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Livelihood: a new and old idea

April 18, 2023

livelihood (n.)

1610s, alteration of livelode “means of keeping alive” (c. 1300), from Old English liflad “course of life,” from lif “life” (see life) + lad “way, course” (see load (n.)). Similar formation in Old High German libleita “provisions.” Spelling assimilated to words in -hood. Earlier livelihood was a different word, meaning “liveliness,” from lively. — from Etymonline – Online Etymology Dictionary

When I was about twelve years old my family moved from suburbia to a new life in the country. But my new life in the country wasn’t quite as strange to me as it would have been had my family not for many years kept an edible garden and backyard chickens in suburbia. We were not agrarian homesteaders in suburbia, exactly. But we grew some of our own food — fruit, vegetables and eggs.

I can’t remember there being any other neighbors, in any of my suburban neighborhoods, who kept chickens. Indeed, I cannot recall any neighbors who grew edible gardens at any meaningful scale. Maybe they had an apple tree in the yard, and that’s as far as it went. There was a running joke in my family which proposed that most of our neighbors believe eggs come from the grocery store. And they did, of course, but we had firsthand, direct experience of knowing where eggs really come from. And, yes, I do have childhood memories of milk being delivered to my front step in reusable glass bottles, just like it was done in Mayberry.

The edible suburban gardens were in the back yard. The front yard was entirely given over to a highly manicured lawn, some standardized suburban yard trees (without fruit) and purely ornamental shrubs chosen for minimal maintenance. The lawn, on the other hand, required intensive maintenance. It was meticulously contained within “bender board,” and the precise edge which segregated the lawn from the homogenous crushed “landscaping” stones (pinkish) was rigorously maintained using a wheeled rotary ‘edger,’ a relatively simple mechanical device which assured proper assimilation into the heavily manicured culture of suburbia. Our suburban lawnmower was the typical gasoline powered rotary mower that loudly belched the customary acrid Saturday morning fumes. So my childhood was punctuated by various ironies—none of which prevented me from being the first kid in my neighborhood to own blue denim overalls.

Only recently in life did it occur to me to wonder about chicken feed, which was purchased in fifty-pound sacks throughout my years of being a farmer of sorts. I wondered, during the uncertain early weeks of Covid, how I might grow my own chicken feed blend, and what it ought to be made from. It seemed to me that the economy was going to implode, then. And it did, partly. But not as badly as I had worried and hoped. Yes, both worried and hoped. My hope was that we’d turn to Permaculture Everywhere — in suburbia, in our towns and cities, in villages, everywhere. Everyone would grow much of their own food in the world I had feared and hoped for then. Food would largely relocalize.1 Eggs would come from chickens again, and every cool kid would sometimes wear overalls. Alas, the government ruined my fun by printing vast warehouses full of digital currency. The ugly problem of modernity continued … like an immortal tin can forever kicked down an endless peri-urban road. The Displaced would go on being displaced, same as it ever was.

Not everyone who is displaced knows they are displaced. In fact, most of the displaced are unaware of their displacement. Merriam-Webster defines ‘displace’ as “to remove from the usual or proper place.” The place we’ve been removed from is a place in which our means and mode of livelihood intimately connects us with the natural world. It is this disconnection which is our modern displacement. Industrial modernity is essentially a condition of displacement. A symptom of modernity is that the displaced tend to experience the vexatious symptoms of displacement without knowing the root cause of these symptoms.

Most of the eggs Americans eat come from faraway factory egg “farms”. These in no way resemble the popular image of the happy, friendly family farm. According to ChatGPT2,

“According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average size of a commercial egg-laying flock in the U.S. was estimated to be around 180,000 hens in 2019, with some farms having significantly larger flocks.”

I’ve never visited such a ‘farm’. Maybe sometimes they are enclosed in cages so tight a fit that the bird cannot turn around in her cage, as I have heard. Other times, perhaps, they are able to move around, uncaged, but without the slightest elbow room, so to speak.

It’s not just the typical American egg which is the product of displacement. When, just days ago, “officials” investigated a dairy farm in west Texas, following an explosion and fire, they discovered the charred corpses of 18,000 head of cattle. These cattle must have been confined in a pretty tight place. And so they, too, were displaced.

That confining animals in such vast numbers into such densely populated spaces is displacement is just one of my intertwined points here. That it is an inhumane treatment of animals is one of those points. But I would argue that our displacement of animals from their “proper place” results in our displacement of ourselves, as well. But it isn’t a point which begins and ends with farm animals. Almonds are grown in a similar way, as are corn and apples and strawberries. These tend to be grown in vast fields of monocrops, as they are called. Because they are grown in this monocropping fashion, they require vast amounts of herbicides, pesticides and artificial chemical fertilizer.

The grander point—and argument—I’d like to make is that industrial modernity not only displaced humans from their rightful and appropriate place as full, intimate partners in intimate relation to non-human animals and plants (and our food), but in doing so we lost a certain historical sense of the notion of livelihood, and this loss has been depriving us of the imaginative space in which we can properly respond to the polycrisis3.

“Livelode” is an obsolete word that was used in Middle English to refer to the means or way of supporting or maintaining one’s life. It is derived from the Old English word “liflad,” which was composed of “lif” meaning “life” and “lad” meaning “way” or “course.” “Liflad” was used to describe the manner in which one’s life was sustained, typically through employment or occupation. It can be understood as the resources, provisions, or livelihood that enable a person to survive and thrive.

The word “livelode” was used in a similar sense as the modern word “livelihood,” which refers to the means of supporting oneself, especially in terms of employment or occupation. Over time, the spelling of “livelihood” assimilated to the pattern of other words ending in “-hood,” which is why the modern spelling no longer reflects the earlier form “livelode.” However, the word “livelode” is no longer in use in contemporary English and has become obsolete. It serves as an interesting reminder of how language evolves and changes over time.

— ChatGPT4, responding to my inquiry about the historical and etymological roots of the notion (and word) which is “livelihood”.

Some more which could have been outright plagiarism fessed up as computer generated:

Human writer:

“Do we know anything about how ‘livelode’ transformed into ‘livelihood’?”

The transformation of “livelode” into “livelihood” can be understood as a process of linguistic evolution and language change that has occurred over the centuries. Changes in pronunciation, spelling, and usage are common in languages, including English, and can result in shifts in word forms and meanings.

In the case of “livelode,” it is likely that the alteration in spelling and pronunciation occurred gradually over time as English evolved from Middle English to Early Modern English and beyond. The Middle English word “livelode,” which was composed of “lif” (meaning “life”) and “lad” (meaning “way” or “course”), may have been subject to various phonetic and spelling changes as English speakers adapted the word to their evolving language.

One possible reason for the shift from “livelode” to “livelihood” is the process of assimilation, where the word “livelode” was influenced by other words ending in “-hood,” which was a common suffix used in Middle English to form nouns denoting a state or condition. Words like “childhood,” “manhood,” and “womanhood” were already in use during Middle English, and their influence may have led to the assimilation of “livelode” into “livelihood,” following the pattern of other “-hood” words.

Additionally, changes in pronunciation and speech patterns over time could have contributed to the transformation of “livelode” into “livelihood.” Sound changes and shifts in pronunciation can affect how words are spelled and pronounced, which in turn can influence the evolution of word forms.

It’s important to note that the specific details of how “livelode” transformed into “livelihood” may not be fully known, as language change often occurs gradually and organically over time. However, it is likely that a combination of factors, including assimilation to other word forms and changes in pronunciation and spelling, contributed to the evolution of “livelode” into “livelihood” as it is used in modern English today.

As an eco-cultural philosopher (and poet), I’m strongly inclined to believe modern humans have almost entirely lost the sense of the word which became our contemporary word, livelihood. Why? Because livelode was a living word in a time when what we call livelihood was utterly interwoven with soil, plants, animals — and one’s local, very Earthy place. One’s food was nearby. Very. And it wasn’t crammed together in the tens of thousands of a kind in a tightly bundled mass. Industrialism didn’t exist then, and neither did capitalism. If you ate chicken eggs then, odds are you knew the chickens that laid them, or at least the farmer with those chickens.

If I’ve learned one thing about poetry and philosophy recently, it’s that the words and concepts we use now live in another place (context) than the words of much earlier times. Individual words don’t exist independently, but are much like the fruiting bodies of mycelia, which we call mushrooms. Most of the life of a mushroom is under ground, hidden, entangled with soil and other organisms.

This is why modern “livelihood” means something different to us than what livelode once meant, or what livelihood meant in early 17th century England. You see, I think we moderns have a detached, displaced, disembodied, disenworlded notion of livelihood which is a conceptual and experiential outgrowth of displaced, hyper-industrial modernity. Modern economics mutated into an abstract version of an already largely abstracted set of theoretical constructs from its origins, resulting in the marooning of the embodied, earthy sense of Old English liflad. It began with the emergence of an invisible elsewhere, where the things we use daily (like food) became distant, invisible — elsewhere. The experiential and sensuous particularity of the life of liflad disappeared, robbing us of liflad. Eggs were—they became—from the grocery store. The gasoline in our cars was from a distant refinery. Maybe we’ve seen pictures of the refinery, but do we know its smell? Livelihood became literally displaced — removed from the places where we live, breathe and have our being. In this removal from our immediate experiential domain, we became uprooted, lost, ungrounded. Our liflad became an abstract idea, a notion, a picture — something perhaps you could smell if you happened to live at the Gulf of Mexico. Liflad is trucked in, flown in. It comes on container ships from China, on rails. You can learn about it on television, read about it in a book. It becomes numbers on a graph, some statistics in distant government buildings. Places disappeared, insofar as liflad goes. Every place is any place. No place is quite home.

Oikos is the ancient Greek word for “household,” and that world formed the root of the word economics.

economics (n.)

1580s, “art of managing a household,” perhaps from French économique (see economic); also see -ics. Meaning “science of wealth” is from 1792.

economy (n)

1530s, “household management,” from Latin oeconomia (source of French économie, Spanish economia, German Ökonomie, etc.), from Greek oikonomia “household management, thrift,” from oikonomos “manager, steward,” from oikos “house, abode, dwelling” (cognate with Latin vicus “district,” vicinus “near;” Old English wic “dwelling, village,” from PIE root *weik- (1) “clan”) + nomos “managing,” from nemein “manage” (from PIE root *nem- “assign, allot; take”).

The meaning “frugality, judicious use of resources” is from 1660s. The sense of “wealth and resources of a country” (short for political economy) is attested from 1650s, but even in the 1780s the American Founders in laying out the new republic generally used economy only as “frugality.” So also in that sense in the Federalist, except in one place where full political economy is used.

Oikos is also the root word from which ecology was derived.

ecology (n.)
Origin and meaning of ecology

1873, oecology, “branch of science dealing with the relationship of living things to their environments,” coined in German by German zoologist Ernst Haeckel as Ökologie, from Greek oikos “house, dwelling place, habitation” (from PIE root *weik- (1) “clan”) + -logia “study of” (see -logy). In use with reference to anti-pollution activities from 1960s.

* * * * *

Economic Modernity

“The master-offense of techno-industrial economies is the idea that we can arrange things so that they do not have to change, which is precisely the problem with our way of life, and which is why efficiency is the straightest path to hell.”— James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere

Economic modernity is a vast, worldwide machine-like megasystem which brings the far away to us while concealing itself from the immediate and the local. It brings us elsewhere (its energy, its materials, its ideas, its notions…) in such a way that it isn’t even necessary to notice. It can—and often does—go unnoticed. It’s largely invisible. It lacks palpable immediacy. It is far away, abstract. It isn’t right here in a concrete and particular way. It swallows the right here and renders it anywhere, everywhere, elsewhere. It’s distributed and elsewhere — and neither here nor there, because distributed into an inconceivable set of intertwined systems and parts. It is material, and yet it is abstract. Its “fruiting bodies” are Walmart, Amazon, The Pentagon, Washington D.C., Northrop Grumman, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase & Co. Its mycelial networks are everywhere and (thus) nowhere. It is a placeless void, an abstraction, a superorganism, a Megamachine, a hyperobject5. It is an absence. What it absences is place. And people. And it absences people of place, and ways of life rooted in place. Absenting is thus its verb. It makes absent. It conceals. It subsumes. It devours. It invisibilizes. It displaces.

It runs on fossil fuels. That is, 84% of the fuel it uses are fossil fuels. And those fuels are not going to run out. They’re going to become too energy expensive (and carbon expensive) to use. Soon. Very soon. Far too soon for us to be well-prepared for its near term inevitable ending. And that’s why we need to begin to have a serious conversation about livelihood, and how and why “the economy” is not going to provide us with a livelihood. Soon. And why we must prepare for the ending of our way of life by building a bridge to a future with a livelihood.

When economic modernism ends, modernity ends with it. And I won’t be missing it at all!

1My computer’s spell check system doesn’t recognize the word ‘relocalize’, which is just one of many ways I’m perpetually reminded to mind my own business and stay in my place.

2… which soon I’ll probably cease consulting, after having watched and listened to this presentation: The A.I. Dilemma – March 9, 2023 (

3I generally now use the term polycrisis to refer to the many mutually entangled ecological, economic, social and political crises of this crisis-riddled period in human history. So, for me, the climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, economic, social and political crises of this time are symptoms of … let’s just call it “modernity.” Whatever may follow the end (hospicing?) of modernity, it will not resemble the present at all. Modernity, as we have known it, is on its last gasping breaths.

4ChatGPT, at least the free online version I use, is not particularly reliable. And it’s a A.I. machine, which means it is almost certainly very dangerous to life. So it’s embarrassing to be suckered into yet again quoting this dastardly machine in the name of speed and efficiency.

5“In The Ecological Thought, Morton employed the term hyperobjects to describe objects that are so massively distributed in time and space as to transcend spatiotemporal specificity, such as global warming, styrofoam, and radioactive plutonium.” – from Timothy Morton – (hyperobjects) Wikipedia



Teaser photo credit: Backyard heritage chickens eating kitchen food scraps.. By Rbreidbrown – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

James R. Martin

I'm an eco-cultural philosopher -- which is a fancy way of saying I am obsessed with trying to understand our human relationship to ecosystems and the biosphere in relation to philosophy of culture.

Tags: building resilient societies, Economy, right livelihood