The “Bee”

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. Please leave any comments there.

The realization that our present economic system relies on overconsumption of overproduction, and further, that this overproduction perverts far too much of our planet into toxicity opens the door to an understanding that nothing like present productivity levels are in fact required. Jacques Ellul, in The Technological Society, also recalls how work could be subverted to social activity–with the latter being paramount:

Even in activities we consider technical, it was not always that aspect which was uppermost. In the achievement of a small economic goal, for example, the technical effort became secondary to the pleasure of gathering together. “Formerly, when a New England family convoked a ‘bee’ (that is, a meeting for working in common), it was for all concerned one of the most pleasurable times of the year. The work was scarcely more than a pretext for coming together.” The activity of sustaining social relations and human contacts predominated over the technical scheme of things and the obligation to work, which were secondary causes. (p. 65)

Neil Postman in Technopoly and Ellul both warn against society having developed to a condition where technique becomes an end rather than a means to an end. Scott Sernau, in Worlds Apart: Social Inequalities in a Global Economy, adds

that the men and women of hunting and gathering bands may live well. They work less than you or I do, maybe only about 20 hours per week (Sahlins 1972). In part this is because there is only so much they can do. Their lives are tied to the rhythms of nature, and so they must wait for the returning herds or the ripening fruits. While they wait, they joke and tell stories, they mend their simple tools and temporary dwellings, they play with their children, and, it seems, they often give some energy to flirting and lovemaking. Their diets are often healthier than those of most of the world’s peasants; in fact, they are quite similar to the diverse, high-fiber, organic diets based on fresh fruits and vegetables supplemented with a little lean meat that nutritionists encourage for the rest of us. (p. 73)

In the juxtaposition of these distinct understandings comes a recognition that the promise of technology, of easier, more prosperous lives of greater leisure has somehow been lost. We have more gadgets that do more things than ever before, but I will never forget as a cab driver in San Francisco, seeing people who rose early in the morning and worked late into the evenings, people who may have acquired a material standard of living, but whom I thought were doomed to burn out. Capitalism promised–and may even have occasionally delivered–prosperity and more free time for those who worked hard, but I saw also the broken bodies of discarded people on 6th Street whom capitalism spat out.

If overproduction is indeed overproduction, then rather than enslaving ourselves to production, we should instead collect on the promise of technology, so like Sernau’s “cavemen” with their putatively “nasty, brutish, and short” lives, we might “joke and tell stories, . . . play with [our] children, and . . . give some energy to flirting and lovemaking.” With such a wretched fate, it just might be that we would save our planet and ourselves in the process.