We had a big snowstorm here. Roads were closed. The University cancelled classes, and so on. I’m a reasonably fit, though reasonably miniature middle-aged guy. I was pretty tired and sore after a morning’s hard work shoveling heavy snow.
Of course, probably 500 million people around the world did more arduous labor this morning, took a short meal break, and then returned to finish their usual day’s work. Some were mining coal. Others harvested rice, maneuvered nursing home patients, or maybe carried heavy trash cans or pounded sheetrock down the block from my home. Hundreds of millions of people do hard physical work every day, for most of their lives.
Across the globe, providing the wealth, capital, and technology to relieve people of these daily burdens remains a central challenge. Here at home in an era of rising inequality, we’re challenged to provide the people who do this essential work with fair wages, health benefits, occupational safety, the opportunity to retire before one’s body gives out. If you read this blog, you’re more likely to earn your living in front of a computer screen than to do any of the jobs mentioned above. You’re probably spared the worst burdens that accompany hard physical work.
Seventy years ago, George Orwell wrote in The Road to Wigan Pier:
In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.
If you doubt what Orwell is saying, go outside in the cold. Do some hard physical work for two or three hours. Then see how you feel.