In Praise of Laziness

I tossed out what many seem to have construed as a slur on Western Americans last week, mostly, I confess, for the alliterative qualities of the phrase. (Because I do like me some euphony.) I said Burqueños are “laconic and lazy” (and not much interested in your specialness). Far from being derogatory, this is high praise from me. 

People who are not always working in the wage system, who are being unproductive, are being un-productive. Unpack that a bit. Our wage system is full of waste. Even jobs that are not utter bullshit are producing waste. An enormous amount of it. Most jobs are directly harmful to the people who are doing them, to others both near and far, and to the planetary ecosystem that supports us all. Yes, I meant to say “most jobs”. There are very few wage-earning jobs that are not contributing to pollution, to reinforcing systems of inequality and domination, and to blowing through vast amounts of resources — all in ways that are central to the job. Turning resource into waste and wrenching wealth from this flow is the point of nearly all our wage-earning work. It is certainly the point of profit-making which is driving all wage-earning work. Even me, sitting here in my low-consumption home (wrapped in blankets because it is cold!), writing this essay. I am using up too many resources to be contributing positively to the future my sons will inhabit. 

I am typing these words on a computer. This computer is old. I have done the last upgrade that Apple will support on this machine. It is now obsolete relative to the software that allows me to type these words. I have stretched out the destructive footprint embodied in making this computer, but I have not eliminated it. I will try to hack the machine with Linux, but I won’t be able to use this word processor nor the browser I use for research nor the spreadsheet I use to visualize numbers. I may even lose access to the assortment of passwords that are necessary to get to everything from my NYTimes subscription to the WordPress platform I use to publish what I write. I may not be able to use WordPress at all (it is already complaining about my incompatible browser). Doing my job — one that doesn’t even involve wages, mind you — is very likely dependent upon tossing out this toxic machine and buying a new one that will then also turn obsolete within a decade or so. By design. Resource to waste with a whole lot of wealth generated for Apple-folks. And a few blog essays out of the waste stream.

Not only are these words dependent upon this machine, but this machine has to be plugged in. Physically, it is running on electricity that must be generated and delivered to the outlet in my home. Since I live in energy-conscious Vermont, this energy generation may come from renewables (which are their own special kind of mess and waste). But some of it is undoubtedly from burning fossil fuels, likely natural gas, which represents a ton of destruction (maybe literal) for every electron sent streaming through wires. (It is hard to achieve hyperbole when describing the waste stream of “clean” natural gas.) All of that energy stream entailed a good deal of waste and resource use in building the system, and more still is flowing to keep all its various components operating. Furthermore, my machine is almost useless independently. It also requires metaphysical connections that are themselves physical waste streams. My computer requires a whole constellation of other machines that maintain my virtual connections to the world outside my office — including to the WordPress platform that you are now reading. To be connected to the internet is to be using the energy and resources of very likely uncountable other machines. So while both physical and metaphysical connection streams require large flows of energy and resources, I’m fairly certain the virtual connection uses several magnitudes more of both even though it is “virtual”. (Because there is no actual virtual world. We haven’t created anything that is not physically bound to energy and resource use.) Both physical and metaphysical connective streams also entail pollution and harm done to others — and to myself. Again the virtual world is probably more harmful and polluting than my single machine by several orders of magnitude. Me simply talking to you in this manner on the destruction of our planet is destroying our planet. How’s that for cognitive dissonance!

So that was a bit of belaboring the point, but sometimes one must. Because if nobody is saying these things, then nobody is saying these things. (Sorry… ok, not really…) But back to the point of being unproductive. What is being produced by economically productive people? Mostly harm and waste. Those who are not being busy, who are being lazy in the eyes of our culture, are not producing the waste and destruction that busy people are spewing all over the planet because they are being busy. Lazy people stop doing things. In that work stoppage they also halt the flow of harm done. If I stopped writing this blog, the age of my machine and its inability to talk to the rest of the world would not matter. I would not need to throw it away and buy a new one which would then be thrown away to be replaced by a new one which would…continued onwards in an un-virtuous and self-perpetuating cycle of waste generation until I die. Furthermore, I would have no need for all the constellation of machines that also represent myriad perpetual cycles of waste. I would block the waste flow if I just… stopped… writing. Which will probably be my decision when this machine decides it can no longer cope. I won’t be buying a new one.

Ergo, I will with this work stoppage also block the flow of profit-making — and it is for that reason that we disparage laziness. Not because these lazy people are sitting around doing nothing. Some of the highest paying jobs are just that (along with a fair degree of telling other people what they should be doing). We aspire to be paid to do nothing. We accord respect to the ass-sitters if they have corner offices and wear 3-piece suits (what is the third piece, by the way?). We scorn those who are ass-sitting on their couches wearing fuzzy slippers (and blankets). We simply refuse to see the ass-sitters who produce so little that they have no way to pay for a space of their own. These people are producing the least harm to others, but they are not enriching someone else — and our society will not forgive them that sin.

However, we rely on the ass-sitters. And, no, not the ones in the corner offices; they’re just parasites. But we are existentially dependent upon those who do little wage-work. We rely on the people who are not engaged with wage-earning work all their waking hours (and a good number of the hours that should be devoted to sleep) because these are the people who have time away from busy-ness. People who are not always engaged in wage work have time. We rely on economically unproductive people to do what needs to be done. These are the creative and care-giving people. They have the time to reflect, to think. To think deeply, creatively and innovatively. They have time to be deliberate, to be rational and logical, to be attentive. They have time to be considerate, thoughtful, observant. They have the time to care. Most importantly, they have the time to do all the work that is unremunerated but necessary to human life — from deep thought to raising the next generation of humans.

There is a distinction between the type of un-productivity found in New Mexico and the type of laziness practiced by couch potatoes the world over. There are couch potatoes in New Mexico, no mistake, but intentional disengagement from wage work, though rare in much of the “developed” world, is also widespread in New Mexico. People don’t have jobs just to have a job. They don’t work on a time clock for money. They work on their own time to satisfy their own desires. They don’t have a schedule. Some mornings there may be no work (unless there are goats… or small humans), and the time is free to contemplate the sunrise. Most work is completed with the daylight, and so most evenings there is time to gather, to cook and eat slowly, to sit on porches and drink beer and talk with friends. The time is their own. The work done is done in the time necessary to the task — and no more. There is no need to fill hours with false productivity, to do things just to be busy while on a time clock, to waste time and other resources. In Albuquerque work is done because it is needed. When needs are met, there is no busy-ness. However, New Mexicans do work quite continuously. There is a lot of work done in Albuquerque.

People in Albuquerque tend to things. I mentioned the gardens and farms in my last article. It is rare to meet someone in any part of New Mexico who does not grow food, if nothing else then a few obsessively tended tomatoes in Home Depot buckets on the back patio (because the blaze-orange bucket is good for the plants, they say). In every part of the state where it is possible to live, there is food and fiber production. This is due to limited water supplies. Living and farming have to happen in the same places because there is no “out there in the countryside” that can support water-intensive life and therefore farming. So there is no distinction between urban and rural. Rather the distinction is “where the people are” and sheer emptiness. In a sense, Burqueños have perfected the urban farm, but it is neither resource intensive nor vertical. Farming happens wherever there is surface water — and more importantly rights to use that water. There are farmlands a few blocks from the center of Albuquerque. You can walk from the grand edifice of the Bernalillo County Courthouse to fields growing hay and grapes — and all those horses that stand at the hitching posts.

That is another obsession, one that neatly encapsulates the New Mexican approach to work. There is a love affair with the horse in New Mexico. Many people have some equine project going on in their daily lives. Gentling a range horse. Nursing a pregnant mare. Trading breeding stock. And the endless tasks in keeping a horse fed. Just knowing a horse is work. But it is work done completely outside the wage system. Work done as a hobby. Work done freely and of a person’s own volition. Work done because it has to be done to support life, not because someone else decrees it should be done to support profits. This is true productivity, but the only product is a happy horse. Which, as far as I can tell, is the exact opposite of monetary gain. This horse-work exemplifies the laziness in Albuquerque. It is not a refusal to work. It is a refusal to work for profit.

Now, it should also be acknowledged that historically there have been few ways to work for profit in Albuquerque. It is hard to profit in such a resource-depleted and remote area. There is little water, but there is also little of much else. (These are not unrelated deficiencies.) Until recent discoveries of natural gas reserves in the southeastern part of the state and uranium deposits on Navajo lands, the main mineralogical resource was good pot-making clay. And pots, while necessities for daily life, are heavy and fragile things, not conducive to long-distance trade — especially where there is no water transport and everything must be hauled over land. Quite a lot of land. Rough land. There are many miles of rocky mountains and arroyo-lined desert between Albuquerque and everywhere else. Almost nothing but opportunities to break pots. Lots of potsherds litter New Mexico and one wonders if at least some of the piles found in puckerish places out in the sage-brush represent someone’s failed notion of trade with the wealthy Southerners. (I mean, they had chocolate down there…)

These days there are still only two highways and one main train line, and most of what traffic there is goes through, stopping only to marvel at the sunsets and spicy foods. Thus the Albuquerque economy is localized by the hard limits of its geography and its hydrology. The inhabitants tend to their own needs by necessity — as in, they would die if they did else-wise. There has always been trade for foreign goods, things mostly of a small, durable and somewhat decorative nature. But daily needs had to be met locally — and this is still largely true. Trade has always been and still remains secondary. So now that industry has found ways to creep into the cheap desert lands (and with its creep causing a general reduction of cheapness), there is a tension between this way of living, focusing on meeting true personal needs, and working for wages, meeting the financial needs of someone else. And the latter mostly loses. 

Burqueans are notorious for taking a wage job for a while, to meet some personal financial desire, and then just drifting away. They stop going to that wage-work place and stop doing whatever it was they were paid to do. There is no notice or fuss. It is just how things happen. The wage job is not centered in their lives. The wage job is merely a means to some personal end, and when that end comes the wage work ends with it. They’ve got other more important things to do and they go do them. Now, sometimes those more important things are sitting on the porch, drinking beer and talking with friends — which is just shocking to outsiders. Those wedded to the wage-work world heap scorn on New Mexicans because New Mexicans choose to walk away from wage-work just to do life, to be alive. (I’m thinking this scorn is the outward expression of intense jealousy…) And life for humans includes, requires, friendship. Time spent cultivating friendship is just as important a biophysical need as time spent cultivating food. (Maybe human life doesn’t require the beer… but we’ve been brewing for almost as long as we’ve been talking, sooooo…) 

Getting to the heart of the matter, they — we — truly do not understand why wage work should take precedence over taking care of yourself. Why would someone stop tending to their own life in order to do wage work for someone else? Especially since they still need their own life tended to and wages generally don’t cover all the necessary tending. Wages certainly don’t cover horse-tending. Or friendship. Or gardening. Working for wages represents a true loss of living. So in a place that has traditionally lived outside the wage-work system, it is hard to convince people to accept that loss merely to work for someone else’s gain.

Then throw in the other detractions of wage-work. Working for someone else’s gain usually harms a great number of things, things that caring people, well, care about. Working for some else’s gain meets few needs, not even the physical needs of the person who gains. Working for someone else’s gain is physically unproductive almost in exact inverse proportion to the degree that it is economically productive. It produces a huge amount of waste and destruction, and most of this is experienced by the people doing the work. Wage-work is only effective at generating a flow of money and piles of wealth for those who direct the money flows. It will not feed or clothe or house a New Mexican. Never mind the New Mexican horse. So why would anyone choose to work for wages?

This is the upside-down logic of the lazy and laconic Westerner. Those from elsewhere either vilify the locals or have to work hard at comprehending New Mexico’s mañana attitude. It is hard work because there are so many blinders in our culture put there specifically so that we will not see and understand what wage-work actually produces. Put there so that we do not feel the loss of living. Put there so that we will do that busy-ness for someone else’s gain and do it willingly. We do obvious harm in doing wage-work. This takes quite a good deal of obfuscation. Thus business people spend almost as much time and resource flow on hiding the harm done as on doing the harm. In fact, the people who are hiding the true nature of economic productivity are generally the highest wage earners. (This is not an unrelated coincidence.) And the label of laziness is and has been one of the sharpest weapons in their toolkit.

Albuquerque might be unusual now in this country, but it is probably close to a normal human community averaged over time and location. Wage-work is actually the anomaly. And it is not readily embraced by people who are not forcibly enculturated to it. Read colonial settler accounts. Their constant refrain is that the locals are slothful laggards who refuse to be conscripted into doing wage-work. Though the industrious settlers took the food the lazy locals grew. And the land that the lazy locals tended. I wonder if they appreciated the irony or if they were too blinded by their cultural imperatives — translate: greed — to even see it. I also wonder what sort of damaging cognitive dissonance their children experienced. Papa is calling this person lazy but this person gave me this wonderful cornmeal pudding and made me this dolly and smiles while showing me how to do things and Papa… mostly sits on his ass in a three-piece suit. Explains a lot about countries carved out of colonizing, doesn’t it.

I firmly believe in the virtues of laziness. I would see a return to economic un-productivity. Happily, I also doubt wage-work will survive as we are forced to focus on meeting our own needs using less transport and fewer resources. For example, it is unlikely there will be an Apple computer to buy and therefore throw away for the rest of my life, never mind my sons’ lives. More generally, I think that we will inevitably abandon all profit-seeking when there are no profits to be had. So there will be much less money available to pay others to do the work necessary to maintain your body. In the near future, you will be lazily tending to your own needs.

One of which will probably entail beer on front porches… and there may even be horses.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021