Beyond the Single Baseline: Towards a Re-storyation of True Work

Is a land-centred educator, poet, and permaculture gardener based in Berkeley, California. Rachel teaches creative writing, garden and wilderness skills and has recently launched 'Index for the Next World' story collection project.
My hand fits perfectly through the neck of a two-litre mason jar. I’ve known people who couldn’t push their hand through, or those who, having forced the fit, got stuck for a few minutes. So I honour my particular luck by shoving my knuckles into strips of salt-brined cabbage and ginger-chilli paste at the bottom of the jar, ignoring the burning of spices in a cut on my finger, pushing down until the cabbage gives up its juice and packs down.

I am making kimchi, a traditional Korean ferment or ‘pickle’ similar to sauerkraut but, in my personal opinion, much more delicious because of the ginger-garlic-chilli-onion paste added to the salted vegetable strips and packed into a jar. I also add a bit of miso paste, a Japanese ferment that takes several years in its own right before it’s ready (I stole this twist from a friend who has higher confidence experimenting with food processing than I do). It already smells delicious, but if I wait a couple weeks for the microbial magic to ensue, it will be divine. I’ll add it to cheese toast, pop some arugula and a fried egg on top, and lose my mind for a little while in the sensory immediacy of flavour.

I’ve got sweet tea for a kombucha ferment brewing in a large bowl, sourdough starter proofing for bread in the morning, eight-month old mead (a honey ferment) ageing quietly in the back of a dark cupboard, a pillow I just sewed and stuffed with raw, burr-filled cotton waiting to have its last corner stitched, and hand-spun wool yarn drying on a hook after I simmered it with red cabbage and alum and it turned a pale silver lavender colour (surprisingly, since the dye bath turned the colour you’d get if you accidentally massacred a field of beets with a shovel).

EPSON MFP image

But throughout this flurry of homesteading, I am getting more and more frustrated with myself, thinking about how I really should be getting some work done.

I seem to have decided, stringently and without much questioning, what counts as ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, what counts as work and what does not, and my parameters seem to have little to do with effort or time expended. But I have found examples of this disregard for certain efforts, and reward for others, outside of my own kitchen, in interpersonal interactions and historical trends. Have I created this unilateral definition of what counts as productive, or have I inherited it?

More and more of us live in largely industrialised, centralised, capitalist societies. By definition these systems have certain inherent characteristics that we often don’t see or notice because they are deeply ingrained in the patterns of our days, entrenched in the structures of our culture, and widely accepted as unquestionable, given truths, rather than what they are: phenotypes of human-designed systems. And these systems are built on designated narratives that convey certain value to certain things, certain people, and certain behaviours, as any human system does.

In order to function, industrialisation depends on standardisation, mechanisation, and single baselines of productivity. There is usually one type of endeavour that counts as productive — are you able to do this one motion fast, get as many animals through the slaughterhouse as possible in a given time, etc. Centralisation tends to diminish as well the diversity of things and speeds that might be considered productive, because of a funneling or pyramid pattern — the definition of value is often created far away and far up the ladder. And capitalism is by definition attached to a particular single pattern of productivity: the exponential generation of more capital.

We could debate the merits and pitfalls and ills of our political and economic systems, and wherever we came out, however we feel about the systems we live in, create, benefit from, are oppressed by, and play outside of, those systems do affect not only our external patterns, but our internal cultural and personal systems of value as well. This makes sense — we’re immersed in them all the time. And they give us a certain definition of our own value. A certain definition of ‘work’, of productive contribution, of, when it comes down to it, having earned the right to deserve to matter in our communities and in the world.

The problem here isn’t the simple fact that the narratives of our cultural systems give us our personal and interpersonal narratives of value — of course they do, because that’s what cultural systems do. And at first glance, it’s not even this particular version of value defined by these systems and their narratives that concerns me.

It’s that there’s only one.

There is one baseline for productivity, for value, for good work: how hard and fast and long can you work to produce more.

This is absurdly heartbreaking for many of us. It also makes no sense. Healthy ecosystems do not ever depend on ‘one’ anything — a single input or output, one organism, one fertility source, one speed or type of growth. Diversity is ecologically essential for systemic resilience. This is why a monoculture (single-crop) farming system requires so many external inputs of fertility and pest control substances in order to even survive, and, in contrast, why a diverse forest ecosystem can often tolerate fluctuations in weather or insect population rates without extra-system inputs, and while remaining largely intact and thriving.

EPSON MFP image

Such resilience is not optional, not a superfluous luxury, in either ecosystems or human communities. We need to have lots of different ways of contributing, of finding value in the true work others contribute, or we miss an incredible number of essential ‘inputs’ for our own health, happiness, resilience, thriving. Being resilient beings ourselves, we do find myriad ways to contribute. But often when we do, these methods of contributing go ignored or undervalued, unpaid (since they don’t fall into that single baseline of production), or are considered luxuries, hobbies, or extravagantly artisanal activities, unnecessary to ‘real’ production and survival. Humans usually create community and co-care outside of the narrow industrial definition of value, but because we’re doing so in the context of larger systems that don’t recognise these contributions strongly or at all, it depletes us. It’s untenable, a motion that cannot be sustained for long, like swimming upstream.

We live in a scarcity ecology. We use the relationship between perceived scarcity and perceived need (‘supply and demand’) to determine value — these days, ‘scarce’ connotes ‘valuable’ so automatically that we practically hear them as synonymous. When we learn about supply and demand as economic principles in school, they are taught to us as givens, as natural and inborn principals of life, rather than as chosen drivers of a human-designed system.

We’re so invested in scarcity as our driving force, in fact, that we’ve defined entire groups as less valuable, less deserving, when they do work, even if it’s the kind of quantifiable work our culture values. This can be seen in wage inequalities amongst demographics doing equivalent work, unlivable minimum wages across service industries, the relegation of certain work to the unpaid ‘home’ sphere, and beyond. We’ve decided there isn’t enough work to go around in this country (scarcity again). The single baseline should not be confused with an even playing field — our systems are set up so that privilege and profile carry immense leverage. We have defined certain genders, races, bodies, classes, ages, professions, regions, as doing work that is less valued or not valued, usually work that we at the same time depend heavily on. So there’s this single version of work’s value — do more faster — and we make more or less of that value available to certain groups, and to the work associated with those certain groups.

It shows, this single definition of value, like any single seed that goes wild in disturbed soil and becomes a weed, spiking the exponential growth curve and then crashing. It shows in our mental and emotional health, in our physical health, in our spiritual and community exhaustion.

The single baseline of ‘be as productive as possible at the same level all the time to earn value’ is not only physically and psychologically untenable, not only does it starve or cancerously overfeed our selves and our human and ecological communities, but it’s also deeply unjust. Because of this definition, we have lost our elders as a society (though this varies with background and many subcultures in the US defy this pattern with intergenerational households). Those deemed physically less productive are sidelined to the geographic and social margins. We don’t have an economics of wisdom; we don’t have an ecology of mutual support in our dominant models. Elders might have much to offer in terms of mentorship, storytelling, intergenerational thinking, community memory, cultural ethics, magic, stillness. Thriving human ecologies include these things. But those things don’t generally bring in income in the current context. If you can’t use your hands, brain, computer at a high speed, you can’t earn ‘value’. This is an extremely ableist model in general — certain bodies are ‘valuable’ only so long as they can perform in certain ways. Getting sick, in this story of value, is a sin, a failure, a discrepancy, rather than a natural state of flux, of the changing needs and offerings of any living body.

This core story of single-value baseline, and its concurrent injustices, percolate into communities and cultures even that define themselves in direct opposition to dominant cultural systems. Activist communities, organising groups, radical schools, garden education programs; the ‘what’ of what we work for in these communities pushes to change the larger systems. Meanwhile, the ‘how’ of how we do it, the containers and models we work and play within, can end up directly mimicking the systems we’d like to change. There are certain ways to show up as an activist that are often considered most valuable, most effective, most passionate. And these ways are often enabling to certain mental and physical health patterns and bodies and ages and ways of contributing, and intensely disabling and depleting to others. While fighting for just, thriving, abundant communities and systems in the larger world, we end up building unjust, starving, exhausting systems within our organisations, and ultimately within ourselves.

So this piece is in part an invitation for prefigurative politics in our communities and work — to let the ‘how’ begin more and more to be the ‘what’. To open up as wide a diversity of recognised contribution methods as possible, and to make space and value for modes of contribution to shift even within one individual over time.

There is never a time when we don’t have something to offer. While that statement may sound dreamy and cliché, it in truth stems from the very real, nitty gritty life and death cycles of ecological systems, which depend upon a vast array of interconnections, services, and yields for their functioning, and which do not appear to include our concepts of ‘uselessness’ or ‘waste’. The changes that are inherent to being an organism — to being made of matter on this planet of birth and death and breath, of constant transformation, union and then differentiation — these changes bring along with them a wide diversity in what we each offer at any given time. This variation is needed. It is socially and biologically necessary. We desperately need elders. After all, single-generation thinking has, to say the least, not done great things for our relationship with other organisms, our ecosystems, our selves or our planet. We need storytellers, homemakers, farmers, mothers, spiritual speakers, people who can cook chilli. We need slow movement and fast movement and stillness all.

EPSON MFP image

So there is never a time when we don’t have something to offer, even if we have no idea what it is or who it will impact. In the permaculture design ethos, a primary principle is faith in the ‘unknown good benefit’ of an action or element. Even when all I have to offer is a request for help, even when the gift I give is simply the act of being honest about my needs, this is an essential offering.

Articulating our needs constitutes a crucial offering because people are waiting for invitations to give their own offerings. They are waiting for ‘the ask’. Just as chronically unmet needs exhaust and starve us, chronically unexpressed gifts or offerings with nowhere to go stagnate in us. Energy and fertility misplaced or underutilised becomes pollution. Think of what happens when you dump human waste into a body of water — too much fertility in the wrong place overfeeds algae, they overgrow, block the sun, and end up starving out the ecosystem below. A request can be an opportunity for someone else’s offering, energy, to be fully expressed, fully utilised, given space, purpose, life.

So this is an invitation to widen, enrich, open up the range of what we consider offerings, what we consider contributions, what we consider valuable work.

But it is also a deeper invitation.

Because the single-mindedness, the one-dimensionality of our internalised industrial understanding of work and its value is not the sole question at play here. Deeper, down, into the subsoil, lurks the radical root, the original, underlying query: what is work? Under the ‘one way of contributing, one type of productivity’ narrative lurks not only the insidious idea that there is one way to ‘work’, with certain amounts of corresponding value available based on privilege, but also the deeply held belief that we only earn our value at all when and if we work.

This concept allows us to believe that people need to earn the ‘right’ to deserve shelter (many people without housing actually have one or more jobs which pretty much busts this myth wide open anyway). It allows us to structure our economy and our culture on the perceived necessity of working constantly in order to fight off scarcity, to earn the ‘right’ to eat, to drink clean water, to be safe from violence, to support and be supported by the people we love, to get healing when we are sick. No wonder addictive accumulation, rather than abundance, has expressed itself as the core modality of our current model: we are trying to build walls of safety, of ‘value’, of essentials, between ourselves and the threat of scarcity, of ‘not deserving’, of running out. This response to perceived danger is understandable.

But these walls cut us off from each other and our larger ecological communities, and this is in large part where our massive violence towards each other and the earth gets its fodder. We consider it ‘lazy’, within this paradigm, to believe ourselves inherently and unconditionally worthy of basic and essential things. We are really, really scared of scarcity. Our fear of scarcity fuels our belief in that scarcity’s existence, and our resulting actions, and creation of cultural structures, then result in scarcity. Instead of changing what ‘work’ means so that there are a myriad of recognised offerings and plenty of value to go around, we have kept to our commitment to scarcity by going so far as to define certain humans as not human, as not deserving of the right even to earn ‘value’, let alone to matter implicitly. So our culture defines work very specifically. Yes, we can widen that. But our culture still demands work in order to earn value at all.

What happens if we turn that ‘earned-value’ idea of work on its head? We might start with a belief that human beings, all beings, have intrinsic value. We have seen that what we have to offer can shift, but does not diminish, when we are ill, or disabled by our environment and circumstances. As we get older our offerings will shift. All those offerings are needed, but even they are not what make us deserve to be valued.

I am already valuable.

If I get rid of the old narrative, if I don’t have to earn my value, then why work? What even is work? First off, I want to work, I love to work, I need to offer, to connect, to express, engage, to gift and receive — I am not interested in avoiding work when work can have so many different ways of being defined. But my work, even when diversified, is not an act that ‘allows me’ to deserve or earn value.

My work is an expression of the value that is already there, that I already contain.

It is a range of expressions of what is already in me, or what is growing. It is an ecological and communal act of interdependence. It is connective and relational, it is iterative. Diverse in their manifestations, and rooted in expression rather than fear, work offerings generate abundance, rather than serving as a reaction to scarcity. Work weaves a dance of asking and offering, of curiosity and openness to the wild diversity of ways to meet needs. It is also about power, about moving from the internal self to action and change in the world, the capacity to walk that bridge and connect to others’ offerings, needs, to move into collaboration, from the act of self-expression into the larger self. It’s not easy. It’s often really hard. But it’s not, at its best, something that has to feel desperate. It’s the kind of difficult that generates strength, the kind of tired where you’ve run hard and your muscles are growing, not the kind where you’ve sprinted uphill against the wind and broken something in your ankle but you have to keep going so you don’t fall backwards into the chasm of scarcity.

I work in order to express and connect my value into, and in conversation with, the world.

So what does healing look like in this world of work? How do we shift our internal narratives, as well as those of our culture, towards value-expressing, abundance-generating work? I don’t have an instant answer, which is probably a good thing, since instant answers from single perspectives seem to be a symptom of the very ‘do-more-quick’ privilege-based model I’m asking that we let go. Mostly I have queries. Offering gifts and requests, putting what feels good, even if it’s a jar of fermented cabbage, into conversation (or co-eating) with others, playing with informal economies of abundance, reconsidering ‘need’ as a potentially connective trait rather than a label for a source of shame, hearing from others on these questions — these seem like some places to start. Want to come over for kimchi?

Comments
  1. As an editor and proofreader for thirty years I hate to see nouns used as verbs when a perfectly acceptable verb already exists;

    GIVE [verb] is the opposite of RECEIVE [verb], a GIFT is what you give. It’s just an affectation to talk of gifting, like absolutely rather than a simple yes which caught on a while ago.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I can understand why these word choices might feel grating to an editor and proofreader such as yourself!

      I have a love of shifting nouns to verbs, for reasons that I think are best expressed by Robin Wall Kimmerer in her thoughts on animate grammar: http://moonmagazine.org/robin-wall-kimmerer-learning-grammar-animacy-2015-01-04/. But I also don’t expect everyone to enjoy and agree with me on that choice!

      Peas,

      Rachel

  2. Hello! A new friend posted the Manifesto for the Dark Mountain Project and from there I found this amazing narrative. Thank you for working toward a better future for us all.

    1. Paula, thank you so so much for this comment, reading it today is helping keep me writing through some major writer’s block, and for reading!

      Peas,

      Rachel

    1. Jim, that sounds delicious! I grew up in Georgia and I haven’t had skillet cornbread in a long long time. Cooking, one of the daily and essential expressions of caring, creative work. Yummm. Thank you.

  3. Rachel,

    Thank you for this thoughtful inquiry into work and its “value expressing abundance generating” potential.

    Tom

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