Monday, September 07, 2009

Engineering and Labor: A Road Not Taken

On this Labor Day (as observed in the U. S.), let's consider how engineering has affected the way people work to earn a living, and how the way things have turned out may not necessarily be the best of all possible worlds, at least not for everyone.

Since its inception in the 1800s, modern engineering has assumed the characteristics or goals of the age which gave it birth: "individual achievement, efficiency, progress, faith in science, material comfort, equality, and freedom." This list was taken from a sociological study of families in modern society, but it applies equally well to the goals toward which much of modern engineering strives. Last Saturday I visited a place where these values are not ignored, exactly, but subordinated to a different set of values: "respect for human life, sexual restraint, patriarchy, devotion to family, and love of neighbor." This second list comes from the same source as the first, and despite some negative connotations that some of the terms such as patriarchy have acquired, I think they apply fairly to the place I visited, with some exceptions.

On a few hundred acres of land west of Waco, Texas, a Christian community called Heritage Ministries is trying an ongoing experiment in how to live out the Christian life in a way that puts people, relationships, and family ahead of efficiency, economics, politics, and productivity. That may sound easy, but it's not. The path these folks have chosen is similar to the way the Amish communities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere live, but without many of the rigidities and divisive religious infights that have characterized the Amish. I'm sure the Heritage folks have had their family arguments, but in my very limited exposure to them (a few visits and the reading of one publication), I haven't seen any. Instead, what I see is a way of life that both appeals to me and denies most of what I as an engineer live for.

Let me explain with an example or two. Unlike some Amish communities, the Heritage community welcomes visitors to their retail establishments where they sell samples of what they make: everything from handmade soap to five-thousand-dollar handcrafted rocking chairs. On the day we visited, a team of young men and their sons was squeezing sorghum cane in an old-fashioned mule-powered mill. The juice ran downhill through a pipe to a boiling vat tended by six or eight young ladies and a man who fed the wood fire under the boiler. He told me they had farmed about three acres of cane and expected to make several thousand pints of finished sorghum.

Now I don't know much about sugar cane processing, which is a somewhat different operation, but I'm sure that if you threw a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of capital at this situation, you could easily eliminate all but maybe a tenth of a worker by scaling up the operation to industrial size. A large, modern, efficient sugar processing plant could handle what the little Heritage crew took all day to process in about half a minute. As an engineer, I couldn't stop myself from thinking these ways-to-do-it-better thoughts as I watched the laborious process before me.

It's not that the Heritage people are ignorant, or arbitrarily rejecting every advance in technology made after 1850. They drive cars, use computers, and while I was walking the grounds I nearly tripped over some CAT5 computer cable left over from when they networked their cash registers during one of their semiannual fairs. But their strong belief in " a certain simplicity of lifestyle, a rootedness in the land, [and] an emphasis on family and intentional community" makes them eschew large modern capital investments whenever it tends to separate the worker from the thing worked, and from other workers.

As Heritage leader Blair Adams says in the booklet What We Believe, "a craft, as distinct from a manufacture, can express the inner person for the very reason that he becomes so directly involved in it. And as far as what constitutes 'a waste of time and effort,' money doesn't seem to us the best cirterion for establishing the worth of one's 'time and effort.' To us, meaning and fulfillment provide much better criteria."

In recent years, Heritage and similar communities have benefited from the increased popularity of organically grown foods, the urge to buy local produce, and renewed interest in crafts and other off-the-grid attempts to be less dependent on the global economy. These things are good as far as they go, but a simple analysis shows that they can only go so far. If everybody tried to buy local produce, thus reducing the distance food is shipped, historian James McWilliams has shown that the carbon footprint of food production would actually increase overall because of differences in climate, agricultural technology, and other factors, not to mention the market disruptions it would cause. So for that and many other reasons, it would not be practical for everyone, or even most of the world's urban population, to live the way the Heritage people live. But does that mean it's wrong?

I don't think so. The Heritage community views the way they live as a silent witness to the power of God in Christ Jesus—a way of preaching without words. But regardless of one's beliefs, they show that many of the things we as engineers regard as vitally necessary—labor-saving machinery, cost-effectiveness, and the latest technology—do not play a big role in a whole way of life that, from all outward appearances, is at least as satisfying and enjoyable as our modern, individualistic, grid-dependent one is. And that is a reminder worth bearing in mind.

Sources: The two sociological quotations are from p. 85 of Allan Carlson's From Cottage to Work Station (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), in which he cited the work of sociologist William D'Antonio. The quotations in the paragraph that mentions What We Believe are from the booklet of that title by Blair Adams (Elm Mott, Texas: Colloquium Press Trust, 2005). An article by James McWilliams describing the problems of being a "locavore" can be found in the online edition of Forbes Magazine at

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