… Ecological Scarcity and Human Worth
(c) 2017, Davd
When i was a small boy, 60 years ago and earlier, my Mother used to say, “Life is cheap in Asia.” Exactly what she meant, i will not know in this life; it seemed to indicate that wages were lower, that health care was less available and less effective, that human rights were fewer.
So here we are at the beginning of 2017: Wages are lower than they were when i was a boy, “relative to the cost of living.” Job security is much lower, and “fringe benefits” are poorer. Health care is less available than it was in the early days of the government paid system, though there do exist medical techniques that can cure or repair conditions that were untreatable then.
Bureaucratic restrictions are much more severe, and costly, than they were 60 years ago and earlier. Clam digging and food fishing in the Pacific Ocean and its bays was something any Canadian could do without any permits; now licenses must be bought. Fishing in Northern Ontario’s fresh waters, same story. Parking was free in hundreds of places where now, fees must be paid. Driving with 0.09% blood alcohol wasn’t even illegal in 1957; now it is a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. “Gun control” is too complicated to try to summarize it briefly; most of it was imposed in the past 50 years. Cigarette smoking was something one could freely do anywhere; now it is forbidden in most public places and in cars where children ride.
Homosexuality, abortion, and divorce are commoner and more permissively treated than “back then”—but bureaucracy is more involved than before, not less.
Less wealth for ordinary workers, and stricter control of ordinary citizens, go together. Both are aspects of ecological scarcity. To quote a blog i published in 2013:
Raw materials cost more because more work is required to get them from poorer sources, and because as more countries industrialize, more factory demand drives up the price. They cost more work to get because the best stocks have been exploited: From “fracking” for oil and ‘natural gas’ to mining lower-percentage ores of iron, gold, copper, and other minerals; to having no more old-growth forests to log or untouched fisheries to net; the costs of extracting raw materials and providing energy to transport and process them, is far higher than it was during the glory days of the job, back in the third quarter of the 20th Century.
When raw materials are abundant, when farm land is abundant, the cause is usually either the colonization of new territory, or the development of new technology. Lenski, Lenski and Nolan (1991) refer to societies that enjoy new territory as frontier societies. Once there are ways to exploit them, resources tend to be exploited, and become scarce. Frontier societies tend to become agrarian
societies, in which most workers are poor and a few, the elite, are wealthy, or to industrialize.
It is only recently—for a few decades of time—that ecological scarcity has begun to strongly limit industrial development. We cannot be sure the same social class structure will develop in industrial societies when they experience ecological scarcity, as does when frontier societies become crowded agrarian societies. We can be practically, indeed logically certain that wealth per person will decline, indeed has declined in real terms during this century and the last years of the 20th.
Commenting on the election of Donald Trump, John Cruickshank observed that “for almost half of the American population, they haven’t had a raise in 40 years.” Prices have gone up, wages haven’t. The lives of those workers are not valued, are not rewarded, the way they were in 19761.
In that same interview, Cruickshank said things have been better for ordinary workers in Canada, but the trend has been in the same direction.
Life is cheap in much of the United States in 2017, and getting cheaper in Canada. Ecological scarcity cannot be wished away: The quality of available raw materials really is poorer than it was. Basically, there are two things men can do about it, and one of the two, men can do much more than women.
I’ll name first, frugality and efficiency. We can live well on less money, with less resources consumed, if we waste less, or to repeat that in different words, if we make our land, tools, and labor more productive, and make more use of what we produce.
Second, we can improve the quality of our renewable resources, three of whose names begin with F: Farmland, fisheries, and forests. The basic way we can improve them is by doing more work by hand. I went into some detail about this in a 2012 book review, from which i’ll quote briefly here:
As true energy efficiency comes back into prominence, as ecological health becomes a serious and not merely a dilettante concern, which it has since 1980; men working hard and accurately with our muscles will be, for a greater and greater part of the work of subsistence and of well-being, the best way to do the job.
Follow the link to see a more detailed statement of why.
An Alberta farmer i met this past autumn [of 2016] assures me that grain can be grown with few to no chemicals—it will cost more per tonne to grow than grain grown with the largest machinery, but its value as healthier food can attract prices higher than commodity prices, and by now, there are many customers who would buy it direct from the farmers. More labor will go into each tonne of grain, less into marketing; the food will be better.
In the case of ecoforestry, the quality of the timber and the beauty of the forests are apparent to almost anyone; in the case of eco-farming, the customers need to know about the farming practices (which they can appreciate if they visit the farm, but not from looking at a bag of the crop.)
It is practically possible to start up farming sustainably, with much less “money up front”—but much more skilled hand labor per tonne of crop—than is required to do mass production, chemically intensive farming2. We need more men on the land, to restore it.
As an example i enjoy doing myself, growing quality timber requires a lot of hand labour: Choosing trees to thin and trees to leave, in crowded clusters; pruning the lower branches from conifers so that decades later, the best logs will be largely “clear wood”; pruning deciduous trees for form; all contribute to the growth of healthier, more valuable forests. None can be done en-masse by huge machines.
Suppose that large areas of damaged Canadian forest were granted, as tenures large enough to support a large family if well managed, tenures that could never be sold but held in perpetuity subject to good stewardship, to families and co-operatives to improve, harvest, and live from. The initial production would be mostly firewood, fence rails, and other relatively low value timber; as the stands improve, so will the harvests. Here is work that genuinely improves ecological abundance; some can be done by young children and ordinary women; much is inherently men’s work. We need more men in the woods, to restore them.
Our ecological predicament comes, in large part, from too much mechanization. We cannot prevent ecological scarcity by good stewardship if the human population of the earth continues to grow; human life, to that extent, seems to follow “the law of supply and demand.” We can restore the quality of ecosystems degraded by mechanization and chemical abuse—by replacing them with skilled hand labor.
And while i cannot prove this thesis yet, i am convinced that those who restore farms and forests by skilled hand labor, will find their lives are satisfying. If overpopulation and mechanization have made human lives cheap, returning to skilled hand labor will make the lives of the men whose hands they are, valued.
Angus, Karl, 2000. Personal interviews in which Mr. Angus, President of the Port Alberni Métis Association and a historian of Québec as well as Prairie Métis subsistence practices, described his mother’s family’s land holdings and work .
Anonymous, 1965. The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. United States Government Printing Office. ..this centimetre-thick paperback book was written (as acknowledged by the US Department of Labor website, 2010) by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, previously co-author with respected American sociologists and later US Senator from New York
Boulding, Keneth 1973 “The shadow of the stationary state” Daedalus (Fall) 89-101.
Catton, William R., Jr. 1980 Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana, London, and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Paperback 1982
Djilas, Milovan 1957, The New Class. NY: Praeger.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968 The Population Bomb. NY: Ballantine
Ehrlich, Paul; Anne H. Ehrlich, and John P Holdren 1973 Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions. SFO: Freeman
Eichenberger, Bob, 200? L’Écoforesterie, une science, un art, un projet de société Printed by Olivert Eco-Design
Komarov, Boris, 1980. The Destruction of Nature in the Soviet Union. White Plains, NY: M. E. Sharpe
Lenski, Gerhard, Jean Lenski, and Patrick Nolan, 1991. Human Societies< : An Introduction to Macrosociology. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Pimentel, David; E.C.Terhune; R. Dyson-Hudson; S. Rochereau; R. Samis; E.A. Smith; D.Denman; D. Reifschneider; M.Shepard (1976) “Land degradation: Effects on food and Energy resources.” Science 194(8 October) 149-155
Rifkin, Jeremy, with Ted Howard, 1980. Entropy: A New World View. NY: Viking. Bantam paperback 1981
Spelt, Jakob (1972) Urban Development in South-Central Ontario. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart (“Carleton Library” #57) The bulk of the text is about the rural settlement that made later urbamization possible.
Sumner, William G. (1913) Earth Hunger and Other Essays. Yale University Press.
Webb, Walter P. (1952) The Great Frontier. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
1. which happens to have been the 200th anniversary of their Declaration of Independence.
2. The farmers who already have huge areas under cultivation by huge machines, could not manage those huge areas this new [or some would say old, traditional] way, without far more workers; it is easier for newcomers to farming to adopt ecological stewardship than for those already farming on a big scale.