The importance of being idle


In a brief but brilliant soap-box speech (albeit delivered from a Paris balcony), and in the midst of on-going strikes, Jean-Luc Melenchon** argued that the present-day economy and the politics and mindset behind them are, quite simply, mad. We are all of us obliged to work harder and harder in effect to stay in the same place and have no time left to be ourselves, or indeed to be human beings – so what is supposed to be the point?  

Many others, from Diogenes to William Morris and beyond, coming from various angles, have said much the same. In The Idler (Nov/Dec 2021), I argued that although the work ethic is still seen as one of life’s prime virtues it is also a prime cause of all the world’s present disasters. As follows:

 “Work”, so Oscar Wilde famously observed, “is the curse of the drinking classes”. Good one (as usual). Very arch. 

But with just a little tweaking Oscar’s joke becomes a profound truth that we should all take notice of and impress, forcefully, upon the world’s leaders. At least: the work ethic, which sees hard work for its own sake as a prime virtue, and drives the present, ultra-competitive, ultra-productive, neoliberal “growth economy”, has truly become the curse of all humanity and is threatening all life on Earth. Margaret Thatcher claimed to work 16 hours a day and to sleep for only four but it would have been better for her, for humankind, and for the natural world if she had done things the other way around. The idea behind the growth economy – that we should all strive constantly to grow richer and richer, supposedly to raise our “standard of living” – is grotesquely off-beam. As E F Schumacher might have said (he the author of Small is Beautiful (1972)), this approach to life is no longer appropriate. For our own sake and for the sake of all life on Earth, and indeed for the fabric of the Earth itself, we, humanity, need to take our foot off the accelerator. 

In this we can learn from biology – the lives of other creatures, and our own physiology; from anthropology – how people live in a state of nature; and from archaeology – how our own technologies and artefacts changed the world and our own selves. 

Thus we find that other animals work as hard as they need to but no harder. To be sure, some unfortunate creatures are obliged to work hard. Small, warm-blooded animals like shrews rapidly lose heat and so must toil with Stakhanovite zeal just to find enough worms and beetles to fuel their fevered metabolisms. (“Cold-blooded” vertebrates like lizards and frogs simply become torpid when it’s cold and wait for the sun to warm them up, which in many ways is far more sensible). Elephants by contrast are huge and bulbous and if anything find it hard to jettison surplus heat and so, weight for weight, they can make do with many times less. But except when they can find a baobab tree in fruit or a market garden to raid they mostly make do on low-grade fodder and so in practice they must forage for most of the day and night just to get enough. Lions, on the other hand, are big (very few animals are bigger) and so they stay warm easily, and they eat meat, rich in protein and calories – so they, at least when things are going well, can afford to be wonderfully lazy. They may hunt and eat only every few days and sleep for up to 20 hours a day when they are not hunting. Look and learn, Mrs Thatcher. 

We, metabolically speaking, are closer to lions than to shrews – although we are omnivores rather than out-and-out carnivores and so can eat plants as well as animals which means we have more to choose from than lions do, and plants don’t fight back as zebras and buffalos are inclined to do (although we have to be smart, because most wild plants are too fibrous or too toxic for our non-specialist guts). We surely should adjust our activity and our psychology to our physiology, as other animals are obliged to do. Or that at least seems sensible. 

Anthropology is instructive too. Hunter-gatherers, living as nearly as can be managed in a state of nature, can be marvellously lazy. Studies of Kalahari Bushmen in the 1970s showed that the men hunted for only about six hours per week and spent the rest of their time swapping yarns. The women who gathered plants and prepared the food worked far more hours than the men but they chatted and socialised while they worked – a far cry from the armies of copy-typists of yesteryear or the modern sweatshop or the frantic climb up the executive ladder. Work can be hard and monotonous and yet be convivial, if we arrange it that way.  

How, then, did the monstrous notion – that hard work for its own sake is virtuous – creep up on us? Historians are wont to tell us that the work ethic properly began in the 17th century with the rise of recognizably modern science and technologies and especially with the Puritans. In the spirit of the old Desert Fathers, their version of Christianity made a virtue of austerity and privation and saw frivolity as temptation, the slippery slide to hellfire. At the start of the 17th century, too, Francis Bacon, inspired by the first stirrings of recognizably modern science predicted that human beings (portentously known as “Man”) would one day be able to control nature itself – truly to become God’s Earthly executives. What we could do (in theory) we surely should do. It was our destiny and indeed our duty to finish God’s work, to replace His raw prototype with Civilization (as in: “Thanks God! But we’ll take over from here!”). Some (including me) might see that as a kind of blasphemy, certainly as hubris, but the thinkers and doers of the 17th century et seq were fired up, further encouraged by the rise and rise of long-distance trading and the colonialism that this soon led to. Modern capitalism wasn’t yet into its stride but much of the ethos was already there – the idea that we must strive to increase our own material wealth. The whole mindset was innately competitive – life became a scramble for resources and the best price.  

I reckon, though, that the work ethic truly began with agriculture: not perhaps with the very first stirrings of agriculture which may be very ancient indeed (some say 40,000 years ago, some say 100,000-plus) but with the beginnings of arable farming around 10,000 years ago in the “Neolithic Revolution”: raising cereals, pulses, and a few other annual seed crops on the field-scale, aided by ploughs that at least scratched the surface and increasingly were pulled by oxen. Cereals and pulses (and quinoa and buckwheat and so on) are highly nutritious and easy to store and convention has it that when people first learnt to grow them on a large scale they must have jumped for joy – for it was surely far easier just to domesticate the plants they needed than to search for them in the wild. The same, obviously, was surely true for animals. Herding – surely? — was far easier and safer then hunting.  

But modern archaeology again tells a different story. The world’s first committed farming people were far feebler than their hunting-gathering forebears, with weaker bones and more disease, including or especially tuberculosis. At London’s Natural History Museum, circa 1970, Theya Molleson’s studies of ancient Egyptians’ skeletons revealed terrible deformities of their ankles and backs, brought about, it seems, by endless kneeling at the saddle-quern. Their jaws, too, were pock-marked with abscesses, caused presumably by rotten teeth, worn down by the sand that pervaded their bread. Furthermore, while hunting could be a leisurely pursuit (as in the Kalahari, until very recently) farming on the whole is not. Clearing scrub (with stone axes in the early days), ploughing with primitive ploughs (with or without the help of oxen), clearing the crops of weeds and keeping the wild herbivores at bay, harvesting and storing, and then, finally, milling and baking (and brewing) were tremendously hard work – and had to be done as and when the crops demanded and the weather allowed. The first domestic livestock too were surely far less tractable than their modern descendants and wolves and lions were a constant threat. All this is graphically recorded in the Old Testament. The Garden of Eden was surely a folk memory of earlier days when people lived luxuriously as hunter-gatherers on land that has long since flooded to become the Persian Gulf, which would have harboured fruits of many kinds, and shellfish, and gazelles and fallow deer. When the Gulf flooded Adam and Eve were obliged to come inland and to subsist on the wheat and barley that grew on the hills of what became known as the Fertile Crescent. But it wasn’t a welcome move. In the Genesisstory God cursed the errant pair as he condemned them to a life of farming: “In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread!” Their descendants have been sweating ever since.  

But although agriculture did not make life easier it could and often did increase the food supply. This after all is the point of it: to persuade landscapes to produce more human food than wild ecosystems will do. So farming, harsh though it surely was for the people who actually did the work, allowed populations to grow – and provided surpluses which made it possible to live in cities and gave rise to a new class of rulers and intellectuals. Thus began a vicious cycle, for the more that farming spread, the more it needed to spread to feed all the new mouths, including those of the new elites. So too, in earnest, surely began large-scale strife, as rising numbers competed for the best land in the best places. But the new, populous farming communities needed to work far harder than their ancestors had ever had to do. 

Large-scale farming, too, not only increased the need for hard work, it also, crucially, transformed the logistics of it.  For if wild predators or communities that live by hunting catch more than they really need they can soon wipe out their entire prey base. Lions need to be lazy. It they work too hard they soon destroy their own food supply. But if farmers work harder – clear more forest, plough more land, sow more cereals – then they can simply go on producing more and more until there is no more land to farm, and because the world is big, it has taken ten millennia to compromise the whole lot. Furthermore, if we intensify – stir in artificial fertilizers, then artificial pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides and all the rest, and apply them all to modern varieties – we can and do increase production far beyond what our ancestors would even have dreamed of. Britain’s arable farms now average eight tonnes of wheat per hectare and the most productive in East Anglia, say, may achieve twelve or more.  Cain, as featured in Genesis, would have been happy with a tonne per hectare at most, (albeit measured in bushels per rood or whatever).  But the principle remains: the harder farmers work the more successful they become and the more their numbers increase and the more therefore they need to farm. Hunters, by contrast, are obliged to be conservative – to adjust what they eat to what nature will provide. Animals that are small and overheated, like shrews, or are big but for the most past must subsist on fibrous fare, like elephants, must work hard to keep themselves going. But animals that live on high-class provender, like lions, or are successful omnivores like us, should be lazy.  Those that gratuitously gorge are liable to go extinct.

Today, as everyone halfway sensible knows, even if many of the world’s political and financial game-setters do not, the age of insouciant, super-energetic, super-productive agriculture and all the industrial superstructure that’s been built on it, must end.  The Earth itself is collapsing. The super-competitive economy that obliges us to compete for more and more resource and wealth must end with it. The work ethic that drives the whole frantic, materialist, global competition, and especially the mindset that makes a virtue of this, is no longer appropriate. For our own sakes, and for the sake of our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth, it’s time to put our feet up. We need to replace the growth economy not simply with a no-growth economy but with the minimalist economy. This requires new economic structures and, most of all, a new mindset. Instead of asking “What is the most we can get away with?” we should be asking: “What is the least we need to do to achieve personal fulfilment and a reasonable deal for everyone, and to look after the natural world?” If they seriously addressed this question then the richer countries at least, including all the G7 and most of the G20, would surely find that they could live well on half or in some cases 100th of what we consume now, and that none need be deprived if their economies were more egalitarian. That is what we need to aim for. 

Yet we cannot simply behave like lions. Lions, with their magnificent, lordly profile, their arrogance and their physical prowess – no other beast would ever pick a fight with an alpha-male, except a younger, fitter male – fully deserve to be lauded kings of the jungle. Appropriately, they are adapted to laziness, physiologically and psychologically. They seem content to doze when there is nothing more urgent to do, with their minds, we may reasonably surmise, blissfully blank. Human beings are blessed or cursed with fevered brains. In us, natural selection has favoured cleverness – and cleverness is duly admired even when, as in Wilde, it simply takes the form of wit. Our intelligence, imagination, and inventiveness, together with our sociality and our ability to communicate and hence to cooperate, is the secret of our ecological success. But our active minds make it hard for us to chill out absolutely for very long. Most of us don’t like to be totally idle. Nothing is more dispiriting than the forced idleness of redundancy. For the most part we achieve fulfilment by doing; even if that just means squash, or chatting, or texting, or telling jokes – all of which are biologically justified because they favour sociality, and sociality pays.  

The task before us, then, is not to compete to produce more and more as the powers-that-be still urge us to do, but to find routes to personal fulfilment that enhance sociality and do not bite deeper and deeper into the biosphere and the fabric of the Earth. Part of the answer lies in craft: work intended not to produce smarter and bigger and more saleable goods, but to do simple things well – things that may be useful but in any case are pleasurable. Most appropriate of all in this crowded and over-heated age are cooking, and gardening and farming productively and yet in wildlife-friendly ways. Those who still live by exploiting the wild world, like foresters and fishers, seek (at best) to harvest the “maximum sustainable yield” – a crude concept made even worse because MSY is commonly calculated not by ecologists, who might be able to guess at least sensibly what the maximum really is, but by market-orientated economists, who argue that so long as the harvesting is still profitable then it must be OK. Fishing can safely be reined in only when the fish are too rare to be worth catching. But this approach is morally vile (surely?) and it does not work. After all, as the old whalers once argued, it can be most profitable in the short term simply to hunt wild creatures into the ground, and then do something else, forever moving on like the guests at the March Hare’s tea party.  Instead, surely, we should take from nature only what we really need, as our hunting-gathering ancestors advised (even if they did not always follow their own advice). 

The transition – from maximum output and consumption to the minimalist economy — won’t be easy. It is far easier to accelerate than to put the brakes on quickly, as every train driver knows. But if we seriously care about the future – indeed if we seriously want to get through the present century in a tolerable state – that is what we need to do. 

** Jean-Luc Melenchon is the founder and former president of the French left-wing political party La France Insoumise (“rebellious France”). You can view his speech (with English subtitles) here 

Colin Tudge April 6 2022

One response to “The importance of being idle”

  1. Chris Jones avatar
    Chris Jones

    Wonderful. Idleness should be the foremost economic target. The idler society can be the better off we can all be. I have often thought that one can only drive one car, watch one TV or listen to one radio at a time, so why have strive to have more? I draw the line at books – I have managed to acquire several hundreds and am loathe to let any go, even ones that I know I am not going to read again.

    I suppose though, that working harder for more money/status/stuff is very engrained in us, and indeed sloth is a deadly sin. We would need to inculcate a complete philosophical shift in society for this to catch on. I wonder where AI will fit in around all this? I am deeply prejudiced against allowing machines to gain further autonomy (or is it sovereignty?) but does that just demonstrate my age and ignorance of technology?

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