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Book Review

Published onOct 16, 2023
Book Review

How Nature Works, an exhilarating volume of essays, is premised on a provocative possibility: recognizing that “it is impossible to treat work as a natural feature or inborn capacity of any single life form” (5), the editors state, might propel a radical questioning of “labor as a value” in itself (7). Drawing from this, the authors collectively ask: If the socio-ecological devastations that mark the Anthropocene have been fueled by capitalist work (and its attendant values of growth, productivity, and efficiency), then how does an attention to labor offer pathways out of this predicament?

Unintentionally, but perhaps not unsurprisingly, a large number of chapters are centered on modern industrialized agriculture - from factory farms and plantations to culinary festivals - and the more-than-human labor that producing food, fuel, fiber, and feed entails. In so doing, the essays draw the agrarian (broadly defined) into focus within studies of late industrialism at a time when deagrarianization and urbanization are dramatically reshaping landscapes and livelihoods around the world.

Within these agrarian worlds, the book grapples with a set of puzzling dualities, constantly moving between violence and care, intimacy and alienation. This gets at the contradictions of labor as simultaneously productive and destructive, sustaining life while enabling the killing of living beings and ways of life. On the one hand, the book traverses precarious landscapes and perilous workplaces - sick plantations, emaciated laborers, militarized ecologies, diseased bodies, toxic fields - to expose the fundamental and fundamentally multispecies violence of the global food system. For instance, in California, where the work of pollination by honeybees is now an essential part of “industrial agriculture’s modern biological infrastructure” (150), Jake Kosek discusses how the very chemistry and biology (and survival) of the insect has been by pesticides and pathogens as well as forces of privatization and austerity.

On the other hand, we are also witness to practices and meanings of work that do not fit easily within the singular frame of exploitation and alienation. Alex Blanchette describes meat production on the factory farm as a space in which human workers develop intimate forms of expertise even as they are drawn into ever-more monotonous and specialized work to preserve the life of pigs.

Throughout, the essays point to unexpected entanglements and connections that are inherent in multispecies assemblages of work. In one chapter, Eleana Kim introduces us to the cultivation of Korean ginseng, a plant of significant medicinal and market value, not only relies on (and obscures) the militarized ecology in which it is grown but also depletes the soil and destroys the habitat of endangered migratory cranes. However, even as conservationists blame ginseng for the “attenuation of nonhuman dependencies”, they too consume the plant for its ability to relieve the “anxieties inherent to capitalist economies of overconsumption” (129).

It is within these paradoxical realities that the authors locate the fragility, instability and incompleteness of the industrial agrarian model. As Sarah Besky demonstrates, monocultures require constant maintenance by laborers, “working over and over again toward homogeneity but never quite achieving it” (29).

In these paradoxes lies both the power of industrial agriculture and (perhaps) the path toward its undoing. Rather than present any straightforward solutions or utopian alternatives, the authors draw our attention to potential spaces of struggle and platforms of solidarity between workers across species lines.  Indeed, if nonhuman labor is inseparable from human labor and integral to agrarian production, then agrarian labor movements - for more work, less work, better paid work, and more - are always simultaneously environmental movements. What if labor mobilizations are premised not on exploitation but on the rich interspecies knowledge possessed by farmworkers? Can a serious reckoning with multispecies labor enable the restructuring of food regimes? If the colonial-capitalist plantation mode of cultivation has only exhausted and overworked landscapes and laborers, then perhaps - learning from animals, as Naisargi Dave urges - we might instead “organize around the uselessness and refusal of work” (217)?

In hinting at these political possibilities, How Nature Works not only reimagines humans and nonhumans as ‘co-workers’ but also potentially as collaborators and co-conspirators in struggles for social and environmental justice.

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