Manual Skills

The Lean Economy will depend on manual skills; not only in the form of well-developed crafts such as building, gardening and cooking but, more fundamentally, as manual dexterity—being comfortable with, and attaching a high value to, the use of hands.

Manual dexterity itself is at present at risk. Recent studies have shown that it is common for children to arrive at school not knowing whether they are right or left-handed, having no familiarity with concepts such as weight, volume and measurement, and with attention deficit problems. Failures of development such as these are acknowledged to be to some degree indelible—as suggested, for instance, by the restaurateur who reports that she is unable to find British employees under 25 who have the dexterity to peel a potato.M1

The reasons are well-recognised, including the inactive lives of children due to screen-addiction, which is described by the psychologist Aric Sigman as “the greatest unacknowledged public health issue of our time”. Other reasons include the lack of outdoor play, and the health and safety advice that, to reduce the fear of cot death, parents should not let infants lie on their front (from which position they learn to crawl), with the result that they do not learn left-right coordination between their arms and legs.M2

In addition, there has been a devaluing of domestic manual skills such as cooking and sewing, which were removed from the educational curriculum in order to prevent gender stereotyping and to make more time available for learning competitive cutting-edge skills such as the design of takeaway pizza cartons. The possibility that cooking is also a commercial skill may have been overlooked, along with the possibility that households in which someone can cook are more likely to stay together, saving the expense of picking up the pieces when they don’t. At the same time, the cost of manual skills has risen, relative to that of other goods and services whose costs can be reduced by technical advance: the cost of (say) a dressmaker, a thatcher, or domestic service—measured against the standard basket of goods which is used as the guideline for incomes—has risen many times over in the last 100 years, so that these labour-intensive manual skills have been priced out of the market (for more on this, see Composition).M3

And attitudes have followed the money. As the agronomist and campaigner Vandana Shiva noted in a discussion of the need to increase the number of people working in food production:

We have to stop thinking of physical work as degrading.M4

In fact, the disdain for manual skills is one of the more regrettable properties of modern society, especially in the light of its constantly-protested concern for equality. Non-manual skills (only a minority of which can be described as thinking skills) are associated with success; manual skills are associated with failure—with being only a carpenter, like Jesus. In 1853, John Ruskin observed the early divisions which led on to this:

we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense.M5

Lean Logic commends the sense of touch, the direct hands-on experience of sharpness, roughness, coldness, the peculiar character of things, Die Tücke des Objekts. And events are catching up, for in the early years following the failure of the market economy, the skills shortage will be fierce. This capability-lite, out-of-touch civilisation will find itself without the services of energy and distant expertise. It will need, in its own local habitat, some hope of the beginnings of material competence. Mastery could come later.M6


Related entries:

Cheirarchy, Practice, Tactile Deprivation, Culture, Presence, Intentional Waste.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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