An ancient escape from work.

“By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” — Robert Frost

“Work sucks.”

For most of us, this cliche rings true. And in my experience, the exceptions tend to prove the rule. A tiny minority seem to get joy and fulfillment from their jobs, but such folks usually have jobs where most, if not all of society’s “dirty work” is left to others.  Like the primitivist writer Bob Black, I tend to define work as “forced labor”, so that makes perfect sense — after all, it’s the labor we don’t want to do ourselves that we’re tempted to force on others.

Even when folks love their jobs at first, the repetitive nature of institutionalized work tends to wear thin over time. Very few jobs keep people within the narrow zone between boredom and burnout over the long haul.

Believe it or not, the cliche that “work sucks” is even found in the oldest verses of the Bible. And interestingly enough, it’s tied to agriculture and listed as the main consequence of original sin. Just take a close look at Genesis 3:17-19 sometime.  Modern anthropologists have shed some light on what the Genesis story is talking about, by confirming that the experience of “working for the man” developed within agricultural societies over the last few thousand years.

So what to do about it?

Since the beginning of work, people have tried to escape from work.

The solution for those with power has historically been to make others work for them. In fact, anthropologists also tell us that the process of enslaving others is universal in “civilized” societies (i.e. societies that have both farms and cities).  This has been true of every urban/farming culture from Greece and Rome through India and China to the Aztecs and the Maya. And in the process of creating our own modern world, slavery got to the point where Euro-American economies from the 16th through the 19th century were completely dependent on it for their very survival.

But of course, such extreme levels of slavery have been outlawed now that the industrial economy has developed into it’s more modern form.

Recently, an advocate of industrial technology shed some light on why that happened, when he made the argument that our first-world petroleum-based technological lifestyle gives each of us the equivalent of “400 virtual slaves working for us 24/7″. Immediately after, he asked the rhetorical question “who would want to give that up?”

Who indeed?

So there is our escape from the curse of forced labor. Now we don’t enslave our fellow humans, we can build “slaves” in the form of machines which get their energy from petroleum. Seems like a wonderful solution to the problem of work…everybody wins, right?

Well, maybe not everybody.

Strangely enough, slavery is still alive and well.

And indigenous people are being consumed in various ways to bring us those virtual slaves…never mind the wars in the middle east, terrorism, dictatorships, etc., that are all intimately linked with global oil extraction.

And from the recent spill in the Gulf of Mexico to development of Canadian tar sands, the land we depend on and call home is being polluted in ways never seen before.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, it turns out oil is a finite, non-renewable resource that is actually running out pretty darn quick.  So ultimately, it’s going to leave us high and dry.

Beyond all that, the most incredible thing (in my mind, at least) is that, in spite of the virtual toil of those 400 petroleum “slaves”, most of us still work a whole hell of a lot.

Think about it.  Has the industrial world freed you from working?  Does it feel like you have 400+ slaves at your beck and call 24/7?

In fact, most of us work a good bit more than our pre-historical “primitive” ancestors!

See: “The Original Affluent Society” by the noted Anthropologist Marshal Sahlins.

So it really does appear that we are caught in a rat-race — stuck as much as if we were hamsters on a wheel. What can we do? How can we escape the curse of work?

Marshall Sahlins writes that there are two roads to affluence: produce much, or desire little. The flip side of the “produce much” road implies a certain amount of “desiring much”. We see this in our society, where the whole economy is centered around producing much and an entire industry (the advertising industry) has grown up around helping us desire much.  We see this expressed in the words of the fictional character Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street: “Greed” he tells us, “is good.”

The flip side of desiring little, however, is that one then finds sharing to be easy. This is the aboriginal way to affluence: desire little, share much. Anthropologists and other visitors to reasonably intact nomadic hunter-gatherer societies have found this way to be nearly universal among such ancient cultures. They have also found slavery to be generally absent as well. For myself, I observed this way of being as still common among the Walpiri Aboriginal people of central Australia during a visit to the outback a few years ago.

Some have called this way the “gift economy”.

And surprisingly, though few American Christians might realize it, this way appears central to Jesus’ cure for that nasty “fall” noted in the book of Genesis.  Jesus is quoted as saying: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” And “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”

After all, there is a saying: “The worst day fishing is still better than the best day working.”

Maybe, just maybe, we could “abolish work”?

A few folks I know of have already escaped the job trap.

What have we got to lose but our slaves?

Wild peace,


Categories: MusingsTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Glenn, I adore you, you know! I think the trick to this for me is to find a way to pay off my debt first (so they don’t come looking for me or my loved ones…) and then disappear into a national forest somewhere 🙂 hmmmmm…. I suppose I could fake my own death, but now I’ve gone and said that’s what I’m gonna do, darn!

    anyway… I’m just as guilty I suppose. We define ourselves too much by our jobs and our ‘success’ in them, not even touching on the materialism…. I was thinking today in class while I was supposed to be teaching Spanish, that I would much rather be somewhere studying and exploring spiritual matters, even in a tribal setting not a big honking temple setting 🙂 unfortunately, our current ‘society’ doesn’t provide a way to do that, so we have to start creating it, I think, if the way doesn’t exist, make it exist…. anywho… I just found myself thinking… hmmm, if I could win the lottery, I could then go live in the middle of a forest somewhere 🙂 I’m laughing and feeling shame at the same time 🙂

  2. You always make us think. I’m ready to go fishing. Actually, I’m ready to go and just be- somewhere in the forest or tundra. Be out there for a month or two and not start fishing until I get hungry. Not work for anybody and not have anybody work for me. Just be. I guess that won’t get me much to share. Or maybe it will after a bit. So– are you still headed to Ant-arctica after all that? I guess I’m still working for another year to pay off all my doings here and then I’m done spending money. And done working all the time. It’s been 5 years. Too much! The wild is definitely calling and I wonder what I am doing. Too much settling down and not necessarily where and how I want to do it. And yet I have enjoyed to try this too for some odd reason. It all has a meaning I’m sure -at least I have a place with space for my kids and all their doings as they come and go these years. But my next project is going to be more down to earth and more or less free. The underground house still has a big appeal even as I’m finishing up and moving into this framed Shop/house I have been working on the past two summers. Happy travels! Gitte

  3. Hey Marlon, glad you’re enjoying the post. And yeah, debt is a tricky one…I’ve had a few of my own “winning the lottery” so I can “live in the woods” fantasies over the years…pretty ironic eh? And I think you’re right, if society doesn’t provide it, we have to start creating it! Good stuff.

  4. Hey Gitte, glad to hear I’m inspiring a little thought…that’s half the point of why I do this writing-thing, I reckon. And yeah, I’m going to work in Antarctica here in a few weeks…would rather be fishing and building an earth-lodge on the river, for sure, but I’m still working on my money addiction for now. Maybe I’ll make this one my last season…like you, I’m feeling the call of the wild, definitely.

  5. Hi Glenn! First, you ought to be a little cautious of those folks who use so many smiley faces in their posts! 🙂 I hadn’t realized until I hit post and saw them all!

    anyway…. It’s really kind of funny to hear someone who is going to work in ANTARCTICA!!! talking about needing to get away and feeling the call of the wild! Geez! man, I know there are other people down there, but that’s pretty frakin’ remote! hahaha!

    If we don’t see you out NC way before you go, have a great and safe trip!

  6. Ha! Yeah, I’ve made the too-many-smiley-faces mistake once or twice myself. No worries. And yeah, working in Antarctica is a bit of a trip, for sure, but it allows me to get a years worth of job done in just a few months, then take most of the rest of the year off to do what I love (like visit friends and live in the woods). Plus, like you said, it is technically the largest and most pristine “wilderness” in the world…and field camp work is nice in that it presents challenges and puts people in a more tribal type of social environment (smaller groups of people working, eating and living together seasonally), which I enjoy. Still, I’ve got to admit that I’m not particularly enthused about going this year…maybe that’s half the reason for this surly blog essay about work! 🙂

  7. Either way, you are doing something that most of us will never have the chance to do, like see fraking Antarctica! do they have any need of Spanish teachers? lol
    I can’t imagine doing what you do though. I mean, from a technical point of view, I never learned how to fix engines etc, I suppose AAA is a long-wait down there! 🙂 but it also sounds awesome, plus not having to work the rest of the year! I’m also a good cook, I’ve been told anyway…so, if they want to pay me to heat up your canned food, or penguin soup, let me know!

    so… just not ‘feeling’ it this year?? Would they let you take it off and return another year? well, not my business anyway…

    well, take care no matter what you decide!

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