Environmentalism and Common Work

How the Virtues are Essential to Daily Living

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, December 2007

If you happen to pick up a copy of Small is Beautiful, you will be reminded that thoughtful writers were identifying a looming environmental crisis by the early 1960s. In E. F. Schumacher’s case, most of his material for his 1970 book came from his experiences in British Natural Resource planning in the 1950s and 1960s. His book presents alarming statistics on the astronomical increase in consumption of non-renewable natural resources, with so little thought towards what happens when they are gone or what happens to the environment when they are used to fuel expanding production.

This month we have been warned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that “…the time for doubt has passed. The IPCC has unequivocally affirmed the warming of our climate system and linked it directly to human activity” and that “Slowing or even reversing the existing trends of global warming is the defining challenge of our ages.”

In the 1960s, Schumacher saw the follies of wide spread centralization that was integral to government and business. He wrote a book to describe a different direction, a model for organization and development that celebrated and enhanced small-scale human cooperation that used resources efficiently to ensure that all human beings had adequate access to the tools they need to produce a livelihood. Needless to say, it is a path that is widely ignored and hardly ever chosen.

In Good Work News, we have often published Schumacher’s description of the purpose of human labour:

  • first, to provide necessary and useful goods and services,
  • second, to enable every one of us to use and thereby perfect our gifts like good stewards,
  • third, to do so in service to, and in cooperation with, others, so as to liberate ourselves from our inborn egocentricity.

Meaningful work, according to Schumacher, starts with grounding ourselves not in grandiosity, but concern for day by day actions that give spirit and support to those around us. Can our culture support this type of work? It can, but so much would have to change.

Schumacher concludes Small Is Beautiful by reminding readers that it is common for all societies to have a critique of materialism. While the development of production and the acquisition of wealth is important, so is the cultivation of virtue as Amy King’s article, Learning from Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics shows us.

“For Aristotle, community is the basis on which virtue stands. Without community, there cannot be virtue, and without virtue, there cannot be happiness and purpose.”

Amy’s article, along with the articles written by Sean O’Seasnain and Myroslava Tataryn originated from the Diploma in Local Democracy course that has been held over the last two years at The Working Centre.

The course focused on the practice of local democracy. We explored how communities can be organized to encourage practical expressions of social solidarity through examples of cooperation, neighbourhood mobilization, and personal responsibility. Most of all, as these articles demonstrate, small local democracy is about applying the virtues at home, work and in the organizations that sustain our communities.

Leslie’s article on the topic of walking shows how connected one can be through simple walking. Why is it that increasingly, only those who can no longer afford cars share in this benefit? All together these articles define the kind of thinking necessary to develop a new environmental ethic. If we are to move beyond concern for increasing stresses that our economies are putting on the earth’s carrying capacity, then a starting point is to consider how our communities are organized and how can we ensure that the rewards of work are directed to the common good rather than wasteful, status driven consumerism.

In the spring 2007 issue of Orion Magazine, Curtis White’s article on The Ecology of Work offers an insightful perspective on this.

“Spiritual rebirth will mean the rediscovery of true human work. Much of this work will not be new but recovered from our own rich tradition... Fishing as a family and community tradition, not the business of factory trawlers. Agriculture as a local and seasonal activity, not a carbon-based scheme of synthetic production and international shipping. Home and community building as common skills and not merely contracted specializations of construction companies and urban planners.”

This year, as The Working Centre celebrates its 25th year, it is satisfying to reflect on the common skills that are integral to everyday work. Using the philosophy of community tools, The Working Centre has witnesses what Peter Maurin called a ‘common unity’ towards the development of access to tools that serve the community in multiple ways.

On any day you can travel about The Working Centre’s four buildings and see hundreds of people engaged in the work of building and serving community. It is usually hard to spot who is staff, volunteer or patron. The common unity is the work of making available services, projects and tools that enhance community living.

The integration of inclusive work and service happens all day long at 97 Victoria where the work of providing a breakfast meal, food distribution and the daily lunch meal along with showers and laundry, a medical clinic, psychiatric outreach and the downtown street outreach workers is combined with the furniture and housewares recycling centre where last year over 150,000 items were sorted, priced and sold at affordable prices, while Job Café provides employment opportunities. Over 3000 hours of volunteer work each month are offered through St. John’s Kitchen and Worth A Second Look.

On Queen Street South, over 3000 people per year access our employment services that anchor a range of projects from public access computers, computer recycling, self-directed computer training, sewing space, Maurita’s Kitchen , the Queen Street Commons Café, Recycle Cycles, Second Floor Arts Space and an array of transitional, supportive housing units. All of these projects integrate training and work opportunities that involve people from many walks of life.

E.F. Schumacher lamented the decline of local communities that created meaningful work. New kinds of work can take hold when the common goal of serving others has the opportunity to take root in an environment where respect and dignity are primary.

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