Sunday, January 30, 2022

Why we will never run out of work

As little as our desires will ever be satisfied in a capitalist economy, the demand for work will never cease. They are both intrinsically linked to the same phenomenon: a society built on the expansion of capital.

“If you think about the economy, it is — the foundation of the economy is labor. Capital equipment is distilled labor. So what happens if you don’t actually have a labor shortage? I’m not sure what an economy even means at that point, said Elon Musk when he presented the fourth quarter earnings of 2021 and told media that Tesla’s attention now would be the development of a humanoid robot. I am no certainly no muskist, on the contrary. He probably wanted to sidetrack those wondering where the Cybertruck and budget Teslas are. And I think he is wrong in his assumption that robots would eliminate labor shortage. But his question what a capitalist economy would even mean if robots were endless in supply is to the point.

But why do we work in the first place?

In the outskirts of the Russian city of Vladimir, the excavation of a 30 000 year old grave revealed two children which were placed head-to-head. They were adorned with elaborate goods including more than 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, more than 20 armbands, about 300 pierced fox teeth and 16 ivory mammoth spears. One estimate is that it would have taken 10 000 hours to produce the beads alone. Did those making this consider that all that effort to be work, leisure or artistry? I guess they wouldn’t even understand the question or that we would understand their response.

It is presently well established that foraging societies (hunter and gatherers) could satisfy their basic needs by working rather few hours and they still had an energy surplus. This was a result of their skills in making tools, cooking that allowed them to utilize foods more efficiently and their social organization. In Work: A History of How We Spend our Time, anthropologist James Suzman, explains the adornments of the grave in Vladimir with the energy surplus of their economy. This energy surplus has to be spent one way or the other. To become obese is certainly not a winning strategy for a mobile hunter or a marathon walking gatherer. Instead people spent their energy on gossiping, developing mythologies, language and art as well as ritual (rarely fatal) combats with neighbors. So humans are bound to work, to spend energy as a result of her efficient capturing of resources.

Work as a distinct category of occupation develops with settlement, agriculture and hierarchies. Agriculture, especially in very seasonal climates requires planning over years, storage of food, feed and seeds. An even bigger step was the introduction of salaried work, which is strongly linked to the emergence of cities, money and market as well as a more unequal and hierarchical society. Those agrarian civilizations could capture a much bigger share of the solar energy from a given area compared to foragers. But they also needed to work harder. Not only did farmers have to work more than foragers for their own food needs, they also had to produce surpluses for a growing number of professionals, rulers, priests and servants in the city. The increased work enabled by increasing energy resources was also channeled into the construction of palaces, temples and other monuments. According to Suzman, war was also a way both to spend energy, protect the energy resources or increase them. While agrarian civilizations had access to more energy they were also threatened by failed harvests, natural disasters and attacks from competing civilizations. This induced them to prepare for scarcity e.g. by having central granaries for food storage. 

Susan Mkandawire tends her plot in Kasisi, Zambia, Phota Richard Mulonga


The next huge step in the development of work was the industrial revolution, which turned the majority of the populations into paid workers. The industrial revolution was largely driven by the increased use of fossil fuels, first coal, later oil and gas. With machinery driven by fossil fuels, one person could produce a lot more than before, but still they worked as much or even more than before.* Suzman’s theory of surplus energy as a driver of the restless occupation of humans doesn’t really explain why this to such a large extent is directed towards paid work and less to leisure activities, rituals or art. Why doesn’t anybody spend years of their lives adorning their children’s graves? For an understanding of that we need to match the increase of energy resources with the emergence of capitalism. Here I leave Suzman’s narrative.

Even if it is called the industrial revolution its biggest accomplishment was a revolution of the productivity in agriculture. One might believe that the greatest changes in in farming was the introduction of new methods and fertilizers and pesticides. But the impact of mechanization dwarfs those other innovations. The increase in labor productivity in grain farming is mind-boggling. In the 18th century it took an average farm worker in Sweden 30 days to cut, dry and thresh one ton of grain such as oats, rye, barley or wheat. Today a normal combine harvester do that job in less than five minutes, and the latest John Deere X9 1100 combine have a capacity of up to 100 tons of wheat per hour. Of course this dramatic increase of productivity is the result of the use of fossil fuels. A full time agriculture worker in the US uses energy equal to around 70 barrels of oil per year, and a lot more in highly mechanized grain production.

One would assume that this enormous increase of productivity in agriculture would lead to a dramatic decrease in hours worked. But most people that were made redundant in agriculture went to factories or services where they worked even longer hour. As populations increased in parallel with the industrial revolution the total hours worked increased tremendously because the work that was to be done increased simultaneously in a magic way. The mass unemployment that has been feared with each new wave of industrialization and automation has so far not materialized, on the contrary. There is actually a positive correlation (don’t ask me to clarify causation though) between use of energy per capita and employment; countries with high energy usage are countries with have high levels of employment and they are also wealthy countries. The whole industrial epoch is characterized by increased use of energy and other natural resources, increased work as well as increased consumption. In that sense Musk is wrong to assume that manual labor will be made redundant by robots.

Simultaneously, capital also increases at a rapid rate. The link between capital and labor was clarified by John Stuart Mill already: “capital is the accumulated product of past labor destined for the production of future wealth”. Which is basically what both Musk and Marx say. Capital can increase through the extraction of more surplus value per work hour or by increasing the number of hours worked. The use of machines driven by external energy sources, primarily fossil fuels, made it more convenient to increase productivity per hour worked than to increase hours worked even more. To overwork people is mostly inefficient even from a pure exploitative perspective.*

But while production per worker can increase tremendously, the capacity of material consumption has limits and so do natural resources. There are limits to how much food we can consume and how many technological gadgets we want to buy. In addition, the more productive a sector becomes and the more “mature” a market is, the less it will generate any profit (again, look at farming). Capital, therefore, constantly need new arenas for its growth, which after all is an imperative in a capitalist market economy. Business becomes more complex in a globalized world and companies need lawyers, interpreters, asset managers, tax consultants, spin doctors and all sorts of paper pushers. The service sector grows and jobs are created for private occupations formerly mostly being not salaried work. Things like health care and education expands dramatically, whether they are privatized or not. Every stage of consumption and leisure are exploited. Even unemployment can become a lucrative business for unemployment insurers, employment agencies, job coaches and CV stylists. It is this mechanism that Musk misses and that his robots in no way will change.

Our wants will never be satisfied in a capitalist economy, and the demand for work will never cease. They are both prerequisites for and results of the expansion of capital.



* In the early phase of the industrial revolution working hours were long, probably longer, and certainly harder, than in the agrarian society proceeding it. Through the activities of trade unions and political movements working hours have been reduced substantially throughout the last centuries, but the last fifty years little has happened in the advanced economies

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

To waste or to waist

The metabolic food waste – what is eaten over and above what we need – is of the same order of magnitude as consumer food waste in western countries. And it is driven by the same forces that drive food waste before the mouth.

Sometimes I eat the leftover in the pot in order to avoid food waste, But does it really reduce waste? I recently mapped the carbon cycle of the Swedish food and agriculture system from farm to fork. Well, even before farm and after the fork, the research includes farm inputs (manure and other organic inputs as well as bought-in feed) as well as sewage. To see the total flow is a useful tool for increased understanding the system. The report and data is available here, in Swedish only.  

One of the many interesting results was that the metabolic food waste, overeating, is as big as what is normally called food waste at the consumer level. Expressed in energy terms, which is a lot more relevant than weight, the amount of food supplied to Swedish consumers amount to 3,200 kcal per person and day. Based on estimates of real consumption, calculations based on human metabolism and sewage data as well as calculations based on the weight of the population I come to the conclusion that approximately 2,600 kcal are actually eaten. This means that food waste before-the-mouth corresponds to 600 kcal, 19% of the supplied quantity. Notably, not all of that is actually edible in the normal sense as it includes coffee grounds, peels of fruits and vegetables, bone as well as excess frying fat. 

What's in your fridge, photo: Gunnar Rundgren & Ann-helen Meyer von Bremen

The average nutritional need is maximum 2,100 kcal. This means that 500 kcal, or 16% per person and day is simply overconsumption contributing to expanding waists. On a global scale calculations by Elisabetta Toti and colleagues, published in Frontiers in nutrition 2019, estimate that 140.7 million tons of food is overeaten of which almost half is consumed in Europe, North America and Oceania. Of course this waste has the double effect of both increasing obesity and environmental burden of food.

Is the consumer then to blame? Not really. Of course, we can always blame persons and individuals for all ills in the world, if they didn’t do this or that the world would be a better place. But we need to realize that the role of the consumer in a market economy is – to consume, to buy. All actors in the food system do their outmost to maximize sales. It starts at the farm level where there is massive overproduction of grains and soy which has to be sold one way or the other, as processed food, as corn glycose syrup, as animal feed (which is in turn converted to chicken, pork, milk or beef) or as biofuel. Food industries and supermarkets have certainly no incentives to reduce their sales, on the contrary. A recent analysis of the supermarkets in Great Britain by professor Lisa Jack concludes that:  

”left us with a food system characterised by over-purchasing, over-eating, over-production and waste. Food is transferred to store cupboards in consumers’ homes and then left unused; empty calories are stored in our bodies; and edible food often ends up in bins.”

Supermarkets, governments and well-intended civil society organizations talk about nudging the consumers to waste less food. But food waste and obesity share the same root cause, a food system where (in particular ultraprocessed junk) food is too cheap and where all parties are herding the end consumers towards buying more and eating more.

At the heart of both the environmental crisis and the obesity crisis is the capitalist market economy. It is the definition of capitalism that capital is multiplied. This is accomplished by ever increasing production. And all that is produced ultimately need to be consumed. After all, not only food is overconsumed, most goods and services are overconsumed, be it clothes, mobile phones, cars or holiday trips. Putting the burden or blame on consumers is a cover to conceal the workings of capitalism and an ideological narrative by neo-liberal apologists.


Monday, January 3, 2022

From my pen

Dear readers, the blog is getting more attention. It has between 5,000 and 25,000 page views monthly. 

Below there is a selection of Garden Earth blog articles. Articles that I am particularly fond of are highlighted. You can also use the search function in the top left corner to search for a word. 

Last update: 2022-01-03
. 7


My books

Civilization critique and development issues

Market economy and capitalism

Global trade

Milk: the global market works as it should - but we don’t like the results

Nature and environment



Green economy, green consumerism

The One Tonne life is hard

Efficiency, productivity, rebound and growth

Ecosystem services and internalization of costs

Ecomodernism and technofixes

Food consumption, climate and environment

Food security and food production

Food system and food policy

Agriculture systems

Organic agriculture

Standards and certification

Developing countries

Book reviews

A new garden ethic, by Benjamin Vogt John Michael Greer’s The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered