This chapter brings together some of the key themes outlined earlier in this book (especially critical realism, the powers of nature, the division of labour and the subordination of lay and tacit knowledges) around some more substantive concerns. It gives special attention to the role of industrial work in the conversion of nature’s powers. Clearly an emphasis on industrial production is not the only way in which societies convert nature into the things they want. We will later come to other forms of production such as those conducted in the informal economy. But this kind of labour process is certainly one of the most important ways of understanding how the powers of nature are used. It provides us with a core understanding of how human beings, through their own activities, regulate and control the properties of nature towards their own ends.
The productive basis of human beings is the basis of their society and history, and it seems peculiar that so little environmental analysis has started at this most fundamental of levels. Yet, considering that such a perspective exposes many of the ways in which contemporary society is organised, it is perhaps not so surprising after all. This chapter will therefore pursue the theme of labouring on nature. It will take two sometimes linked topical areas as casestudies: the new reproductive technologies and genetic engineering. It will conclude by investigating some common themes. These are the relations between lay knowledge and the division of labour and whether or not these new technologies should be seen as emancipatory.
All forms of work are necessarily work on nature. Individuals not only work on nature to create the things they need but they have ideas about what nature is, about their impacts on nature and what their society is trying to achieve by manipulating it to their ends. Often these ideas are a combination of’official science’ on the one hand and of local, lay and tacit knowledges on the other. For most people in modern society the relation between their work and nature is