Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet

November 14, 2019

In October 2019, Sarah Besky published How Nature Works: Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet (SAR Press), which she co-edited with Alex Blanchette (Tufts University).  

The book starts from the premise that we now live on a planet that is troubled—even overworked—in ways that compel us to reckon with inherited common sense about the relationship between human labor and nonhuman nature. For example, in Paraguay, fast-growing soy plants are displacing both prior crops and people. In Malaysia, dispossessed farmers are training captive orangutans to earn their own meals. In India, a prized dairy cow suddenly refuses to give more milk. Built from these sorts of scenes and sites, where the ultimate subjects and agents of work are ambiguous, How Nature Works develops an anthropology of labor that is attuned to the irreversible effects of climate change, extinction, and deforestation. 

The book is based on a based on a week-long Advanced Seminar that Besky and Blanchette (along with Naisargi Dave) convened at the School for Advanced Research (SAR) in Santa Fe, New Mexico in September 2016. The authors that came together for the seminar and included their work in the volume push ethnographic inquiry beyond the anthropocentric documentation of human work on nature in order to develop a language for thinking about how all labor is a collective ecological act. They suggest how a troubled planet is one where non-human beings can work on us, against us, and perhaps with us—while calling us to imagine better worlds of work for all beings.