You are here

Chris Clarke

Labor and Ecology

By Chris Clarke - Ecology Center Newsletter [Terrain], September 1990

If you were to believe the headlines found in major newspapers these days, you might decide that the majority of the environmental activists don‟t care much about people‟s economic needs, and that most employed people are concerned only with their paycheck, and let the ecosystem be damned. From the anti-wilderness advocates in Northwest California, to the defense contractors in Pasadena (California) who bemoan peace's price in unemployment, to the steelworkers in Lackawanna, New York, who blame environmental restrictions for their closed steel mill (and consequent breathable air), to the self-styled “environmental President” (George Bush Sr.) who waters down the Endangered Species Act with economic mitigation, a chorus of seemingly disparate voices contends that the interests of labor must counterbalance the interests of the environment.

We all want to be able to work for a living, right? And any compassionate person watching the “six o‟clock news” who sees these honest, hardworking people beset by the concerns of “tie-dyed (or Italian suited) long hairs from the big cities (all on welfare or defaulted student loans) who value animals and trees more than the livelihoods and tax-paying ability of middle America” probably feels a great deal of well-placed sympathy for these workers. But are the concerns of labor and environmentalists really at odds? Don‟t both groups have some common ground?

Astute observers will point out that most of this so-called conflict is based on a limited perception of reality, one which ignores the existence of the people who benefit from this conflict. The giant logging companies care not one whit about the welfare of either the logger or the tree unless than welfare has a positive effect on their profit margin. Oil companies will fight new demands by workers with the same ferocity that they fight restrictions on oil leasing on marine sanctuaries. And it‟s worth pointing out that Judi Bari, one of the two victims of an assassination attempt in Oakland in May 1990 [was] both a union organizer and environmental activist—both activities not exactly guaranteed to endear one to the people in power. There‟s a common enemy, in other words, that both labor and the environment share. And where there‟s a common enemy, there is usually common ground.

Bertrand Russell once stated that there are two types of labor: the expenditure of human energy to alter an object‟s form or position relative to other objects; and the telling of someone else to do so. Taking things at their most basic level, labor can be defined as the expenditure of human energy to achieve some intended purpose, whether that be physical or mental energy. Humans take in food, which is a product of the biosphere, we metabolize that food, producing energy, and that energy is harnessed as labor. In years past, labor was often supplied by other animals as well as humans; under ideal circumstances, a nonpolluting, renewable resource. (please note that I don‟t mean to be reductionist, defining people‟s work as a resources—but more on that later.) Labor is a part of the bio-sphere, then, deriving energy from the environment and functioning, except in the case of the labor of astronauts, wholly within the biosphere.

Seen in this light, it becomes a little harder to understand how the interests of human labor can be divorced from the interests of the biosphere at large and for human labor to set itself against environmental protection seems as counterproductive as if the rainforest were to challenge the legal rights of the North Slope. When systems are so interconnected, a disruption of one system must necessarily affect the other. Air-borne pollutants from the Bethlehem Steel plant in Lackawanna caused extreme cancer rates among the workers living nearby. Deforestation in the tropics causes flooding in settlements downstream. Smog-laden air in the Los Angeles Basin produces chronic health problems for the workers who live there. One might make a rather Machiavellian case for environmental protection, then, on the grounds that only in a healthy environment can one obtain full value from human labor otherwise, the laborers suffer diseases and injuries that interfere with their peak efficiency. This argument, however implies a rather bleak social structure in which labor is seen only as a resource for extraction, and not as something with inherent rights worth protecting for their own sake. In other words, it assumes a social structure pretty much like the one we have today.

The Fine Print I:

Disclaimer: The views expressed on this site are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) unless otherwise indicated and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s, nor should it be assumed that any of these authors automatically support the IWW or endorse any of its positions.

Further: the inclusion of a link on our site (other than the link to the main IWW site) does not imply endorsement by or an alliance with the IWW. These sites have been chosen by our members due to their perceived relevance to the IWW EUC and are included here for informational purposes only. If you have any suggestions or comments on any of the links included (or not included) above, please contact us.

The Fine Print II:

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc.

It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.