We often talk about justice in terms of the harvest. There is a certain poetic fitness in this. The work that goes into creating a harvest, the sowing and cultivating, is balanced by a commensurate reward. You get out something proportional to what you put in. When applied literally this reward is nourishment, food — the maintenance of life and the most primal pleasure. When you toil in the fields, you eat well. Those who do not tend their fields do not gain much of a harvest and their bellies are empty. The harvest is equivalent to the effort — or resources — put into it.
This is true when we are discussing actual plants for our own actual sustenance. Sort of. Except that most of us do not sow anything and yet reap plenty of rewards in the grocery store. So the metaphor starts to become shaky even before it acquires any symbolism. It becomes even less apt as it moves further from the farm. It is simply not true for metaphorical harvests of any kind. “As you sow, so shall you reap” is not a truth and never has been. Those who claim the greatest portion of the harvest often put no effort into creating it, whatever it is. This has always been true. We know this. Perhaps the adage could be stated “as you pay and/or coerce others to sow, so shall you reap their rewards”. But this rather lacks the mellifluous poesy — and any sense of fair play.
We know that there is an imbalance between sowing and harvesting. Yet, despite all evidence to the contrary, there remains this notion that those who possess a harvest have obtained it through their own efforts, doing work that is commensurate in value to the wealth. We believe fervently in karma. Analogous rewards will accrue to any act. If one has wealth and prestige, we assume that person earned his way into this position. At worst, we assume that some near ancestor merited this reward and then rightly passed it on to his offspring. The point is that we assume that this wealth was in some way allocated justly.
On the other hand, those who are under a dark star are assumed to have done something to deserve ill fortune. We say that he is reaping what he sowed. Even when we all know that he probably did no sowing deserving of this harvest. Ill fortune is the fate of many if not most of us — and none of us have sown that bitter harvest. None of us have ever done anything deserving of harsh treatment, neglect and hunger. Nothing we could do earns these things. Yet these things exist. And we assign the fault in the stars to those who are suffering.
I believe this is one of our language’s nastier facades. I also believe it is intentional. Those in power have manipulated our language to suit their needs for millennia. And they desperately need for those beneath them to believe that this hierarchical stacking is deserved. There are far more bodies at the base of the human heap than at the top. We outnumber those in power by many orders of magnitude. We could easily quash our sois disant “betters” if we rose up against them — and they know it. They have always known this. They have always feared our numbers. So they create fairy stories that justify the injustice of their position, hoping to gull us into acceptance. This idea of a just harvest is just one of many pernicious lies they tell us.
The truth is nobody earns a just reward. There is no karma. No natural order to the distribution of the harvest. Not even the skewed “balance” that awards some much more than others. This notion of just rewards, of wealth earned, of some being more deserving than others is entirely a fabrication. There are not people who deserve to have more than others. Neither is there any person who does not deserve to have her needs met. All her needs. A living person deserves to live. No person deserves more or less than that.
There really is no such thing as earning. We don’t merit that living because of what we sow, because of what we do. We don’t earn life. We merit life because we are alive. And this is true of all living beings. A tree does not earn the sugars it produces in photosynthesis. The tree makes these sugars as part of its living state. Similarly, the tree does not pay for the right to use carbon or water or soil nutrients — nor even the necessary help it receives from other living creatures in soil, water and air. The tree does not pay wages to fungus for the work the fungi do in transporting and transforming chemical compounds to the tree in a form the tree can use. Yes, there is exchange. The fungi get some sugars and some protection from the tree, but there is no accounting. There are no records kept to ensure that the exchange is commensurate, never mind that one side earns a profit, gains more than gives in the exchange. This exchange is the living process of trees and fungi. It is what they do to be trees and fungi. They do not earn it. They are it.
No more do we earn — or not, as in the case of most of us — the harvest. We do the work of sowing because that is what we do to be alive. There is no profit, no merit, no earning intrinsic to the work. The work we do is not worth some set compensation. The work we do contributes to our life and well-being, or it should in a just world. Just like trees work tirelessly to make sugar, so should we all work tirelessly — and willingly — to produce the harvest. No payment is worth being able to eat. No lack of work is worthy of hunger. Work is what we do to live, not to earn wages to pay for the privilege of living. We merit a life with our needs met. All of us are worthy of that. Just because we exist. Not because of what we sow.
The lie we are told is that work can be rewarded with anything other than living and having all the needs of living met. That some work earns much more access. Some work accrues a large harvest. And most work, especially the most difficult and tedious and dangerous work, earns no access at all to meeting needs. Most work merits no harvest. Most of us sow a great deal of productive, creative work and harvest very little of anything.
This lie is told so that we will do the work of others. We are become like trees who demand payment for sugars. No, we are like trees who set wages to the work that fungi do for them and withhold sugars and protection beyond those wages. And those wages are always set to a rate that allows the tree to buy all the services of the fungi, all the productive work of the fungi, and yet retain nearly all the sugars produced because of the work of fungi, because the fungi exist as fungi.
Wages are never set fairly because there is no fairness in paying others to do work. Work does not earn anything. Work is what is done to create living. We work to make our living, not to earn a living. There is no work that is worthy of living and there is no living that is devoid of work. In a just world you sow and you harvest because that is what humans do, what humans are. This is the work of humans, this is the life of humans. And being fully alive as a human is justice, no more, no less. Similarly, if you do not work to meet your own needs, you are not living. You are not human. But more importantly, if you do not work and pay others wages to do your work — wages that always allow you to retain more than you pay — you are taking life from them.
The true injustice in this idea that we are worth the harvest we possess is revealed in what we sow for others. We have sown a mess, a disaster for others to endure as they can. Or not. We have been doing work, not to live but to profit, and therefore shuffling the resources of the world around in a way that is completely unbalanced. This unbalance is toxic. Profit is toxic. Profit is piling up resources in ways that mean that many physical things go to waste — are not used as they should be used to support life — and a good deal more waste is produced as a byproduct of the work of production and shuffling.
In the present times, we foist this waste — and much of the work done to produce it and shuffle it about — on people who have no voice, no power to stop this deep injustice. We dump the work, the waste, the damage on the world and call it externality, as though there is any such thing in the closed system that is our planet. We sow weeds and poison — increasingly, this is actual not merely metaphorical — and expect that the world will deal with the resulting harvest. Those who sow harm will not reap harm. Those who sow no harm will be harmed.
And lest we think this is an accident, that nobody means for this toxic harvest to be dumped on those who did not create it, look at the accounting books. Exxon knows exactly how much mess it creates. It has assigned value to that mess. It has entered that value into its own balance sheet. And it has surgically depreciated that value. It will not pay more than a very small percentage of that that value now, and as time goes on it will pay nothing at all — regardless of the remaining mess. Exxon knows precisely what it sows and knows that this harvest, were it allowed to remain in the balance sheet, would be far greater than any productive gain. There would be no profit if Exxon cleaned up the messes it knows about. There would not even be a balanced budget. Exxon would owe the world far more than it could possibly earn if it were to acknowledge all the damage it has caused just by virtue of being Exxon and doing what Exxon does. So Exxon absolves itself of the responsibility to clean up its messes. Yet Exxon also knows that those messes will require cleaning and know how much that will cost in lives and livelihood. Exxon intentionally dumps this responsibility on other people, on other living organisms and systems, and — most egregiously — on the future.
Look at the harvest we are sowing for the future. Those who are children now, those who are unborn categorically do not merit this future. They have done nothing to deserve this harvest. We have done it. And we are not going to reap our just rewards. What justice is in this? Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will reap the harvest that we have left them. It is bitter. It will harm them, leave them hungry, wear them down, kill them. They have done nothing to deserve this fate. There is no karma in this. They are innocent. They have not sown what they shall surely reap, and no matter their efforts they will not produce a better harvest for themselves. Because of us. And our stupid ideas of just rewards.
This idea of sowing and reaping, of being deserving or not of the means to meet our needs, of assigning wage value to the productive work in the harvest, is the singularly most toxic idea humans have ever created. There is much finger pointing at where we went wrong as a species. Well, this is it. And the lies we tell — that we reap what we sow, that some of us deserve to pay others to sow, that some harvests are not harvested at all but left to those who can’t turn them away — are so deeply ingrained in our language and culture and ways that we view the world that we can’t point our fingers at them. We can’t see these lies. Nor do we look very hard to expose them.
Many of us — and particularly most of those with the power and voice to effect change — do not want this injustice to be set aright. Many of us do not want to harvest what we sow. We want to take the best portions of whatever harvest is produced in spite of our actions. We want to dump whatever mess is made on others. And yet we desperately want to be seen as deserving of this theft of livelihood. We want to feel worthy of what we take — or at least we cynically want others to feel that we are worthy of what we take. So we tell these lies. We assign right value to work, though with our left hand we also make sure that value is never equal to the harvest produced. We pay wages rather than doing the work of sowing. We create this fantasy of hierarchical merit rather than allowing all humans equal access to the harvest. We erect this facade of just rewards and tell ourselves that we have earned what portion of the harvest we have secured. We even try to convince ourselves that we have done the work of sowing.
As we sow, so shall we reap.
No. This is not so. And what we are sowing with these lies is disaster and death.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Teaser photo credit: Field of Lilies – Tiffany Studios, c. 1910 By Daderot. – I took this photo at the Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass, on the Navy Pier, Chicago, Illinois, USA. This artwork is now in the public domain because of its age. There were no prohibitions on photography at the gallery, and no assertions of copyright or any other form of restriction on reproduction., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1297504