Doing Manual Labor for Sustainable Development Makes You Sexy

(or, A Hodge-Podge of Fact and Opinion)
By Josh Kearns
I’ve just returned from an arduous – but tremendously joyful – trip to a small village in the remote coastal mountains of Burma’s “Deep South,” Tenasserim Division.
The trip took two weeks and consisted of nearly four days of travel – each way – over very bad roads through rugged terrain and jungle, and a high-tide-dependent boat ride up the lush verdant tentacles of an estuary, to deliver colleagues and myself and our cache of tools and materials to Koh Bok, an ethnic Karen village of about 90 households and 450 individuals.
In a week’s work we installed (1) a small dam in a mountain stream and 800 m of conduction pipe delivering about 24 L/min, (2) two 5,000 L bamboo-reinforced concrete water storage tanks, and (3) a 600 L/day drinking water treatment system employing biologically-active sand filtration and adsorption with biochar generated from surplus local woodscraps.
“Whew!” is right!
It was a lot of fun. The villagers were amazing to work with. And they kept us very well fed, from a nearly 100% local diet of free-range meat, eggs, and vegetables grown locally and gathered from the jungle.
Pictures are posted on the Aqueous Facebook page: Feel free to get in touch if you would like more details about this project and the components we worked on.
Them’s the facts; now on to the opinions.
My dear friend Avery Bang, CEO of the brilliant non-profit Bridges to Prosperity, recently posted an op-ed article entitled The White Tourist’s Burden on her Facebook page. The article trains a critical lens on “voluntourism,” its drawbacks, and the actual versus ostensible means it often serves. You should read it. Now. Go on – I’ll wait.
Ok, good.
Clearly the piece gives a lot to think about. As somewhat of a “career voluntourist” myself, I might ardently echo and extend, as well as argue counter to, some of the complexities that could be unpacked from this – and probably wind up quite uncertain, and unsettled, in the end. It definitely would make for a lively discussion among both aspiring and veteran Chemists Without Borders (hint hint…).
I won’t attempt a comprehensive commentary here, but just extract one morsel to gnaw on a bit.
The tone of the piece is consonant with my pet theory that various and sundry “sustainable development” marketers have finally cottoned on to the last consumerist niche left in WWLs (wealthy white liberals), namely, affluence-guilt assuagement.
Organizations that appear on the surface to be contributing to “sustainable development” are often actually in the business of selling indulgences – psychological products that allow people to engage in narcissistic and self-centered recreational activities while having their guilt expunged and replaced with the belief that they’re actually helping poor people when they, say, go rock climbing or spend umpteen hours per week training for a triathlon.
The process is analogous to that of the medieval Catholic Church, which created a market for moral sin offsets allowing the rich to pay to have their various iniquities expunged. This convenient mechanism relieved the rich person’s conscience without the need for arduous activities of penance, and indeed obviated even the need to curtail sinning.
As ecological economist Clive Spash has pointed out, this system “replaced personal action to address wrongdoing with a monetary transaction allowing immoral actions to be justified. Sin would perversely increase because, for the wealthy, indulgences provide a lower cost alternative to lengthy penances.”
The same criticism has been levied by Spash and other analysts, such as Guardian columnist George Monbiot and The Economistmagazine, to the modern practice of selling pollution credits to big dirty industries, and CO2 offsets to guilt-ridden air travelers.
I pick on the increasingly common practice by alleged sustainable development orgs of linking athletic leisure pursuits with doing good for the world’s poor because (1), I’m a bit of an outdoor/endurance activity junkie myself, and (2), I recently spent the better part of four years living in fitness-obsessed Boulder, Colorado.
During that time I was party to a number of WASH-org fundraising events that pandered to the subliminal desires of sporty, affluent (predominantly white) folk to indulge in self-centered outdoor fitness hobbies (that, not incidentally, generate substantial social cachet within that particular subculture) while congratulating themselves for the socially “enlightened” and “ecological” values they hold and the “good they do” in the world (presumably by extension?).
Yeah, I know, that smarts. To be fair, we all want to believe that we’re good people, that our sum effect on the world is positive and not negative. That basic human psychological drive is at the core of the “voluntourism” phenomenon. Full disclosure: I certainly appreciate the “psychological income” accrued through my work – actually, I value it far, far more than the monetary income foregone by not having chosen a more lucrative path in life.
In fact, this psychological income is substantial enough for me to have serious doubts about my own capacity for altruism. I may have just found a very sophisticated, back-door way to feel good about myself and garner the praise and respect of others, trading a modest amount of money-capital for a much greater sum of social-capital. It would be intellectually dishonest to discount this sizeable contribution to the overall constellation of motivations for what I do.
Accordingly, it would be obviously foolish to argue that morally pure selflessness is the only proper motivator for sustainable development work. Instead I propose a compromise.
As you can see from our project photos, the people we work with tend to be very fit – lean, strong, physically competent. The difference between them and affluent outdoor leisure-fitness nuts in places like Boulder is that the villagers’ enviable physiques are derived from community-oriented, cooperative labor activities – farming, forestry, carpentry, those sorts of things.
I’m certainly not the first to take notice of the salubrious side-effects of farm labor. Mephistopheles, for one, pointed out:
There is a natural way to make you young…Go out in a field 
And start right in to work: dig, hoe, 
Keep your thoughts and yourself in that field,
Eat the food you raise…
Be willing to manure the field you harvest.
And that’s the best way – take it from me! – 
To go on being young at eighty.
Based on these observations, I propose a bifurcated classification system for outdoor physical fitness activities: (a) self-centered, and (b) other-centered. Self-centered activities expend energy only to the benefit of the agent, and to no other useful purpose. Other-centered activities expend energy towards the advancement of common social and environmental goods, and benefit the individual simply as a fortuitous side-effect.
As an enthusiast for self-centered activities such as trail running, bicycle touring, open-water swimming, hiking and rock climbing, I’d be hypocritical to call for their complete abolition. Being an avid cyclist, I’m guilty of having scorched the roads of Rocky Mountain Front Range while blowing an astonishing volume of kilocalories towards nothing so much as the frivolity of well-muscled thighs, all while hastening the eventual heat-death of the universe. (My bad.)
What I do strongly advocate, however, is shifting the balance of self- and other- centered outdoor physical activities towards the more broadly beneficial.
Optimally, one should derive the bulk of one’s fitness from labor activities that directly benefit the local community, economy, and environment. A smaller portion of one’s time spent in physical activity, say ≤ 10%, should come in the form of hedonic leisure that burns energy only in service to the individual with no greater avail to society.
Perhaps the CSA (community-supported-agriculture) organic farms around Boulder can take the lead in driving this shift by marketing themselves as fitness clubs. Let’s all get ripped making compost!
As usual, you can find me on Facebook, and please “Like” Aqueous Solutions!
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