Degrowth and Archaeology

This week has been hectic, but I managed to find some time the read James Flexner’s recent article in Archaeological Dialogues 27 (2020) titled “Degrowth and a sustainable future for archaeology.” 

I have to admit when I first skimmed it, I was pretty skeptical that the degrowth movement had much to offer archaeology as a discipline. Degrowth, broadly speaking, calls for voluntary efforts to reduce productivity in an effort to produce a more humane and sustainable world. It sees capitalism’s constant need for growth as firing the ever increasing rise in consumerism which, in turn, demands more and more exploitative labor regimes and extractive practices, with their attendant damages, on a global scale. Flexner and others who champion degrowth advocate for practices that demonstrate that the situations brought about by capitalism are neither inevitable nor unavoidable. By emphasizing collective, convivial, and caring practices in the place of choices directed by capitalism and consumerism, the degrowth movement looks to model another kind of future. 

This is utopian, of course, but like most utopias, the ideas explored by advocates for degrowth are not entirely naive. In fact, Flexner’s piece is another in a recent surge of articles that critique (in their own ways) the character of labor practices both in academic and professional archaeology. Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed  Allison Mickel’s new book, Why Those Who Shovel are Silent: A History of Local Archaeological Knowledge and Labor (University Press of Colorado 2021) which considers the colonial aspects of archaeological labor.  Mary Leighton has written about “performative informality” in archaeology which highlights how  certain informal practices — drinking, sexual liaisons, banter and bullying — within contemporary academic archaeology serve a gatekeeping function that excludes a wide range of individuals from professional advancement. Just this week, Barbara Voss has published her two part study of “cultures of harassment in archaeology.” I’ve not read these yet, but they’re atop my pile. You can check them out here and here. As someone who has spent the better part of 25 years doing archaeological field work each summer, I have yet to find any aspect of the recent critiques of archaeological practices as inaccurate or inconsistent with my experiences (and in some cases my own behavior over the years). I’d like to think that my work on slow archaeology contributes to this conversation as well. 

Flexner’s call for degrowth looks to the fundamental problems associated with work, and archaeology in particular, within a capitalist system. He notes the oft-critiqued relationship between CRM and Heritage management and development which has increasingly pushed archaeology into a supporting role for those who seek to commodify the past or eradicate it in the name of progress and profits. Academic archaeology is no more pure as the publish or perish world of the ersatz meritocracy masks vast inequalities in opportunity and obscures exploitative labor practices driven by an often desperate need to collect more data, do more work, and make more knowledge in order to achieve or maintain precarious professional status. Anyone who has worked in the field has heard stories of academic projects that engage in dangerous practices, that push volunteer workers and staff beyond the level of exhaustion by maintaining crazy work hours and expectations, and that use the specter of professional critique as a prod to always do more often at the expense of quality, the physical well-being of archaeologists, and personal relationships. Of course, not all projects are like this, and all projects (I’d contend) have their moments when fatigue, stress, and passion for the work blur our judgement. 

That said, it is easy enough to recognize in academic field archaeology a kind of Wild West of academic labor (which I’m sure is also common in lab sciences and other fields). In these situations, the pursuit of professional riches (usually metaphorically) promotes the breakdown of the kind of conviviality and care that might mitigate not only the exploitative labor regimes present in so much archaeological work, but also (and frankly) the erosion of human decency which these regimes tend to promote. My work on slow archaeology, whatever its flaws (and they are many), has suggested that the emphasis on efficiency in archaeological practices has reinforced the tendency of the discipline to think about field work as a kind of industrial production or even as logistical challenge. In some of these situations, the tendency to dehumanize workers is not bug, but a feature. Since academic archaeology lacks (even the faulty and porous) fail-safes that have developed to protect workers in professional archaeological practice, industrial production, and other forms of skilled and semi-skilled labor (e.g. unions or even OSHA, even as  professional ethical guidelines exist, there are rarely mechanisms to enforce them), there are few ways for volunteers, students, and other workers on academic projects to seek protection. (As a relevant aside, the stories of excavators digging in flip-flops or photos of diggers standing beneath massive unsupported baulks make my blood run cold.) 

Flexner’s article reminded me that the problems within archaeology are related to the problems of capitalism particularly when it intersects with academic practices that which blend, on the one hand, pressures to achieve (often moving) professional and disciplinary benchmarks and, on the other hand, environments where traditional hierarchies, remote locations, limited funds, and seasonal schedules make the enforcement safeguards difficult.  

So while I remain skeptical of degrowth as a “solution” to archaeological problems (and to be clear, Flexner is not naive), I think Flexner’s effort to show that many of archaeology’s problems stem from its deep engagement with capitalistic expectations of productivity are commendable. More than that, an awareness of the link between capitalism and the wide range of problems surrounding academic labor might offer ways to reform the discipline that strike to the root of these problems rather than simply trying to paper over the worst offenses with calls for increased professionalism, oversight, policies, and management. It might sound simplistic or silly, but Flexner and other degrowth advocates interest in de-emphasizing the status of “the project” (with attendant professionally defined goals) and considering more fully how the discipline benefits the individual participants and broader social goals might offer a more productive, if challenging route to reform.   

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