Labor intensive activities are hard work and the desire to reduce or eliminate “unnecessary labor” through the introduction of new technology has been a defining feature of technological advancement. This has been, on a whole, a benefit for the human condition. When assessed by the metric of production efficiency there is no contest between newer labor-saving technology/practices and older labor-intensive technologies/practices. However, this mindset fails to capture a holistic picture of the costs and benefits that these new technologies provide.
For example: Industrial scale agriculture has indeed allowed a very tiny fraction of the population to produce a veritable cornucopia of food at an extremely low price to the general population. By focusing on these metrics of labor inputs, production outputs, and cost to consumers the efficiency of industrial agriculture is supreme; but when accounting for the unmeasured or ignored costs industrial agriculture becomes much less attractive.
Land consolidation, dangerously fragile supply chains, loss of biodiversity, environmental impact, agricultural monopoly, and alienation between consumers and production are all real problems with our modern agricultural system. These metrics are extremely difficult to aggregate in a quantitative or qualitative way and apply it to public policy considerations. Our assessments of new technology for labor intensive activities have been too narrow.
Consider, for example, the task of building construction. Humanity has been building for our entire history and pre-history; the vast majority of humans through the years have built their own homes by their own hands and with the help of their neighbors. In industrial society, though, the idea of a person or family building their own home by themselves rather than contracting to professionals is met with incredulity.
Building codes, inspections, insurance policies, etc. have in many respects made traditional construction practices illegal, impractical, or artificially expensive when compared to modern construction. Regional diversity in terms of materials, styles, and community traditions have been replaced by the whims of far-off lobbyists and legislatures who have artificially imposed a soulless uniformity.
Case-in-point: The standard material for roofing homes is the asphalt shingle, first used in the early 20th century and becoming popularized in America around WWI. The asphalt shingle is a cheap, useful, easy to install, and able to be easily mass produced and was one of the most vital components of the housing construction boom of the 1960s. These shingles can be installed in nearly any environment as a Jack of All Trades, and will provide reasonable protection to the homes they cover with a life cycle of between 10-20 years. They are also produced through energy intensive industrial methods, contribute 7-9 million tons of residential waste per year and are very difficult to recycle. They are also terrible insulators and require attic ventilation to prevent moisture build up.
“If new construction materials and techniques come at the cost of losing important skills on a grand scale, racking up unchecked environmental costs, and the loss of community, do the labor-saving benefits justify the costs?”
Compare this to thatch, the use of reeds, grasses, and straw, which have formed the backbone of roofing for most of human history. A thatch roof is incredibly fire-resistant, requires very little maintenance over its 15-25 year life span, is made entirely of cheap naturally sourced materials which can be completely recycled/reused at the end of their life span. Thatch is also an excellent insulator and doesn’t require attic ventilation.
There is a problem, though: Thatch is very labor intensive compared to asphalt shingles, and often requires insurance premiums due to the common myth of easy flammability. Thus, the skills needed to make thatch roofing have been largely siloed or forgotten in industrial society. It is easy to see why, in a society that has prioritized efficiency and emphasized savings in labor costs, asphalt shingles are more common than thatched roofs.
In the past, entire communities would come together to help rethatch roofs or to build new ones to mitigate the need for large amounts of labor. This practice is still carried out in more traditional societies, but also maintains itself in Japan through the Yui (結) system of cooperative labor.
Historically, labor intensive activities have had the doble effect of helping to create and strengthen the bonds of community in tune to the rhythm of nature’s seasons. Even in industrial society, bonds forged through common labor can be found in industrial unions, sports teams, and organizations like the military. Shared labor creates shared bonds, this is a fact which our society has allowed to atrophy in the pursuit of efficiency.
To point out the obvious: Labor saving technologies are good, new building materials are good, the idea of technological progress is largely good. However, they come with costs and ignoring those costs leads to terrible problems. If new construction materials and techniques come at the cost of losing important skills on a grand scale, racking up unchecked environmental costs, and the loss of community, do the labor-saving benefits justify the costs?
To put it another way: If we weaken the bonds of community through the elimination of shared labor without strengthening these bonds in another fashion, is this a good thing? If labor saving technologies can only provide us the destruction of community, then it is imperative for us to weigh these costs. Perhaps labor intensive technologies should be reclaimed to help save dying communities which have been ripped apart by an atomizing society.
Eric Anton is a husband and father of three, and an Army Veteran. He is a former member of the National Committee of the American Solidarity Party.