I’ve remarked before that much of the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home reads as if it could have been written by Wendell Berry. Regular readers know I’m fond of Mr. Berry’s writing and thought, which helps explain I suppose why I’m such a fan of the encyclical.
One of Mr. Berry’s greatest contributions is defense of the dignity and importance of human work, and resistance to the notion that work is inherently undesirable and that humanity’s goal should be to eliminate it, replacing it with “technology.” We are all called to a vocation, he argues, and good work (as opposed to mind-numbing/soul-sucking bad work), is fulfilling and enriching. Rather than treat work as something to be dreaded, avoided and rendered unnecessary, Mr. Berry insists (and I agree) that we should pursue our callings to good work, for the benefit of ourselves and our communities
Pope Francis agrees and puts it well in the encyclical, I think.
Once our human capacity for contemplation and reverence is impaired, it becomes easy for the meaning of work to be misunderstood. We need to remember that men and women have the capacity to improve their lot, to further their moral growth and to develop their spiritual endowments. Work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values, relating to others, giving glory to God. It follows that, in the reality of today’s global society, it is essential that we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone, no matter the limited interests of business and dubious economic reasoning.
We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence. In other words, human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs. To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.
In order to continue providing employment, it is imperative to promote an economy which favours productive diversity and business creativity. For example, there is a great variety of small-scale food production systems which feed the greater part of the world’s peoples, using a modest amount of land and producing less waste, be it in small agricultural parcels, in orchards and gardens, hunting and wild harvesting or local fishing. Economies of scale, especially in the agricultural sector, end up forcing smallholders to sell their land or to abandon their traditional crops. Their attempts to move to other, more diversified, means of production prove fruitless because of the difficulty of linkage with regional and global markets, or because the infrastructure for sales and transport is geared to larger businesses. Civil authorities have the right and duty to adopt clear and firm measures in support of small producers and differentiated production. To ensure economic freedom from which all can effectively benefit, restraints occasionally have to be imposed on those possessing greater resources and financial power. To claim economic freedom while real conditions bar many people from actual access to it, and while possibilities for employment continue to shrink, is to practise a doublespeak which brings politics into disrepute.
As Wendell Berry famously put it many years ago, what are people for?