Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

May Day- nature does no work

May Day is both a celebration of spring in the Northern Hemisphere, and International Workers Day.

It is tempting to come up with a line like “On May Day, nature is working hard to bring you clean air, water and food!” In fact, last year on May Day WWF posted “Did you know that our little friends in nature have jobs just like us?” For some reason they were claiming that ants are factory workers and beavers are construction workers, rather than making the obvious link to ecosystem services. "Ecosystem services," you will recall, are the services that nature provides to humans, like producing the atmosphere, the soil, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, and so on. Nature, we find out, is part of the service economy. But, like many of the people who do housework or care for other people, nature doesn’t have a contract and isn’t being paid. Possibly due to critiques that the idea that ecosystems serve humanity was a little bit too economic in tone, ecosysem services were recently renamed “Nature’s Contributions to People”. Which, if you ask me, just sounds as if nature has been conquered by humanity and is now bringing it a parade of tribute: three pangolins, 10000 drums of corn oil, 14000 tonnes of bauxite, twelve monkey puzzle trees, a pile of mushrooms, 1000 small clouds, 1467 cashmere scarves, 304 handbags woven from reeds, two giant rubies, and an elephant decked in gold. Wikipedia defines tribute nicely as “wealth, often in kind, that a party gives to another as a sign of respect…submission or allegiance.” It is essentially a kind of protection money as a result of which one accepts an inferior status. Because what does nature get in return for all its contributions if not a thin promise to be protected?

I think analogies matter. They underlie our assumptions about how things work, what is natural, what is normal, what is possible and likely vs. what is unlikey or impossible.

Since we are celebrating the joy of spring, flowers, baby animals, and seasonal cycles starting again, as well as a holiday when we don’t work to honor workers and the struggle to prevent their exploitation, let’s take a tiny look at the idea that nature performs work or animals and plants have jobs.

Here, I am not talking about work in the sense of a force over a distance. Nor am I a theorist of labour. Yet we have all been conditioned to think of some activities as work and some as leisure. There is the work that is our jobs, and then there are all the chores and tasks we need to do to stay alive and tend to our belongings, like making the bed, cooking, or watering the flowers. Of course, some people consider those things to be leisure or at least not work, because they enjoy them and/or want to do them. And while it is not impossible to have work you enjoy, in the sense of having a paying job you enjoy, the less enjoyable something is, and the less motivated you are to do it, the more it has the flavour of work.

The anthropologist Peter Gray argues that hunter-gatherers make no distinction between work and play:
They carry out the tasks they need to do with fun and enjoyment, and if they aren’t motivated to do something at any particular time, they don’t. In contemporary society, some people see this as an ideal to achieve, while others see it as an unfortunate lack of self-control and efficiency. A quote often attributed to James Mitchener goes “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his information and his recreation…” And here am I, writing this blog post at 10 PM on a holiday.

Like hunter-gatherers or me, animals, plants, fungi and bacteria, don’t distinguish between work and leisure. In ethology (the evolutionary study of animal behaviour), play refers to behaviours performed with excessive energy, exaggerated movements, in incomplete and out-of-order sequences. There is debate about whether play is actually practice for non-play behaviour like hunting or escaping, or whether it simply helps maturation processes by moving muscles and wiring the brain. That is, is play work or not? In any case, only neotenous species (that retain juvenile traits in adulthood, like humans) continue to display play behaviour as mature adults. But of course, much of what we call play in humans, like various games, sports, and hobbies, do not involve excessive energy, exaggerated movements, or incomplete and out-of-order behavioural sequences. They are fun, but also properly modulated and in executed. So while technically most animals don’t play as adults, they also don’t work because, like hunter-gatherers, they don’t perseverate at tasks for which they have no motivation, or train themselves to do things they don’t enjoy on the basis of intangible, highly delayed, and sometimes rather poor rewards. (Plants, fungi and bacteria, as far as I know, don’t have ethological play presumably as they have no muscles to mature). It seems like we need a category for behaviour that isn’t ethological play, but also isn’t work. There are various ideas about what it feels like to be doing an activity that motivates us and that we enjoy. One such idea is “flow”—that feeling of rhythm and absorption, when time seems to be subject to the immediacy of our actions or thoughts. It would be nice to think that if you’re not working, you are flowing. Of course one can also be frustrated, in pain, distracted, and so on, so flow is not the only state in which one is all the time when one is not working.

I kind of like the image, though, of nature flowing around us, absorbed in its enjoyment of its own rhythms. Nature doesn’t provide services or bring us tribute. Ants aren’t factory workers. Lets celebrate May Day by joining in.

--Meredith Root-Bernstein, 1-5-2019