and can’t find work. My heart is broken when I hear their stories. They–we–have become totally dependent on the corporate structures to provide those jobs. And we are vulnerable to the corporations vulnerability to the stock market. (Did you see the documentary “Inside Job”? That was plenty scary, huh?)

Hundreds of years ago, everything we used was made by someone, or maybe by two or three folks. Today it’s difficult to find real hand-made items, created by craftspeople proud of their work. Instead most of what we buy is mass-produced through efficient means of factory machinery, with most of the workers never making a whole product.

There have been a couple of waves of protest to this de-humanization of work in the 20th century. Early on there was the “arts and crafts” movement of people protesting the continued rise of the industrial workplace. According to Wikipedia it was “an international design movement that originated in England and flourished between 1880 and 1910, continuing its influence up to the 1930s…. as a reaction against the impoverished state of the decorative arts and the conditions under which they were produced….The movement advocated truth to materials and traditional craftsmanship using simple forms and often medieval, romantic or folk styles of decoration. It also proposed economic and social reform and has been seen as essentially anti-industrial.” Wow, what happened to that movement? Did the remnants of it stay alive until mid-century?

In the 60’s some of the “hippies” moved back to the land, along with other “back-to-the-landers,” created their own goods, and spent lots of time cooking, farming, and generally hanging out. It was a “slow life” movement. Even those who stayed in the cities were on a slower course than the rest of society around them. There were plenty of jokes about taking “basket weaving” for college courses, or complaints about how the hippies were not adding value to society. Well, being a child of that time, I was very influenced by the movement. But then along came college with a major in accounting, followed by a graduate degree in management, and I was drawn into the “efficiency movement.” I’m efficient in my home, and have been in my work.


Now, because of one person’s comments, I am re-thinking our (my) striving for efficiency. Of course, this isn’t about energy-efficiency. There I think it’s good to turn out our lights and use less energy whenever we can. But what about the possibility that folks could work less hours in each week, spread around the work, and support more hand-crafted society? That would be a big change. But, according to Bill McKibben in his recent book, Eaarth, Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, we no longer live on the same planet. Everything’s changed from what it was 200 years ago. So we need to re-think, re-vision, and “re-life” ourselves.

Can we do it? Can we totally re-design our lives so that we are not dependent on Wall Street? Can we re-design the economic system that so involves our lives? Can we re-design the way we even think? How have we been programmed in schools? How do we begin to think “outside of the box?” How do we create and support a “slow work” movement?


About ruahswennerfelt

I am searching for a global vision for a sustainable, resilient world in the face of peak oil, climate change, and economic instability.
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