Work and Pollution

“Where there’s hard work, there’s pollution.” This quote, which I heard from my permaculture design teachers, is one of my favorites from Bill Mollison.

Someone on the Permaculture Facebook group (a worldwide and very productively lively group) just started a post by asking, “Is work a Type 1 error?”

A Type 1 error, in permaculture technology, is a fatal design error. A Type 1 error can bring about the demise of your organization, or flat-out kill you. One simple example of a Type 1 error is planting a row of pine trees along each side of a path that leads gently uphill to your front door. You’ve basically created a giant box of matches leading to your house. Another Type 1 error is if we manage to kill off all the bees and other insects. Humans will go bye-bye if we do!

But what is meant by hard work being a sign of pollution?

I divide work, in the human sense, into two categories: work-for-money, and home chores. And I find that “work pollution” can arise in both categories.

For example, doing my laundry by hand in a tub, the very few clothes I own, and just using water and a bit of mild soap to get them clean enough, feels like a pleasant outdoor interlude. Yes there is exertion and effort, but it feels wholesome, not burdensome. And the pollution is minimal; there is relatively little disruption to ecosystems. The mild soapwater is fine for trees, shrubs, and even some of the cultivated veggies.

On the other hand, owning far more clothes than I need, doing mountains of laundry by machine with aggressively scented detergents, to some advertiser-defined standard of “clean”; and then drying it in a dryer with aggressively scented dryer sheets, would feel like WORK to me, in the sense of drudgery. And not incidentally, the pollution factor would be greater. Damage to ecosystems would be far in excess of what’s needed to get my clothes clean enough.

I have had housecleaning clients who were constantly having to do laundry because they had too many clothes! (The endless piles of clothes would sit around and get musty and need to be washed even though no one had worn them since the last washing.)

I notice a similar contrast between landscaping work to regenerate the soil, meet my food needs, etc.; and obsessive “vanity landscaping” where every weed is pulled or poisoned, and the grass is required to look as pristine as a livingroom carpet. The latter type of work may command a lot more money in the mainstream economy, but it causes great pollution!

Another thing that makes work feel vibrantly pleasurable rather than drudgey, is when it’s done in community rather than as solitary toil. Washing a bunch of laundry, or doing a huge task like building a house or bringing in a harvest, for instance. “Many hands make light work” not only in the sense of reducing the amount of work per person, but increasing the joy. And, if people are getting joy from productive work, they’re less likely to need to seek pleasure from “escape” vacations or harmful drugs (which would increase pollution and other burdens on ecosystems).

Although needlessly hard work is a form of pollution and a symptom of bad design, work to meet our basic needs is necessary. And if a person is not able to join in that work, the consequences to physical and mental health can be devastating. Look at how our modern industrialized society sidelines kids and elders.

I have seen an old man chase the same leaf around the driveway with a leafblower for an hour. I wondered why he didn’t go fishing instead. Don’t many men work hard all their lives just to be able to someday relax and go fishing? But it just now occurred to me that maybe when a person gets to be that age, there’s no joy in just fishing. You want to have someone to teach it to! And if there are no grandkids or they live far away … there you go. Robbed of your natural, mutually joyful work. (Just one of my thought-tangents on this topic.)

Another thing that I see happening is unnecessary work robbing resources from work that really needs to be done. Oftentimes the unnecessary work is out-and-out harmful. For example, a church congregation has “no money” to pay for recycling, but plenty of money to pay for the unnecessary and damaging operation of pruning sabal palm trees (the state tree of Florida is self-pruning and its crown has a graceful spherical shape, but the persistent landscaping vogue is to scalp it til there are so few fronds left that it looks like what I call a “sick rooster”).

Another example (as it happens, this one is at a church also). The church has all the money and humanpower in the world for mowing and edging its grounds, and pressure-washing its walkways, but “no resources” for fruit trees or a vegetable garden.

If you can bear yet another landscaping example: An empty lot owned by the city is excessively mowed, to the point of creating large areas of bare ground. Then, fertilizer is applied to it. How much more effective, and how much less work, would it be to allow the lot to revert to meadow (it could be a “managed meadow,” with a swath mowed around the perimeter to indicate that it is being cared for, not abandoned). At the very least, they could reduce mowing frequency to once a month. They’d save gasoline, and could stop applying the fertilizer that isn’t doing any good anyway. But the madness persists, and meanwhile there is “not enough money” for the city to (for example) refurbish an old community center, which will instead probably be torn down. Or to operate its environmental education center, so the center has to limp along depending on outside grants (with the various strings that tend to be attached to grants, imposing inflexible rules and limiting creative leeway).

If you want to check out the discussion thread on work and pollution that I mentioned at the beginning of this post, and maybe chime in, I encourage you to join the Permaculture Facebook group and do a search for the thread. Hope to see you there!