“Batshit jobs” - no-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living
An in-depth look at workers’ participation in the climate and ecological breakdown, and how this might be transformed into ecological care, and leveraged for change.
For too long, we have related to climate change mainly as consumers and voters. We have been responsibilised as meat eaters and airplane travellers, we have been urged to vote for the party with the most green agenda, but we have never been addressed as workers. This fits well with the general idea that consumers and voters have power and responsibility, while workers… well, they just have to get on with their work.
However, this pattern is starting to change. First future workers started striking at their schools, now they are calling adults to join a worldwide strike for the climate. The Green New Deal has risen to prominence with its promises of a world of sustainable jobs, and a new report argues that a carbon-neutral economy requires a massive shortening of the work week. Yet there is little discussion about the work that destroys the planet, in a variety of different locations from tar sands and coal mines, over agro-industrial landscapes to downtown skyscrapers and airports, on cargo and cruise ships. Sometimes we hear of coal miners protesting pit closures, or unions demanding subsidies for steel and auto industries, but we rarely hear of the guys pushing oil stocks at Wall St., the engineers designing the next pipeline, advertising agencies pimping mass consumption, or the professors teaching the next generation of petroleum geologists. Some workers could leave their jobs fairly easily, and others are deeply dependent on the next paycheck. These workers have an interest in habitable environments, but are caught in a maddening contradiction, asked by their employers to destroy the conditions of life in order to make a living. We are habituated to think of this as normal, even rational, but it’s time to say openly that it is madness, and to start from there. No one has the right to do such work, and no-one should have to do it.
Techno-fixes and government action might come, but we would be foolish to rely on it being sufficient and timely, or even happening at all. The clock is ticking; climate emergency and species extinction are already in process, and so far every solution imagined by engineers and technocrats has been incapable of even slowing the countdown, and green growth remains a pipe dream. In this situation of urgency, we may thus ask: How can people within and outside destructive industries develop a common interest in abolishing the work that destroys the planet?
From bullshit jobs to batshit work
A few years back by the anthropologist David Graeber coined the term ”bullshit jobs” to speak of work that workers themselves characterize as pointless, meaningless or socially harmful. Low-level service work, corporate paper-pushing, and ballooning layers of PR and HR staff inventing tasks for themselves and others are some examples. Graeber points out that bullshit jobs put workers under psychological stress, because they feel they are wasting their time and efforts, yet depend on the work for income. While bullshit jobs can be boring and depressing, they are not insane. Work that contributes to destroying the climate and environment is. We might call such work batshit work, playing on the American slang expression for madness. To call this work mad does not mean that workers are crazy to make a living, but rather to point out that a crazy contradiction arises when making a living is also a part of unmaking life on many scales: becoming sick from pollutants, destroying local environments, destabilizing the global climate. This can be described as a kind of systemic madness, a contradiction not only between capital and labour, but within labour itself. Most businesses and consumers participate in the systemic bind of this economy: it is madness to let it continue, yet for consumers and companies set up to pursue cheap goods and business opportunities, it appears equally mad to renounce it. This reveals an important difference between batshit work and the bullshit jobs. Whereas bullshit jobs create little of value, batshit jobs are necessary for the production of most of the commodities we currently consume as well as to capaitalism itself, making its abolition a much more radical and complex proposal.
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The reason Graeber’s approach remains useful for thinking about batshit jobs is that it is a provocative invitation to workers to re-evaluate the work they do - thus Graeber builds his book about bullshit jobs around workers’ own testimonies. Rather than make an external judgement about a specific type of work, the concept of “bullshit jobs” invites workers to think about the contradiction within the work itself. It speaks to the doubt that people may already have – is what I am doing meaningful? – and invites them to imagine a future without meaningless work, and to think about how they might fight for it. This approach understands that workers’ relation to work is nearly always ambivalent, and that the construction of interests depends on more than purely economic factors. Batshit work has always been marked by a different ambivalence, the profound meaningfulness of providing for oneself and one’s family and degrading natural environments or one’s own body in the process. As Nic Smith, a self-declared “hillbilly from Coal Country” said to a journalist:
“There's this misconception, especially with y'all in liberal media, that this 90% of people are just ignorant about climate change, ignorant about the effects of mountaintop removal and all the health effects. Keep in mind we're the ones getting cancer from the coal mining practices, not y'all, so we can kinda speak on that matter.”
Unavoidably, the ambient awareness of climate change and pollution is affecting mental health. People worry, or despair at being caught in this bind between working for life and causing death, while others repress or foreclose such awareness. This does not mean, of course, that there is agreement about the problems, their sources and solutions. Rather, it suggests the existence of tensions and conflicts within individuals, communities, and between generations. And how could it be otherwise within a class putting its own bodies, minds and lifetimes on the line for other people’s plans and profit?
Some genealogies of batshit work
Batshit work is as old as employers and slavers demanding that their workers participate in the destruction of natural and social ecologies, but it has taken centuries to recognize that its harm has planetary implications. From the beginning, batshit work has been central to the spread of capitalism, defined as an economy built on infinite growth, propelled by competition between firms and states. The historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have written eloquently about the enslaved Africans and the European workers who built the ports, cleared the forests and planted the plantations of the American colonies, and how they sometimes resisted the work, or fled it to create maroon communities or live with indigenous people. It was the hands of coal miners who freed up the energy that fed the industrial revolution, but coal miners also fought within and against their work - and because coal indispensable to the whole economy, they were able to win many of their struggles. As Timothy Mitchell has argued, the structural power of coal miners played a significant role in the creation of democratic economies based upon the distribution of the fruits of fossil-based industries (Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, Verso). It was slow, workplace and community-based organizing and mass action that socialized the demands for the 8-hour workday, workfree Saturdays and social security, and the conditions for the laws that implemented them. As late as the winter of 1974 striking coal miners forced the British government to impose a three-day week to conserve electricity, and played a big role in the Tory government’s downfall later that year.
The 19th century also saw a literal “batshit industry” develop on Pacific islands along the coast of South America, as detailed in Gregory Cushman’s global ecological history of the guano trade (Gregory T Cushman, Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, Cambridge University Press). Here entrepreneurial colonists set thousands of workers, mostly indigenous, to work digging, hauling, and transporting bat and seabird droppings. Guano was needed to fertilize the European, Australian and North American fields, many of which suffered from depletion after long over-exploitation, as well as for the production of gunpowder. When many of the habitats from which guano was gathered had been depleted and destroyed in turn, agriculture turned to waste products from industrial slaughterhouses, the mining of nitrates, phosphates and potassium, and then to synthetic fertilizers based on natural gas. The global transport of first batshit and then artificial fertilizers helped maintain an unsustainable, but profitable model of agriculture, which in turn fed the workers in the industries of the North. As Cushman explains, “By jump-starting these revolutionary trends, the exploitation of Peruvian guano and nitrates during the guano age played a supremely important role in bringing an end to the ecological old regime and its replacement by a new industrial order based on throughput.”
This transformation enabled a gradual decoupling of agricultural production from nutrient cycles, and exponential urbanisation. As the seeming importance and everyday proximity of ecological interdependencies declined among workers, they came to share a perception of nature close to that of industrialists and big landowners: the idea that nature is a depository of resources, external to man. Moreover, unions soon saw that the pillage of nature expanded companies’ profits and thus the space within which wage gains could be won, without endangering the company’s competitiveness and thereby jobs. In short, the interests of capital and sections of labour in the exploitation of nature were increasingly aligned. A profound tension arose between workers who developed a masculine pride in being at the forefront of the conquest of nature and the expansion of “civilisation” and the workers in the colonial and neo-colonial zones who maintained a relation to the land as they were asked to degrade it.
Varieties of batshit work
The examples of guano – a renewable organic compound – and of the historical role of coal miners - suggest that we cannot understand what’s “batshit” about work simply by looking at what is produced or extracted. We also have to look at how this happens and what economies it helps propel. Even renewable energy production can be “batshit” if it feeds the ever-increased energy needs of capitalist production without replacing fossil fuels, and even batshit work is a potential site of political demands that exceed it. Batshit work varies. In some jobs it takes up the full workday, other times it is merely some part of it. Sometimes environmental degradation is essential to the task, sometimes the task could be done differently, and sustainably. Sometimes workers have so much power they can transform whole societies by interrupting production and grounding industry to a halt. Other workers work, like the guano workers of yore or the coltan miners today work under colonial conditions, without protections and with the constant threat of poverty, debt, ready replacement and even force. Some workers, like foremen and engineers, are well paid and command the work of others. Some workers suffer anti-social work hours and direct pollution, others the comforts and stresses of office life. Some workers are bound to communities and mortgages in regions where mining or the local airport is the only game in town, others travel the world prospecting potential oil fields. Given that most of us take part in a division of labour bound up on extractivism and fossil fuel burning, we might all ask what parts of our work are batshit work or help sustain it. Thus, even if some types of work are definitely batshit, batshit work cannot be easily delineated from other types of work, nor can the responsibility to end it be assigned to others.
The reasons for engaging in batshit work are far from irrational: such jobs provide an income, and often an identity and a sense that one is contributing to society. All this can make organizing batshit workers exceedingly difficult. As a long term climate justice organizer told me:
I've spent hours and days talking to miners in West and East Germany. They fucking hate us with a passion, and with good reason. The problem with them is not that they work batshit jobs; it's that the energies and resources necessary to shift them from active opponents to at least undecideds may be far greater than that required to neutralise their opposition.
Such strategic thinking is essential as environmental movements prioritise their efforts. But these efforts, even when they don’t prioritise addressing batshit workers, have repercussions among them. Especially among younger workers, the growing awareness that batshit work is unsustainable and harmful will have effects. The “proud coal miner” trope has come to represent all workers in environmentally destructive sectors, but within the heterogeneous world of batshit work, doubt and ambivalence will spread in an uneven way. All workers are all more than workers, and their interests and subjectivities irreducible to their role as workers. This raises the question of the internal divisions of batshit workers and shifts our attention from any abstract notion of “the working class”, towards a reflection on how they are affected by batshit work and its gradual social delegitimation, and how best to relate to that strategically.
Understanding the specific physical and mental, social and ecological harm caused by different forms of work is not just up to public health specialists, social workers and scientists estimating the climate impact of whole industries. It’s also a question that they themselves and the affected communities of which workers are often a part are asking themselves, and which we must ask ourselves. In short, we will need workers’ inquiries and co-research to understand batshit work better. The advantage of starting from workers’ own experience is that it helps us understand what their attachment to their work consists in, how it might be undone, and the work of inquiry itself might provoke discussions among workers, or changes of mind. More broadly, it will help us better understand and find allies within the generational and gendered dynamics at play, between, for instance, the workers invested in traditional worker's masculinity, the women supporting unemployed miners on their teacher or care-worker wages, and the young people looking for alternatives to black lung and planetary disaster. Importantly, more and more batshit work is carried out under precarious conditions and within unstable communities, rather than within historic and tight-knit union-job mining towns.
In 1960s Italy, a generational gap opened up between older factory workers and a new generation of workers. While the older generation took pride in providing for their family and developing the booming Italian economy, the younger generation rejected boring repetitive work, and the authority of foremen and bosses. Unlike the parents’ generation which had been brought up on discipline of fascism and the deprivations of war, the experience of factory work was profoundly dissonant with the cultural experience of the 1960s, and so young people began to refuse work en masse, starting with absenteeism and sabotage, and ending with many opting for a life of rich sociality and intermittent work over secure employment and nuclear family life (For a fictionalised reportage from this generation, see Nanni Balestrini’s We Want Everything, Verso). Today, a generational dissonance is on sharp rise in many countries (Keir Milburn, Generation Left, Polity 2019). As the climate emergency and ecological collapse intensifies, we are likely to see a similar dynamic among young workers in batshit industries, but also between older colleagues of the same age, like the bird watching enthusiast and the car lover, and within workers themselves (In the Italian case, an interesting portrayal of such a contradiction can be found in Elio Petri’s film The Working Class Goes to Heaven). In short, the question is not whether the balance between economic and ecological interests will shift, but how, what can be done to accelerate this process, and what struggles might come out of it.
The rest of this article will deal with various possible responses to these questions, from union and political demands for Just Transition or a Green New Deal, to campaigns that ecological awareness and interests starting from a conception of workers as more than workers. What is at stake is not just bringing as many workers as possible on board with a just transition, but also finding ways in which they might come to use their structural power to fight actively for such a transition, rather than against it. Collectively, workers know every nook and cranny of batshit industries, they know the points of leverage where an industrial process is most vulnerable to the disruption of strikes, blockades and sabotage. Individual workers can throw spanners in the wheels, lessen their efforts, call in sick. Collectively workers can fight to increase wages and lower profits, and grind whole industries or logistics chains to a halt. But as long as workers’ interests remain aligned with capitalist profitability at any cost and so with extractive and polluting industries, they are likely to use their power to demand a greater share of the spoils, and so an expansion of the economy of spoilage.
The paradoxes of a Just Transition away from batshit jobs
Workers in heavily polluting industry are typically portrayed as backward-looking and resistant. To many, they epitomize the contradiction between labour issues and the environment. And true to this diagnosis, some unions have fought closures of batshit jobs tooth and nail, and lobbied politicians to expand their industries. But most unions realize that moves towards a carbon-neutral economy will have to happen whether workers like it or not. Thus, during recent decades, the idea of a ”Just Transition” has emerged as the key to resolving this issue in practical and ideological terms.
The idea of just transition goes back a long way. In the mid 1970s, Lucas Aerospace workers facing peace-dividend-driven redundancies collaborated with radical researchers to develop the so-called Lucas Plan to use their skills and company for socially and environmentally useful purposes and (as Boggs set out) similar attempts were made by US and German Green and peace activists in the 80s, drawing on the inspiration of the GI Bill which helped demobbed soldiers to access welfare, education and subsidised housing to readjust to civilian life after WW2. In the early 1990s, Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (US) took this idea to environmental labour politics with his proposal for a “Superfund for workers”, which would found the retraining and reskilling of workers displaced by environmental protection policies. Soon, the terminology shifted to “just transition”, which was adopted as a union demand in the first unions by the late 1990s, and by international trade union confederations in the 2000s, most visibly in their negotiating papers for international climate conferences.
Apart from reskilling and temporary unemployment support, just transition proposals typically entail demands to secure alternative jobs for workers, to protect their social rights (especially health and pensions), and policies to boost overall employment opportunities, in the overall economy or in the specific communities facing closures of polluting industries. Just Transition proposals are designed as tools in defensive fights against the negative consequences of ”free market transition”. Sometimes a negotiated solution is sought with governments or employers, while in other cases, although more often related to financial failure than to environmental regulation, workers take over companies and transform production. Some recent examples are the New Era Windows in Chicago, the tile factory FaSinPat in Neuquén, Argentina, and the soap factory Viome in Thessaloniki, Greece.
The discussion of Just Transition focuses on two questions: how to avoid the negative consequences of “free market adaptation” or how to convince reactive workers to accept transitionary measures? In other words, Just Transition proposals are almost always responses to situations where “unjust” transition is already happening, regardless of workers. While such proposals typically involve a vision of a better and more sustainable world, demands for Just Transition are – at least from what my research shows – rarely if ever leveraged within workplaces that are not already scheduled for closure or regulated out of existence. Meanwhile, governments and employers have been exceedingly reluctant to close profitable industries regardless of their massively destructive effects. When they do push ahead with closures of mines and coal plants, environmental reasons are often an afterthought. When the Thatcher government closed down the pits through a violent war against mining communities in the 1980s, the key aim was to break their political power, which had long kept Tory governments in check. In recent decades, the decline of coal mining in the United States has had more to do with the rise of natural gas from fracking, cheapening of imported coal and renewables than with any government “war on coal”. In such cases, mines have become so economically unviable that worker’s demands for compensation have had little leverage. In a recent report from the Labour Network for Sustainability, American trade unionists report that many workers respond to Just Transition with a weariness similar to that of British miners on the subject the "regeneration" of former mining areas: as a euphemism for job-losses and community decline. Without denying the importance of single-company transitions, Tadzio Mueller points out that “there are no examples of rapid, sector-level Just Transitions that are actually considered just by those who are dependent on these extractive industries.” After nearly thirty years of existence, and twenty years of increasing prominence, this is not a great track record. Mueller draws the controversial, but incontrovertible conclusion:
by all means, let’s continue to search for convincing Just Transition-policy proposals. But let us always be clear that these industries need to be shut down rapidly, whether or not such proposals emerge. Anything else would turn Just Transition into the “green economy” of the left, creating the illusion that economic growth or the expansion and/or maintenance of good industrial jobs in the global North are compatible with stopping runaway climate change.
The Green New Deal
The recognition that even free market transition is neglected and ”predatory delay” common, has shifted the discussion from organized labour’s capacity to shape transition to the project of getting politicians elected to carry out transition in the first place. Hence the increasing interest in proposals such as senators Bernie Sanders’ and Jeff Merkley’s “Clean Energy Worker Just Transition Act” and the “Evergreen Economy Plan” by democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee, and most prominently the Green New Deal, promoted by the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This is no doubt an important development. The Green New Deal is not just a plan, it has created a sense of hope and purpose among many, and opened the question of just transition as a political battlefield in which technical questions of transition are deeply intertwined with questions of political strategy and social movement mobilisation, as pointed out by Thea Riofrancos. Because without social mobilisation, the Green New Deal is likely to come to nothing.
Just Transition and Green New Deal proposals suggest that the contradictions between workers’ economic and ecological interests can be overcome by a profound transformation of work. However, as long as workers’ economic interests in batshit work are more clearly articulated and organized than their ecological interests, the known world of batshit work will win out over the promised world of a green and just economy. Thus coal miners might find Trump’s promises to restore what they know more realistic than Sanders’ promises to create a new economy. And - even more problematically - we need to discuss what transition means in scenarios and places where Green New Dealers do not win elections, including places where there are no elections. While it’s possible that governments and growing sectors of capital will increase their interest in transition, experience and science tells us we would be foolish to rely on it.
In this context, it is useful to remember that the original New Deal was not government’s response to the “objective” crisis of the Great Depression. As Lisbeth Cohen and Rhonda Levine have shown, the Roosevelt administration was only forced to undertake a profound social reform of the state because workers and unemployed people turned the economic crisis into a socio-political crisis, by organizing, striking in workplaces and blockading government offices. With these actions, trade unions became an unavoidable interlocutor to the state and employers, and so the political conditions for a deal were created. This brings us back to the question of how more sustained power can be built, starting from workers and communities, and more specifically: what leverage can be built within and against batshit industries, especially those that are not scheduled for transition? Unlike the old New Deal, which found ways to re-integrate workers into an economy of mass consumption – what Brand and Wissing call ”the imperial mode of living” - what is required today is the restoration, creation and valuing of social, subjective and environmental ecologies. But how?
Workers and communities
In a world torn by inequalities and hierarchies, the idea of "common human interest” is a pious abstraction. Ecological interest building starts from where people are at, works actively to break down hierarchies and inequalities, and treats people’s specific life situation in social networks and workplaces as potential sources of resistance and power. The strength of Just Transition is that it meets workers and their communities where they are. It addresses their immediate economic interests, hopes and fears, it raises expectations and offers new horizons. But whereas economic interest is seen as a matter of a present that extends into the future - the jobs that pays today, and will pay off the mortgage, tuition or pensions - ecological interests are typically cast as a matter of the future - in terms of fear of the coming environmental disaster or hope in the creation of a just green economy. It is no wonder that economic interests tend to win out.
To create ecological interests entails treating workers as whole human beings in networks of interdependency (Fridjof Capra, The Web of Life), in social, subjective and natural ecologies (Guattari, Felix, Three Ecologies). It means going beyond the masculinist vision of the workers a separate, self-contained, economic and merely self-interested subjects. The condition of being a worker is contradictory, which means that one has to relate to workers non-working lives - the periods of training, illness, unemployment and pension that most go through - and their interests in more rest, sociality and leisure time. As one former organiser with British trade unions told me:
My own experience of talking to workers in polluting industries about just transition and greening the workplace, is that you always find people in every workplace who are extremely keen to talk about how they connect to nature and environmental issues in their non-work lives - their allotments, their bird-watching - as well as their grievances about (for example) the works bus being cut so they now have to drive to their shift work, causing more air pollution. In both the positive and negative examples, they're the people who know best how to connect with colleagues on environmental topics, and there's also this sense that people really welcome being seen as more than just a worker, as humans who have lives and interests and communities outside work, that they're invited to articulate and connect to their work.
Batshit work is not merely an income, it has costs for the workers themselves: to their health, their free-time, and to the ecologies which they enjoy and depend on. To take this seriously roots ecological interest in the present. It increases the willingness of workers to challenge the madness they participate in and to demand just transition as a matter of present necessity.
Starting from affectedness
Pollutants in our lungs and cells, heavy metals in our organs, climate change anxiety nagging at our brains - the impact of environmental damage on our bodies, subjectivities and social relations is becoming easier and easier to see in the here and now. Even climate denialists and techno-fixers are starting to appear mad, ever more obsessive in their attempts to prove that everything is or will be alright. Starting from this affectedness, from increasing cognitive dissonance or disaffection, is a work that gives attention to the interconnectedness between the body, subjectivity, social relations and natural ecologies, and the way they are all affected by batshit work and industries. Here much can be learned from the environmental campaigns and unions that have worked with communities affected by pollution and environmental degradation.
One example of this is the campaign against the creation of a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport (projected to have a carbon footprint the size of Kenya). This project has mobilized people who live in the villages and suburbs that would be affected by the increased noise or air pollution, or even demolition, and with airport and associated workers, often facing poor labour conditions. There’s considerable overlap, of course. .. Citizens’ science has played an important role in such campaigns, with citizens and activist scientists developing research aims together and combine scientific measurements of pollution with experiential documentation - e.g. sightings and smells of smog - or helping citizens to install equipment livestreaming sound pollution of Heathrow Airport. By collectively documenting how a polluting industry also affects workers and their families, the basis of transversal campaigns against the polluting industries can be developed. Such campaigns will tend to be specific to a community and workplace. But as the conscious and visceral awareness of climate change and environmental destruction spreads in coming years, such campaigns will increase in scope and power.
Another way to enhance ecological interest is to connect it to the ways people are affected by outsourcing and global wage-pressures. Learning from union and social movement experiences with organizing and acting along value-chains, specific groups of workers can see their place within translocal chains of environmental harm. There are no fossil-fuel based or extractive industries without health and environmental effects, near or far. To connect the sites of extraction and production, the lines of transport and the networks of supply suggests where one might find possible allies - other workers, other affected communities - and points at which the flow may be interrupted. It’s also critically important to avoid eco-nationalism, where proposals for the development of green national economies effectively outsource environmental harm to the countries that supply the indium for solar panels, the lithium for batteries, the neodymium for turbines, etc., while hoarding green tech patents and know-how.
Strike against batshit work
As long as the condition of being affected and worried is individualized, the very act of speaking openly about these concerns can lead to radical results. The key is finding tactics and forms of organisation through which individual worry and fear can be socialized. It was the tactic of a school strike that helped transform Greta Thunberg’s individualized worry and depression into a collective struggle. Extinction Rebellion has done this on a mass scale this year, but while its power of direct and viral action is impressive, it’s still largely reliant on a conception of activism detached from the everyday. In very different register, Transition Towns have transformed the worry of many townspeople into the joy of doing meaningful things together, like setting up recycling systems, shared solar installations or ride sharing systems. Thus people develop an interest in community, an interest which is both environmental and economic.
The school strikes and Transition Towns are both rooted in the everyday, yet transformative of it. When school strikers strike, they don’t merely send a message, they get together with the people they share the everyday with, to teach themselves to see the world differently and act collectively. In doing so, their rejection of inaction is socially rooted in their institutions and neighbourhoods. The rebellion they teach is not just a rebellion against governments and corporations, but within the everyday, against any teacher, parent or principal who wants to limit their strike. Strikes always block the production of something, and the school strikes blocks the production, the education of one of capital’s most valuable resources: docile and productive workers and citizens.
Recently, Italian port-workers refused to load a Saudi ship in protest of the Saudi massacres in Yemen. “We will not be complicit”, one of their leaders said, revealing an awareness that business as usual is complicity, and that the refusal of complicity is power. Some workers in batshit jobs are lucky enough to have a large degree of discretionary choice in their work. Teachers teaching students for batshit work can, up to a point, change the curriculum, teach it critically, and do co-research with affected groups. Public and private managers can change priorities, and move towards more sustainable resource use and waste disposal. But in general, batshit work is more vulnerable to coordinated and uncoordinated mass action, from official or wildcat strikes and slowdowns, to sabotage and absenteeism, or to non-workers blocking logistical hubs, getting in the way of digging, chaining themselves to trees, or squatting land destined to become airports. Such movements are strongest when communities and wider society give moral and material support to workers, or when workers tell outside activists about the vulnerabilities of their industries. To engage in such actions entails strong networks of mutual aid and solidarity, from legal aid and strike funds, to everyday support for workers who have been sacked for their actions. It also entails the creation of just transition demands as urgent demands of the present.
A world beyond batshit work
A society beyond batshit work means less work, and different kinds of work. A shift to different kinds of work would free millions from the physical and mental burdens of batshit work, and direct our efforts to some of the most meaningful and socially valuable work activities you can imagine: teaching and learning, care work, childcare, restorative farming, sustainable construction, reforestation, and much more. A shorter work week lowers pressure for growth, and for employment to be maintained even as aggregate throughput and labour requirements decline. Less work might mean less material consumption, but not necessarily a lower quality of life – think of the joy of playing games, music and sports, cooking, sleeping, dancing and having sex, reading and learning, gardening and hanging out with your friends, lovers, neighbours and family. A life built up around care and conviviality would radically decrease the social demand for resource extraction and mass production. This would greatly weaken the power of capital to command our labour and to determine our present, and increase the chance that we may, some day, exit the planetary disaster of the capitalocene.
For unions, such a transition would entail a shift in emphasis from consumption-centred wage-demands towards a list of quality of life demands. Demands for a shorter work week, paid parental, education and care leave, better and free health care, free tuition, affordable housing and green energy, expropriation of empty buildings for use as cultural centres, the transformation of golf-clubs into public parks and workers’ allotments, and the creation of a whole sector of sustainable jobs. All this will require a sharp break with the dogma that union-employer negotiations happen within the limits set by a company’s or sector’s profitability. Indeed, unions should actively raise demands that force batshit industries out of business. This may seem radical, but there is a solid history of unions demanding health and safety standards, an 8-hour workday and the abolition of child labour - while ignoring the laments of those companies that predicted it would hurt their profitability. Why should unions act differently today? Any company that cannot stay profitable while contributing to climate emergency and ecosystem breakdown is an active danger to workers’ lives and does not deserve to exist.
But a world beyond batshit work doesn’t only require a transformation of work, but also a transformation of production. The technical questions this raises are significant, and bring us back to a crucial role batshit workers might play in transition: like the Lucas Aerospace workers, they have much of the technical and situated knowledge required to transform transformable industries from within, especially if they learn from environmental movements’ work with natural ecologies. Repurposing technology and using science to understand natural ecologies can help us develop agriculture, forestry, energy production and waste management that works with rather than against natural cycles. Such work is not only of technical, but also of ideological importance in the fight against climate denialism and uncritical belief in technofixes and geoengineering. Now and here, alliances between batshit workers and environmentalists can occupy and transform the affective terrains which give climate denialism and eco-modernism much of their persuasive power: the feeling that one knows and trusts what nature is and the experience that science and technology brings hope and possibility. Instead of an essentialism of nature as unchanging and of science and technology as uniformly progressive, we get practices that repurpose technology and science in attention to our embeddedness in the ever-changing ecologies that constitute the web of life.
Batshit work can only be abolished if we all - workers and non-workers - take seriously its toxic effects and the power we hold to refuse and transform it. This is a matter of urgent necessity. This starts with the ways we are affected and can be empowered in the everyday. To be affected with others opens the question of collective action and the route to empowerment and rejuvenated trade unions and social movements. It changes attitudes, behaviours and social relations, in priorities, needs and desires. All of this will greatly increase the likelihood of all the strategic scenarios that Just Transition and Green New Deal proposals count on, from fights and deals with employers and governments, to electoral victories. As we know, class deals require class representatives and mutual recognition between them, and employers don’t recognize unions unless they’re forced to. Building ecologies and collective power will increase the chances of a planned and just transition. But even if such a transition fails – or until it works – we will need practices of collective resilience, care and solidarity.
The author would like to thank Manuela Zechner, Tadzio Mueller and Tim Savage for sometimes challenging feedback that helped improve this essay.
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