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How Nature Works

Rethinking Labor on a Troubled Planet

Edited by Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette

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. 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 sharply attuned to the irreversible effects of climate change, extinction, and deforestation. The authors of this 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.

2019. 272 pp., 6 x 9, 3 halftones

Editors: Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette

Contributors: Thomas G. Andrews, Naisargi N. Dave, María Elena García, John Hartigan, Kregg Hetherington, Eleana Kim, Jake Kosek, Alex Nading, Juno Salazar Parreñas, Shiho Satsuka

Awards: Society for the Anthropology of Work 2021 Book Prize

Read the volume editors’ series on The Naturalization of Work at Fieldsights.

Download an excerpt.

How Nature Works charts a new path by challenging a dominant idea in political economy—that work is a uniquely human endeavor. . . . This volume should be read as much for its insights into more than human labor as for its rich contextual history of the ecologies and sites of production of the global south. . . . How Nature Works constitutes a poignant defense of ethnography as a method to rethink labor politics at the end of (human) work. This volume describes work through experiences of everyday life, skillfully interweaving a tradition of labor analysis on the specificities of work with posthumanist critique. . . . Taken as a whole, How Nature Works combines political economy and ecological critique so as ‘to spark the imagination of other worlds and enable estrangement from existing ones’ (Weeks 2011:209). This volume embodies the shared political project at the heart of an expanded account of labor in both feminist and posthumanist thought: to trouble the distinction between work and life and to imagine how to mobilize new forms of collective agencies in these troubled times.”
—Amy Zhang, New York University, Current Anthropology, December 2020

“This edited volume, published in 2019 by SAR Press and the University of New Mexico Press as a product of the prestigious School for Advanced Research seminar series, is an impressive breakthrough in the anthropology of work. The chapters’ authors explore the boundaries between human and nonhuman labor across multiple sites and disciplines. This intellectually original volume outlines new ways of envisioning labor, those who perform it, and those upon whom it is performed. The authors offer persuasive and logical, yet compassionate renditions of the labor of human and not-human agents who feed humanity, culture microbial communities, and pollinate our fields. These authors paint vivid portraits of those who tend and resist efforts to make nature work.”
—Society for the Anthropology of Work 2021 Book Prize committee

Thomas G. Andrews


Introduction: The Fragility of Work
Sarah Besky and Alex Blanchette

Part One: The Ends of Work

Chapter One. Exhaustion and Endurance in Sick Landscapes: Cheap Tea and the Work of Monoculture in the Dooars, India
Sarah Besky

Chapter Two. The Concentration of Killing: Soy, Labor, and the Long Green Revolution
Kregg Hetherington

Chapter Three. Making Monotony: Bedsores and Other Signs of an Overworked Hog
Alex Blanchette

Part Two: Labor Struggles

Chapter Four. The Job of Finding Food Is a Joke: Orangutan Rehabilitation, Work, Subsistence, and Social Relations
Juno Salazar Parreñas

Chapter Five. The Heat of Work: Dissipation, Solidarity, and Kidney Disease in Nicaragua
Alex Nading

Chapter Six. Metabolic Relations: Korean Red Ginseng and the Ecologies of Modern Life
Eleana Kim

Chapter Seven. How Guinea Pigs Work: Figurations and Gastro-Politics in Peru
María Elena García

Chapter Eight. Industrial Materials: Labor, Landscapes, and the Industrial Honeybee
Jake Kosek

Part Three: Futures of Work

Chapter Nine. Cultural Analysis of Microbial Worlds
John Hartigan

Chapter Ten. Rhapsody in the Forest: Wild Mushrooms and the Multispecies Multitude
Shiho Satsuka

Chapter Eleven. Kamadhenu’s Last Stand: On Animal Refusal to Work
Naisargi N. Dave


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