In Praise of Human Energy

In Praise of Human Energy!

The evolution of American society in coming decades will almost certainly include an expanded role of human labor – greater movement, muscular exertion, physical activity – in jobs and daily work.   This is a good thing, for a measured and healthy engagement of our human energy will improve our lives and prevent undue hardship.   Today, in most countries of the world, we have an unparalleled and privileged window of opportunity to make transitions from one period of comfort and health to another, without great human suffering and environmental collapse in between.*

The human body is so fit for the occasion!  If we embrace the benefits and satisfaction of physical exertion and labor gracefully woven into our daily lives, we can greatly increase the chances of a smooth transition to a new era.  The main limitation to this is our mindset.  How do we view human labor; what is socially acceptable?  Will we wrestle free from our mental taboos that prevent us from drawing upon the exertion of our bodies?

Ironically, it is most socially acceptable, these days, for people to expend lots of human energy at play and leisure.  The number of calories burned in gyms, on fields and courts, on mountainsides and in the water is truly mind-boggling!  In our leisure and sports lives, the phrase “no pain, no gain” is the societal standard, and if you Google “feel the burn” with quotation marks, you’ll get over a million hits!   There is certainly no societal taboo against the exertion of human energy, per se!  

But, while some Americans  expend untold calories at play, the norm and trend for most of us – especially at work – is sedentariness and inaction.  Obesity rates in the U.S. are the highest ever recorded.  Vast numbers of people are getting very little physical activity and/or consuming calories unprecedented in human history.  Human energy expended in daily work and travels is at historic lows.

A PlosOne study** concluded that a significant part of the increase in American’s body weight over the last 50 years is accounted for by the decrease in calories burned at work (over 100 calories per day).   Numerous studies document that American youth are becoming more obese and that their physical fitness is declining. Something is out of kilter here!  While physical exertion at play is at an all-time high among certain segments of our society, it is at all-time lows for many others at both play and work, with ominous consequences for health and well-being.

Let’s take a magical leap past the mental barriers that lock up our bodies!    Let’s envision a world in which most of us expend more bodily, muscular energy in daily work and in getting around than we do now.  In this world, the application of human labor to the needs at hand would be considered, worthy of anyone capable of it – something the “in crowd” does; something considered “cool” even on hot days!

If you are in a position now that involves very little movement or physical work, imagine exerting at least enough extra physical effort that you feel better and expend those 100+ daily calories the average worker has lost during the past half century!  If you are now in a job that requires quite a bit of physical labor, imagine your work being greatly respected!  If you are in a dull or routine job, imagine how movement and working with others could make the day more pleasant!  We could all pitch in, and almost all jobs could be designed to include some time spent on things like cleaning, construction, raising of food, moving things that need to be moved and more!   Each of us could find ways to bike, walk or otherwise get from place to place using lots of our own power.

Imagine how the social nature of work could be elevated as more of us literally join forces to do more of the work required for life.  There is great power and natural affinity in people joining together to work hard – but not too hard – to accomplish what’s needed and enjoy each other’s company.  The barn raisings of the past and volunteer work days of the present are just two small examples.   And, if greater numbers of us applied the same “no pain, no gain” work ethic to the needs of life as many now apply to leisure, the opportunities to replace much of the fuel-intensive work of machines and engines with human power would become ever more significant.

A boatload of studies show that allowing and encouraging physical activity in the workplace increases productivity and job satisfaction.  So far, almost all of that evidence comes from examples where employers allow employees time and facilities for exercise and commuting.  But, surely, more physical effort as an institutionalized part of most jobs could have the same effect if our mindset was right!

The trend of increased human energy and labor will be forced, I think, by the decline of cheap energy and the negative effects of massive energy use and population increase.   But to the extent we can recognize and embrace the benefits of using our bodies more, this trend can be seen as opportunity, not hardship.  Somewhere between the brutish physical efforts of the past (and what many on Earth still have to endure) and our sedentary present, lies a sweet spot of human labor that serves our mental and physical well-being well, and which contributes mightily to a sustainable society.

* In so-called “third world” countries, human labor is already the norm, and much of it is of the brutish type described above.  I believe that it is the richer country’s responsibility and opportunity to help alleviate this suffering.  In many ways, the opportunity is that of richer countries  finding their own ideal levels of human labor itself.