For most of our history, humans have had to work in order to live. For the
vast majority of that time, the work was varied, involved natural materials
and was directly connected to survival. Hunting, gathering or growing
food, preparing it for eating, building shelter and raising children
provided stimulating challenges as well as connections to community and the
In this century, work has become increasingly abstract. Even the important
survival benefits of health care and retirement are disappearing for an
increasingly part-time and temporary workforce.
Rather than human survival, work is now mostly designed to meet the needs
of corporations to expand profits or market share; that is, to produce
more new cars, sell more cigarettes and alcohol, fill more cruise ships or
create even more outrageous clothes, movies or TV shows. The economy is
considered to be strong as long the Gross Domestic Product (or GDP)
It's time more of us understood just how out of touch with important
realities this economy actually is. Its basic premises are deeply flawed.
This is especially true in terms of the work it rewards and the work that
it totally ignores.
For example, the farmer in the midwest drives her tractor over hundreds of
acres, plants expensive hybrid corn, fertilizes and sprays to control bugs
and weeds, and then harvests the crop. She's done a lot of what is
recognized as hard work. The economic numbers which include the cost of
pesticides, fertilizers, seeds, tractors and harvesters, all contribute to
the GDP. This year, however, many farmers who've done all this work will
not be able to sell their crop for what it cost them to grow it. Yet, this
cheap corn will stimulate profits for grain traders, corn-sweetener
manufacturers, large livestock feeding operations, and on down the food
chain to soda companies and burger franchises.
Meanwhile, the work of millions of folks who turn their labor and
composted waste products directly into fresh food using home or community
gardens, remains largely outside the current economic system. Although the
GDP rises slightly with purchases of seeds and hand tools, it doesn't value
that labor, or the benefits of exercise, fresh food and a positive example
Many young children are now placed in day care so that their primary
caretaker can get "a job." The economists add the cost of child care and
the parent's wages to the GDP. In reality, costs and wages for the parent
may almost cancel each other out. A car to drive to the day care facility
on the way to and from work, its fuel and maintenance all boost the GDP.
In contrast, if the parent stays home to care for, and perhaps nurse a
young child, the GDP doesn't move. The parent's provision of food,
companionship, stimulation and guidance to a growing child is totally
outside our economic system. He or she performs some of the most important
work for any society, yet it adds no value to the GDP. It is not
recognized as work because no money is exchanged.
The recent autoworkers' strike provides another example of the current
economy's shortcomings. We sympathize with the economic pain suffered by
workers and their communities, while others (especially shareholders) cared
only for the large financial loses suffered by the automaker. However, it
was hard for us not to cheer at the reality that tens of thousands of new
cars were NOT being made each day workers were on strike. Which road, city
or town in this country really needs more cars? Because their negative
effects aren't taken into account, more automobiles are seen as positive,
even when the manufacturer loses money on them.
These examples demonstrate a whole universe of values and actions that
economics has chosen to exclude from consideration.
This economic system won't lead us to a sustainable future because it has
gone so far beyond supplying our basic needs. Now, its basic need is for
ever-more growth, and finding consumers for increasingly enormous
quantities of low-cost, subsidized goods that pour off the production lines
all over the world.
Without the uncounted work of literally billions of people, the global
economy is completely unable to care for humans or the planet.
This Labor Day, if we want health and happiness, we should realize the
severe limitations and narrow scope of "economics" as we know it and
appreciate the importance of unpaid real work.
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1998, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT
certified organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban
agriculture projects in southern Connecticut and producing "Living on the
Earth" radio programs). Their collection of essays Living on the Earth:
Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful Future is available from Bill
Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14 postpaid. These essays first
appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT. New essays are posted
weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since November 1995 are
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