My recent reading through the book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age To the Age of Robots by James Suzman, has really been shaking up my understanding of what work is. I’m sure that this would not be Suzman’s intent, but it has also reawakened and reinvigorated my faith in God, particularly in how it is that I see (and understand) the God-Creation-Humanity relationship.
A big part of the Suzman’s larger thesis has to do with how it is humanity has shifted the human relationship to work from a view of abundance to scarcity. And I think this has much to say regarding the recent annual celebration of Earth Day and all that this day represents.
The basic tenant of the argument goes like this:
The story of human’s relationship to the world (or the earth) used to be focused on the immediate and the present, where they (we) looked out at their environment and observed and trusted in the providential nature of God and earth to provide what one needed. Therefore there was no necessary language for which to assume or describe anxiety about the future. Work set us in relationship with God and land where the functional nature of this relationship (work) trusted in immediate needs being met through the fruits of that relationship, and rest then giving us to the time to reflect on and grow awareness of God and Land.
Anxiety about the future surfaced with the creation and discovery of fire precisely because for the first time in our world’s history we had an external source of energy that demonstrated the idea of “excess”. In other words, for the first time something else did the work that normally would have been attributed to us. This brought about both physical and social/cultural changes. The problem of excess is what then formulates the rest of the human story as one concerned less with the present and more with the future, bringing with it a very real anxiety that undermines the trust of this relatationship to and with God and Land.
The Gift of Free Time
As the author suggests, considering cooking to be one of the primary roles of fire that led to direct changes in human function and physicality, “Perhaps it is because so many see cooking as hard work that we have paid so little atteniton to what may be among the most important of fire’s many gifts: the gift of free time.”
This free time has led to the increased development of more and more external energy sources that do the work for us, creating this unending and interrelated cycle of future oriented thought processes and increased anxiety. When we no longer have a relationship to the present, we instead spend our time obsessing over and saving up for the future, something that has its greatest demonstration in Western development and society. This has flipped our attention from trust in the idea that our needs will be met (that providential relationship with God and land) to to the notion of increasing want. When these external energy sources do our work for us, all of this free time leads to both the positive and negative creation of excess. This shift from need to want has led to a society that attributes to work all manners of external, identity shaping attributes that then demand that we work harder and harder and harder for these wants rather than working less to obtain our needs, and we do this precisely because of all this “free time” and “free energy.” Its a paradox and a conundrum built on anxiety that creates more and more anxiety even as it continues to progress ingenunity and invention at an unprecedented rate. Further, as external energy sources do the work that we once did, not only do we disconnect from God and Land, we also end redirecting the evolutionary process that creative entropy holds together. Most of the evolutionary process is now artificial, from the cities we create changing natural patterns and adapted species to the very rewiring of our brains and the ongoing manipulation of the earth for these energy sources.
One place where we see this most readily is in the movement from fire to the rise of the farming, the structural premise that gives rise to growing civilization and reshapes our relationship to the Land, and thus also the life that shares this land with us. Reflecting on some of the narrative problems that flow from this shift Suzman writes,
“People and their domestic animals now comprise a remarkable 96 percent of all mammalian biomass on the planet. Humans account for 36 percent of that total, and the livestock that we nurture, nourish, and then sense to the slaughterhouse account for 60 percent. The remaining 4 percent are the ever diminishing populations of wild animals…
Descartes had his famous “night of visions”- a sequence of dreams that persuaded him that his ability to reason was sufficient proof of his own existence, giving rise to the now famous disctum, cogito, ergo sum- I think, therefore I am. It also persuaded him that the human body was no more than “a statue or machine made of earth,” and animals like the warhorses that sustained his amry, lacked the faculty for reason and so were nothing more than elaborate barley- and oat-fueled automata….
almost all societies that depended on hunting for meat considered animals to have souls… many also considered the fact that hunters were in effect harvesters of souls to be morally troubling and came up with a different way to rationalize the killing…
For farmers involved in meat production or butchers, there is little room for the intimacy that comes from hunting an animal on foot with a spear or bow. The emotional weight of animals souls would be too great a burden to bear. Humans, though, have evolved the ability to be selective in deploying the empathy that underwrites our social natures… (thus) Farming socities adopted a variety of different approaches to dealing with the ethical problem of killing animals. Some simply chose to hide the messy business (Eastern and Indigenous cultures)… another option was regulation (Abrahamic Religions)… the final option was to take Descartes’s approach and think of animals as little more than machines and so assume that they were already dead even while they still lived….
When he argued that animals are for the sake of man, Aristotle wasn’t only talking about food but also the work done by creatures like oxen, horses, and hunting dogs. This too was part of the natural order of things. Perhaps unsurprisingly he rationalized slavery in a similar way…. the only circumstances he imagined slavery no longer being an institution would be if there was no work for slaves to do. And the only circumstances in which he believed that could happen were if somehow people might invent machines that could work autonomously, “obeying and anticipating the will of others,” in which case “chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters, slaves.”
To him, though, that was something that might only happen in the world of fantasy and the false stories religious people told one another… Aristotle may have built his reputation by using reason to interrogate the nature of uncertainty, but he had no doubt that slaves existed precisely so that people like him could spend their days solving math problems and having clever arguments rather than producing and preparing food. His defense of slavery is a reminder of how people in all societies have insisted that their often wildly different economic and social norms and institutions reflect nature.”
From Human Exceptionalism to Technology: The Age of the New Gods
We are at a tipping point in human history where technology and artificial evolution is taking the place of this planet’s primary energy producing source and therefore functioning as “god” so to speak, with the caveat that the narrative this is following is all based now on the notion of scarcity rather than abundance. This notion of scarcity is precisely what creates this conundrum of a planet that needs to use more and more resources while also anxiously understanding that there won’t be enough resources to sustain us into the future. It also lies at the root of understanding how it is that we moved from fire to farming and modern socio-economical practices, practices based almost entirely on the notion of preparing and storing for the future. Perhaps most notable are the ways in which this model of scarcity becomes the driving force for the creation of inequalaity with fear and uncertainty for the future forcing us to reminagine our relationship to God and Land (in providential terms) and thus to one another.
God, Land, Abundance and Scarcity
Here we have the central quesiton of how it is that life “works”, and thus how we understand our relationship to “work”. The laws of entropy (the simaltaneous destruction of or taking of energy and the making and dispersion of energy) must still be applied somewhere. The real question for this anxiety laden future is how it is that technology as the main energy consumptiive plays into this equation. This becomes especially apparent in modernity where it is assumed that our relationship to God and Land is a thing of the past, and where progress and fear of that uncertain future must be the dominating narrative driving energy producing and energy consuming practices now dominated by technological sources in order to ensure our long term survival.
Interestingly to this end, this is precisely why the problem of “scarcity” is written so sharply into religious conviction, and why in the Abrahamic religions most specificially we have such a strident focus on reclaiming this God-Creation-Humanity relationship. The ancient world bears much evidence towards the basic intuition of this shift from abundance (the Garden narrative in Judeo-Christian Tradition) to scarcity (the wilderness in Judeo-Christian tradtion), with the outcome being perpetuated by this sift being a necessary division between land and people (taking its energy sources for our wants), people and God (no longer trusting in provision but working to obtain it and control it ourselves) , and people and people (inequality based on scarcity). In the Judeo Christian Tradition, desire is the primary word used to understand a definition of sin, from which we arrive at this overarching theme of God’s either dwelling in the cosmos or dwelling apart from it. The mark of human progress captured by the Tower of Babel story in particular, a story that in itself can only be understood in the light of the first chapters of Genesis which defines both God’s dwelling within the order of creation and to call to work in relationship to God, Creation (Land or earth) and People, and the problem of desire which leads to disorder (the flood) and the picture of “empire” that posits a people controlling the narrative of the human story as one of scarcity rather than abundance (by making this tower, let us make a name for ourselves). That this happens continually within our very human awareness of the problem of scarcity suggests that the same order-disorder, chaos and creation story that guides this religious conviction with the ancient world is still very much in play. When natural disasters hit (a pandemic, for example), the fear that the narrative of scarcity brings emerges ten fold. These things then foster a never ending discourse revolving around the human capacity to control the future on one side and concerns over our failure to exist in proper relationship to God and Land on the other.
Which is where we end up with these confused and competing narratives. On the one hand we find the grand story of capitalism that holds human exceptionalism, the very image of the Tower of Babel, in its grip. Suzman writes,
“The only thing universal about market capitalism was the hubris of its most enthusiastic advocates… market capitalism was a cultural phenomenon that emerged as the modern nation state replaced more granulaar, diverse socially grounded economic systems based mainly on kinship, sharing, and reciprocal gift-exchange. The substantivists insisted that the economic rationality the formalists believed was part of human nature was a cultural by-product of market capitalism, and that we should be far more open-mineded when it came to making sense of how other people aportioned value, worked, or exchanged things with one another… wants may be easily satisfied, either by producing much or desiring little. Hunter-gatherers achieved this be desiring little and so, in their own way, were more affluent than a Wall Street banker who, despite owning more properties, boats, cars, and watches than they know what to do with, constantly strives to acquire even more…. potentially for most of human history, scarcity was not the organizing feature of human economic life and hence the fundamental economic problem, at least as it was described by classical economics, was not the eternal struggle of our species.”
On the other hand, we see many looking to reapply a humanist interpretation of the sacred to the natural order as a way of downplaying human exceptionalism. This takes the old ideas of God in relationship to the world and God existing apart or absent from the world and replaces it with a view of the natural order as standing above artiifical evolution in light of God’s absence or non-existence. And yet if the problem of the first view is that it imagines humanity as its own god, and the us the earth’s most sacred and vital componant, this second view attempts to make the sacred the natural order. Both assume a guiding narrative, one focused on the past and the other obsessed with the future, but a narrative nonetheless. And narratives that have a tough time reconciling this notion of work with the distinctness of the human capacity and vocation without either diminishing it based on an assumed elevation of the sacredness of the natural order or elevating the sacredness of humanity above the natural order. We can’t assume the sacredness of the land as something the defines our relationship to it if the land cannot attribute this sacredness to itself, nor does it seem we can maintain the right and godlike ability to attribute this sacredness to ourselves (humanity) without necessarily subsuming the sacredness of the land itself for the sake of humanities future. We are stuck with narratives that have little to say about our (humanities) working relationship to Land in the present.
The Source of Life and Entropy
In any case, I think what is obvious as well is that there remains an uncertain longing for the sacred to be evident within the evident chaos. It would seem that the same storyline that we see in the Judeo-Christian story continues today, with the added question of this picture of cultural and human empire now shifting from people to technology as the new god of our age. Technology is increasingly driving and (re)defining the very defintion of ethics and morality, and will soon, if it hasn’t already, become its purveryor and catalyst. It is for this reason that I would suggest that our primary problem is that age old discussion about God as one who dwells within the created order or as one who dwells apart from the created order.
This age old question (is God absent of the natural order or involved in/present within the natural order) formulates itself in the modern age as a particular concern for this notion of a God who dwells within the created order necessitating a God who then also dwells within the chaos. This is not a question that concerned the ancients in the same way as it does today, but rather these are questions that now emerge from our modern understanding of the chaos in scientific terms. As Suzman writes though, what science demonstrates and what we are discovering more and more is that the creative process of entropy, that energy consuming and energy producing process from which life emerges and is thus contained and sustained, appears to require both the destructive and constructive edges of this process in order to function. Life emerges from death, order from disorder, production from consumption, creation from chaos.
The real question hinges not on the nature of this process (Suzman maintains this is not the essential mystery), but rather on the question of its source. That is, we can see and note the necessary pattern, but this requires something to set it in process, to jump start the laws of entropy and to define its necessary starting point. The process requires a source, a foundation by which it then comes into existence and finds its necessary pattern. Here in lies the conundrum of that ancient question. If God jump started the process, is God then still involved in the process given the evidence of both order and disorder. And if God is not, do we then just imagine that God is not involved at all in the human story. And if so, where then do we locate a reason to exist in relationship to the Land if the human story seems to necessitate a concern for a future that sees us existing apart from (our in control of) the Land? And perhaps the bigger question yet, if humanity is elevated to the position of God (that is, the source and arbitrator of ethics and morality and thus the ones who set the new pattern for life and entropy), how do protect against the exploitation that flows from humanity being in the position of the primary consumer of these energy sources and this energy existing soley to beneift our (now) natural human progress? We are less dependent on the earth now than we are dependent on our ability to harness it and thus tailor it for the purpose of humanities potential future apart from it. It’s a catch 22. Our best hope for the future is to use the earth for human advancement, while this using and coopting of the natural order for the sake of human advancement requires necessary exploitation.
If the entirety of the human story of progress (and even the very physical evolutionary progress and development that led to our unique exceptionalism) is built on “artificial evolution” (that is, evolution that humanity has cooopted and redirected in its participation within the natural order), to what end do we then demand an upholding of the sacredness of the earth? If we are presently in control of the narrative and therefore our potential future, by what means do we then choose to inhibit and hold back this potential by changing the new narrative of evolution for the sole (and seemingly irrational) purpose of elevating nature to a godlike status?
And further yet, what do we do when technology is already re-assuming this rolein our stead? How do we locate the relationship to God and Land that the ancients assumed within a narrative that leaves little room for it to exist? Technology might be the only way we survive in the future by giving us a way off this planet that we call home, but that technology demands the continued exploitation of this place we call home for our the purpose of human progress. This, it would seem, is the natural order of things with humans in the god role. And the reason technology is now subsuming our own position as gods is precisely because it is the product of the continued and necessitated practice of handing the production of energy that once was ours over to that technology.”
These are big questions, and ones that I have been mulling around in my own mind. They seem to especially be pertinant for understanding why it is we should care about and celebrate something like Earth Day, something that seems to be far less about that working relationship and far more about that socio-political lobbying either to protect our god like status or to relegate it back to the natural order in a way that resubmits us to a source that can dictate and control our narrative as the source and virtuous authority. For myself I find myself compelled again and again back to the God-Land-Humanity realtionship that guides the ancient stories, and in particular the Judeo-Christian narrative mentioned above. There is something about the God imagined in this story as one who dwells within both the order and the chaos that continue to compell me, even if it challenges me. It provides me a way to locate the human story within the story of God and Creation as one that emboldens a “working” relationship, speaks to the problem of scarcity, and brings together past, present and future as a measure of trust in something that sits above us and holds it together in the patterns of order and disorder, even if that leaves me slightly out of control of that narrative. It allows me to revel in abundance as opposed to forever reacting to scarcity. And even more so, at the very least it provides me a means of participating within it in a way that makes sense, and even affords me the responsibility that comes from our ability to direct it in ways that don’t succumb to necessary inequality and allows me to respond to the inequality that scarcity creates and demands.