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Book Review

Published onOct 16, 2023
Book Review

In How Nature Works, the authors begin with a powerful assertion: at a time when capitalism has intensified labor done by humans and non-humans, the capacity of “work” as a political and scholarly category is more fragile than ever before. They problematize humanistic assumptions in classic social theory that work is activity done by humans to modify nature. The book offers a framework to understand how both humans and non-humans work in relation to each other. Some authors explicitly consider how nature does work—honeybees act as industrial workers, chimpanzees and industrial hogs endure immense boredom in becoming the object of new forms of labor. Other authors pay attention to the many scales and temporalities of work ranging from intimate and yet distant relations between humans and industrial hogs in the US Midwest to the long-term work of maintaining exhausted landscapes “sick” tea plantations in Dooars, Assam.

There are two related strands of thought that the book turns on. First, the authors note that this is a historical moment when capitalism is expanding and has amplified ecological precarity. That dominant trajectories of economic growth are at odds with the ecological health of the world has been articulated as a crisis at several historical junctures; they have been true each time. What is different about this book is that the authors do not frame economic and ecological change as macro-scaled processes that shape the world. They ethnographically probe how work by humans and non-humans is key to how and to what end processes of industrialization, militarization, conservationism, mechanization unfold. For instance, Eleana Kim shows how ginseng cultivation, a form of industrial farming, requires both the securitization of space in the DMZ and the remaking of its multispecies ecologies as pure nature or Korean “terroir”.

Second, the authors argue that humans and non-humans are working more hours, in newer spaces, and varying degrees of proximity with each other. Across the chapters, the results of such encounters are unexpected. In Jake Kosek’s chapter, honeybees are transformed into industrial workers par excellence capable of surviving migrations on trucks and live juiced up off high fructose corn syrup and chemicals from Monsanto. For Shiho Satsuka, matsutake mushrooms draw humans into their rhapsodic rhythms, require ways of attuning to the presence of mushrooms, and offer alternative temporalities undisciplined by industrial capitalism.

The editors begin the book by saying that the capacity of work to organize foment is weak. In the ethnographic chapters, the authors push this argument further by considering how to recast work in a more-than-human world. They ask what other forms, meanings and actors are required to reimagine work as a eco-political category.  Kregg Hetherington’s analysis of soy monocultures in Paraguay offers one example. He traces a long history of “killing” through which campesino agriculture in Paraguay was established even before soy. By considering agrarian and ecological histories, he pushes us to think beyond resisting soy monocultures alone. Instead, his hope lies in agricultural democracy. Similarly, Alex Blanchette demands that we not only critique of exploitation of pigs and human laborers in industrial farms but ask what farm labor politics can look like when we center unique forms of animal knowledge of workers who attend to specific porcine parts in current conditions.   

Overall, the book offers ways to consider the emergent relationalities between humans, nonhumans, ecologies, and cultures in theorizing work. Anthropologists of work have much to gain from the ethnographically rich examinations of what is framed as nature and culture, who is seen as doing work, and at what scales we imagine change.

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