A Jobless Utopia?
May 19, 2017
18 Min read time
A rural town in Spain gives us a glimpse into the challenges we will face in a workless future.
Editor’s Note: This essay is available in our spring 2017 print issue. We are pleased to make it freely available online thanks to the generous support of the Cameron Schrier Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Please help us continue to make content like this open access by becoming a member!
In 1905 the Spanish writer Vicente Blasco Ibáñez described the horrible conditions of day laborers in the vineyards outside Jerez. Barely paid, almost starving, and sleeping on hay, the day laborers in Blasco Ibáñez’s novel, La Bodega, stumble through life as “cadavers, with twisted spines and dry limbs, deformed and clumsy.”
But Blasco Ibáñez—a sort of Dickens of Andalusia—imagines a different fate for his protagonist. Our hero escapes with his fiancée to South America, “that young world” where land ownership is not a prerequisite for a good life. “What an Eden,” the narrator interjects, “so much better for the eager and strong peasant, a slave until then in body and soul to those who do not work.” The lovers “would be new, innocent, and industrious.” The novel ends happily—there is no doubt of that—but on a mixed metaphor, with an Eden where people work hard. Indeed Blasco Ibáñez’s term for “industrious”—laborioso—also translates as “toilsome.”
What sort of Eden is this, where women and men till the soil? In Genesis, Adam and Eve simply pick fruit from orchards in perpetual bloom. At the Fall, God invents work as punishment and commands his children, “You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your own brow.” Blasco, however, views a certain form of labor as a reward, and most social critics have shared this perspective. Like most myths, Eden tolerates ambiguity.
Much of the world is approaching the end of work, in which machines and computers will replace virtually all human effort in the production of goods and services.
Now reformers everywhere may have to resolve the dilemma of toilsome versus leisurely Edens. Much of the world is approaching what Jeremy Rifken calls “the end of work” and, more recently, “the zero marginal cost society.” In a zero marginal cost society, machines and computer algorithms replace virtually all human effort in the production of goods and services.
Rural Andalusia never had much retail, but its interior villages used to grow a variety of crops under the laborious conditions described by Blasco Ibáñez. In the last two decades, however, an almost effortless form of green energy has moved in. Wind turbines now crowd the terrain and there are few jobs, agricultural or otherwise. As an anthropologist, I began visiting a village familiar with these machines, hoping to see how people live with unemployment within a landscape that has been transformed from fields into electrical infrastructure.
• • •
In the tiny, four-hundred-person settlement of La Zarzuela, spindly poles rise up ninety meters to loom over fields exotically—menacingly to some. With a smooth efficiency, sixty-meter blades propel current to people far away. The energy is clean in every sense. Once constructed and erected, a turbine consumes no raw materials. It produces no pollution. It also requires next to no maintenance.
“They are robots,” boasted the manager of one wind farm. Indeed the company that owns the largest farm—the Spanish firm Acciona—is so confident in automation that it does not even have a twenty-four-hour control room on site. Instead screens in Mexico monitor La Zarzuela’s farm alongside hundreds of wind farms worldwide.
Meanwhile unemployed men of a certain age cluster at two bars. Supported by Spain’s social safety net, they think only sporadically about finding work. These men endured hard labor in their youth, but no one wants to return to that now. When machinery replaced the hoe and sickle, day laborers learned to drive tractors, a modest technology more like a motorcycle than a robot. But turbines upset that balance between device and operator, effectively dispensing with the latter, and as my drinking mates see it, turbines are jobs gone missing.
In a way clean energy is too clean, too divorced from the people and social context around it. Proponents of wind power—and I count myself in this group—will succeed or fail based on our ability to solve this problem. What should the balance of work and leisure be after fossil fuels? How should we imagine utopia?
• • •
La Zarzuela huddles in a valley just north of the Straits of Gibraltar. There the pressure gradient between marine and terrestrial zones stimulates constant wind. Extending inland, two ridges frame the village in a V. They often funnel the strong, east wind, el Levante, into a howling squall. It has scoured the vegetation down to scrub bushes, the indigenous acebuche, and locals do not bother to plant trees, except for palms. El Levante creates the perfect conditions for wind power. Construction of wind farms began in 1999 and proceeded in spates.
Saving the planet from catastrophic climate change is going to be inconvenient.
When I arrived in mid-2015, almost 250 turbines were clustered within a roughly 3-by-6-mile strip. Three companies own the farms, which are called parques eolicos, since the notion of a wind “park” is meant to calm concern. But protests have dogged the turbines in La Zarzuela and in many other places as well. People object to the visual impact, the constant noise, and the strobe-like shadows cast in various times and seasons. In 2006 and 2007, as the government authorized another expansion, residents of La Zarzuela rallied against the “masificacion de molinos” (the massing of the windmills). They blocked a road, preventing construction equipment from reaching the site, rallied at the municipal town hall in Tarifa, and then lost. Big Wind—as critics term Acciona and similarly sized firms—almost always wins.
At the El Pollo bar, I found men still nursing a grudge.
“I am annoyed,” declared La Zarzuela’s mayor, a short stocky man known for blunt talk. Osvaldo Santiago (a pseudonym, as are all the names below) works as a foreman in the port of Algeciras, just across a narrow bay from Gibraltar itself.
“Nadie! Nadie!” he says while jabbing at my stomach. “No one, no one” has gotten a job from these monstrous blades. Local unemployment is 40 percent, he tells me. The turbines only require a few maintenance workers—educated, skilled technicians of the sort you won’t find in rural Andalusia. Santiago, who hangs out with the captains and deck hands of container ships, cannot quite believe that such large hunks of steel can run themselves.
We can expect more such conflict and resentment. Denmark generates roughly 40 percent of its electricity from wind; Spain follows at roughly 20 percent. For now proponents and opponents agree on one tacit principle: that turbines should stay out of the way and preferably out of sight. Installers run them along ridges, in the empty spaces between settlement, or out at sea. But even this last option can provoke staunch resistance. Well-connected residents of Hyannis, Massachusetts, all but killed the 130-turbine Cape Wind project in the 2000s because they contended it would “pollute” their ocean views. Americans seem to prefer their windmills in Iowa, west Texas, and eastern Oregon, hinterlands where few people (and fewer rich people) live and vote. Unfortunately much of that electricity dies on the cables, never reaching refrigerators and light bulbs hundreds of miles away. Therein lies the problem: to power the grid with 100 percent renewables, every society will need to put wind farms and solar farms in places where the wind blows, where the sun shines, and where consumers of electricity live. Saving the planet from catastrophic climate change is going to be inconvenient.
Oil has been quite convenient, especially in terms of space. A hole in the ground less than three feet across can provide enough fuel to power a city. Even if one adds up all the infrastructure of rigs, pipelines, refineries, and gas stations, petroleum occupies very little land. Compare that modest footprint with the forests of colonial New England that were once obliterated to heat and light Boston. Those trees have returned, thanks to fossil fuels, and every Appalachian hiker benefits from that spatial subsidy (in addition to the gasoline that brings her to the trailhead). By refining compact kernels of hydrocarbon power, Americans liberated landscapes from servitude as fuel. Now, with great reluctance, we will have to reconsider this deal. Given that the arrangement will eventually cost us New Orleans, Miami, Boston, and New York, we clearly did not strike such a good bargain after all.
La Zarzuela provides a test case for a new deal between energy and landscapes. Against the will of the people, Big Wind converted field and pasture into an energy platform. The cost in acres was not immediately apparent; landowners still run cattle and plant crops around the turbines. But interior Andalusia had only recently begun attracting tourists, a promising new economic opportunity that the wind industry effectively squashed.
Labor gives us identity and, when it is good labor, the dignity and self-worth of a person fulfilled.
Alejandro Baptista knows about this defeat firsthand. His family owns the Doña Lola Hotel, a coastal resort, as well as the two-and-a-half-mile wind strip between the Atlantic and La Zarzuela. In 2004 the municipality surveyed that strip as a “vacation city.” Baptista dreamt of building holiday chalets and even a golf course, developments that would have employed the people of La Zarzuela. Tourism promised jobs and garnered local support, while the landowner stood poised to cash in.
Then turbines spoiled the vista. Baptista, who cannot imagine that a tourist would appreciate the whirring blades, opposed the turbines and joined the protest—up to the last minute, when he capitulated. Now he collects an annual rent, calibrated to the generating capacity of each of the fourteen turbines on his property. The money—approximately $2,500 per machine—falls far below what he might earn from tourism. But it vastly exceeds what any individual in La Zarzuela takes home.
Local residents believe that Baptista sold out. Big Wind cost Baptista his view and his reputation. Meanwhile turbines did nothing good for the local economy. The industrious Eden—possibly something like Blasco Ibáñez’s New World utopia—slipped away.
• • •
But what is utopia to the men of La Zarzuela? Sugar beets used to be a major crop in the village, but they are tedious and arduous to grow. As a root crop, sugar beets require men to bend at the waist, manipulating the tuber in the soil with a long-handled hoe. First workers thin the crop, cutting out three of every four roots. Those gaps allow workers to then reach the roots when, some months later, they are harvested.
At El Pollo Diego tells me that the labor was “insoportable” and “durísima” (unbearable and hard). In the ninety-degree heat of summer, day laborers would load sugar beets directly onto trucks all day long. Using my pen and notebook, Diego does some calculations. Each truck would carry 20,000 kilograms, and a team of eight could fill two trucks, meaning each laborer would harvest 5,000 kilograms (or 11,000 pounds) per day. It sounds like a Herculean feat to me, and Diego looks me in the eye to convince me that he is not exaggerating. Next to him another veteran of the beet harvest runs fingers down his face, mimicking perspiration.
In a way clean energy is too clean, too divorced from the people and social context around it.
Still in disbelief at such a hellish outdoor sweatshop, I check with Baptista, who grew sugar beets from 1975 to 2009, long after other growers had given up. I expect him to understate the drudgery he imposed on day laborers, but instead he warms to the topic. Day laborers loaded and cleaned the beets at a pay rate of 1.10 peseta (about a penny) per kilogram. I get confused, thinking he has said 100 pesetas per kilogram. No, Baptista laughs gleefully, 1,100 pesetas per ton.
“Loaded and cleaned,” he repeats with enthusiasm.
When La Zarzuela’s men refused to break their backs in this way any longer, migrant laborers from Granada took over the harvest. Eventually the crop shifted to northern Spain, where it grows more economically, under irrigation and mechanical harvesting, and the Baptistas moved on to other crops, to hotels, and, of course, to turbines.
With little sadness, hard labor in La Zarzuela went extinct, but there is still nostalgia for less onerous forms of labor. In the Gazguez bar, just up the road from El Pollo, painted tiles show men cutting wheat with sickles and women carrying it away, and the barroom’s conversations about grain differ in tone from those about beets. A man named Jaime smiles, recalling how horses trampled the harvest. Men would then toss it in the air using pitchforks while women carried out drinks to them. This harvest brought families and neighbors together. Old men crowd around Jaime and me, describing their personal experiences, while those middle-aged or younger recall stories from their parents. Mateo explains that one winnowed wheat when el Poniente—the weaker, westerly wind—was blowing. Stronger gusts would have blown away the kernels with the chaff.
Although this work also took place in summer, no one recalls the heat or any sense of oppressive toil. No one mentions teams of workers, tonnages, or piecework, although I am speaking to the same men who had also handled beets. These men, mostly in their seventies, know a kind of work that adds to human dignity, family bonds, and the spirit of community. Pepe pays for my drink as he leaves, evidently pleased with our chat.
Hand winnowing ended in the 1960s with the arrival of a fixed threshing machine. Then, from 1975 onwards, combine harvesters took over. On the surface, wheat went the way of sugar beets, but no one in La Zarzuela sees them as parallels. Winnowing began as a task and became an expression of social life and environmental knowledge. It must have been arduous work sometimes, but not all the time. The painter of Gazguez’s tiles, for instance, overlooked the sweat on the brows of the men cutting and tossing grain. Between utter toil and joblessness lies this remembered Eden of labor. Can people in La Zarzuela fight their way—past combines and turbines—back to that utopia? Should they?
• • •
Wind farms appear more restful than industrious. Workers do not surround the turbine or coax it to spin as do, say, drillers on an oil rig. Proponents argue that the expansion of the wind industry will generate hundreds of thousands of green jobs in the United States alone—far more than are now found in coal—as electricians, crane operators, and so on still have to install any given turbine. The “clean energy revolution” will bring a construction boom lasting a decade or two, they argue. But then the turbines will virtually run themselves.
With little sadness, hard labor in La Zarzuela went extinct, but there is still nostalgia for less onerous forms of work.
Clean energy is structured that way. Karl Marx, who knew nothing about turbines, described labor as “a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.” That metabolism converts raw materials into products and, also, into waste. Miners, for instance, extract iron ore from the ground; further work is required to refine it into workable metal and still more to manage the discarded rock.
A turbine is utterly different. Its raw material—if one can even call it that—blows downwind. No one needs to dig for the breeze. Kinetically-charged air simply arrives and turns the blades, and electricity flows to the grid. There is no product to carry and certainly no pollution to cart off, bury, or otherwise handle. The dirt, the dust, the pile, the load—the physical signs by which we know the dignity of labor—are all missing here. Where is the work?
With some effort on my own part, I find technicians around La Zarzuela. After driving my rental car through the wind farms, ignoring the warnings that say “Authorized Personnel Only,” I encounter Ramiro, a ruddy, bearded man in his fifties dressed in a blue uniform. He and his partner are sitting in their truck at the top of a rise, enjoying the view of La Zarzuela and the sea. I ask him about his job. It is great, he tells me. They pay whether he has to do anything or not—much better than working with “pico y pala,” pick and shovel. He also enthuses about nature, the view, and the tranquility of his wind farm. We chat for half an hour as blades swoosh gracefully around us. Then he drives off for his lunch break.
A few days later, I meet up with another technician named Jorge in Tarifa, the larger municipality to which La Zarzuela belongs. Jorge is active on social media, posting photos he takes of the turbines as well as photos of the view taken from atop them. He drives a black BMW, which I follow as he takes me to the beach outside town. We lean on the hood of his car, framed by waves on the west and bladed hillsides to the east. Jorge—who likes his job at least as much as Ramiro does—works on contract doing the infrequent refurbishing of the turbines. He is now fielding inquiries from as far away as Chile. Twenty-six years old and handsome, Jorge likens himself to a soccer player resting between global tours. Friends drive by and wave as he talks about nature, each of us gazing up at the turbines along the ridges.
Meanwhile electricity is surging from those turbines. On one of the arrays outside La Zarzuela, twenty machines generate two megawatts of electricity each. Only five technicians service those turbines, which means each worker produces eight megawatts of energy—with time leftover to shoot photos and take in the scenery. In the blow-zone of the straits, technology is enabling a lifestyle of relaxation, enjoyment, and beauty. Some might even call it a utopia.
• • •
To live comfortably with wind power, we will have to set aside deep-rooted biases. From Marx to Blasco Ibáñez to Barack Obama, observers of society have hewed to what Max Weber called the Protestant Work Ethic: one should toil industriously, make a product, and enjoy the fruits of that labor. Leisure must be earned. Perhaps because of Eve’s trespass, readers of the Bible feel they do not automatically deserve idleness or even hobbies. Labor gives us identity and, when it is good labor, the dignity and self-worth of a person fulfilled.
By refining petroleum, we liberated landscapes from servitude as fuel. But given that the arrangement will cost us our coastal cities, it was not such a good bargain after all.
Some have dissented. In 1883 the Cuban-born writer Paul Lafargue advocated a “right to be lazy.” Modern machines, he found, produced enough to support both those working with them and a greater population made redundant by them. Lafargue, who married Karl Marx’s daughter after emigrating to London, also argued for shortening the work day. By 1930 the economist John Maynard Keynes was on board as well, predicting a machine-driven, post-work society. “Three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us,” he wrote, referring to the farmer after the Fall.
Some critics of capitalism now call for a “multi-activity society,” one that supports hobbies, sports, art, political action, and caring for children and parents. My state, New Jersey, has already embarked down that road—in an ecological fashion. The electrical grid pays me for doing nothing, though the transaction is complicated. In 1999 the Board of Public Utilities established an incentive program to encourage homeowners to install solar panels. As a beneficiary of this policy, I consume free electricity equivalent to my generation, meaning that I almost never pay an electric bill. But I also sell the “environmental attributes” of that electricity, known as a Solar Renewable Energy Certificate. I earn a certificate with every zero-carbon megawatt-hour I generate, which I can then auction to power companies so that they can include it in their quota of renewables, as mandated by state law. In other words, I get electricity for free and I earn more than $1,000 per year from my 22 rooftop panels. That second benefit compensates me, not for work or investment, but for environmental stewardship.
That planet-saving principle is sound, but other people deserve these payments more than homeowners in New Jersey. As they lose their jobs to solar power, coal miners and plant workers are reducing carbon emissions dramatically. Under the logic that pays me, they surely deserve their own, larger share of the $400 million annual market for New Jersey solar certificates. If I get a check for raising kids under my roof on a sunny weekend, then coal country ought to claim a subsidy for its no-wage, multi-activity society.
To agree to that transfer of resources, politicians and the public have to accept a place such as La Zarzuela for what it is. Many in the United States are likely to agree with hard-driving Santiago, the mayor in La Zarzuela, who cannot bear what he sees as idleness. He would prefer that his neighbors load freight, assisted by petroleum, from port of port. One should make something or move something—or, at the very least, perform a service that others value enough to pay for. We have been taught that we earn money “by the sweat of our own brows,” as God allegedly put it at the Fall. We should not, as before the Fall, simply receive bread because there is enough to go around. As long as this insistence upon production prevails, we will remain mired in a system of industry and energy completely unsuited to today’s ecological conditions. Perhaps, in order to relinquish fossil fuels, we need to learn to forgive ourselves and others for not working.
At El Pollo unemployed men and women come to drink beer and coffee. They pay with welfare money or wages from last summer’s tourism and they are, by and large, content. Nearby, the Caseta Municipal, the local club, offers free yoga classes for adults, soccer games for kids, and flamenco festivals for everyone. All the while massive robots do the serious, manual work. Some La Zarzuela residents might object to their appearance, but the turbines do their work without changing the climate—and to some, they even change the landscape for the better. To me, these circumstances seem as close to utopia as I could ever to expect to witness.
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May 19, 2017
18 Min read time