I have found that I have mixed feelings after the annual shearing. During the year any dagging (removing the soiled wool at the rear end) or crutching I do myself by hand, but for the annual shearing of the fleece I rely on a young lad on the next farm to do the work.
He has all the equipment; a shearing trailer (which acts as a holding pen while the work is going on), the electrical shears (which give a neat trim) and moccasins (so that he might hold the sheep with his feet without hurting them). But more importantly he has two other advantages. Firstly he has the strength and stamina; shearing is hard work, grappling 50kg of reluctant, wriggling ewe or ram and trying to operate heavy electric shears at the same time is a young man’s job. It is difficult for an old codger like me. Secondly, and most importantly, he has the skill. Knowing how to hold the animal, how to turn them as you shear, how to avoid cutting the animal and managing to take off an entire fleece intact is a hard earned skill. Watching someone who knows their craft is very impressive.
I usually like to use the least technology possible, to try and find the most natural way to do a task. However, there is no way to shear a sheep without tools and modern tools make this easier. Primarily they make it easier for the sheep. The procedure is painless but it alarming to the animal, it has no conception of what is happening and is afraid. There is no way to share, with them, the knowledge that they will feel better during the summer and be at less risk of fly-strike, lice, ticks and a variety of other plagues. It is always stressful and therefore anything that shortens the time it takes is good news. Hand shearing by an expert takes about 15 minutes, hand shearing by me takes about an hour, electrical shearing by our neighbour takes about 2 minutes. There is really little contest, electrical shearing wins hands down.
So why then do I have mixed feelings about it ? Well, this time it started when another neighbour, who was helping, recalled shearing when he was a boy. On the shearing days up to 20 men would sit in a line on benches at the edge of the field and shear the flocks by hand. During the season many hands were needed to do the work. Now one or two men, with good machinery, can do the same job with less effort and stress. It is the reason that agriculture, though it produces much more than it ever did, uses less labour. It is why there are few jobs in the countryside and why the population has shrunk. Though there are less jobs in farming this mechanisation has created its own jobs – there is now a need for factory workers to work the lathes and milling machines that make the equipment. There is less call for young men to learn how to shear in Wales but the demand for young men to work in factories, often abroad. With less people living and working in the countryside there is less call for shops, schools, churches, doctors and the like and this is why we see that now the majority of people live in urban areas.
This specialisation is at the core of capitalism and it is the great irony of the twentieth century that it has been capitalism, not socialism, which has pulled many people out of poverty. Through mechanisation and specialisation great increases in wealth have arisen. This increase is so great that, even when it is badly and unevenly distributed, the majority of us benefit. In the west, going back 100 years, no-one could have anticipated our current wealth. The idea of personal transport by automobile, central heating or air conditioning, personal computers and telephony would be unimaginable to people who thought that books and electric light to read them by were a luxury. So it seems I cavil , especially as I post this on the internet, when I cast doubt in these changes. However, I’d argue that not all of this progress has been without cost and, although agreeing that a market economy is the best way to ensure efficient production, I’d propose we have to be careful that we know where we’re heading as individuals and as a society.
It was often said that these mechanised and specialised changes would benefit us because they are “labour saving“. Each new gadget, from the washing machine to the smartphone, has promised to save us time and to leave us more leisure time for ourselves. This should lead to increased pleasure as we do things we enjoy rather than need to do. However, our pleasures are relative. Once we become accustomed to something it changes from a luxury to a necessity (People will not venture outside now without their phones). Thus the prior luxuries become part of our life and, if missing, a source of our unhappiness. There is no evidence that individually we are any one jot happier than people 100 or 200 years ago. The Victorian got just as much pleasure from his night at the music hall as we do from an evening at the 3D IMAX cinema. The Victorian felt as euphoric when his lover agreed to become his partner as we do now (Well possibly they had greater pleasures in this area as society was more restrictive on the whole).
Our luxuries don’t seem to bring us pleasure but perhaps they at least give us time. It would seem unfortunately this is not the case. As we have more, we need more and want more and thus we work more. In his book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari notes that the time we spend as a species working for others has always increased and certainly if one were to look over the last two generations this trend is evident. 50 years ago a skilled manual worker, working well, could expect to provide for his family to the standards of his day. Now both parents will have to work outside the house to provide for their family with all the consequent changes that we have seen in child rearing and family life.
It seems that once we have escaped scarcity, once the basics (hunger, thirst, safety, warmth, etc) are dealt with we do not know what is “enough“. We are good at acknowledging what is too little, we have built in warning systems in our biology when there is too little food, or water, or heat. However, we don’t seem to be able to determine what’s enough in term of what is “too much”. Consequently in our post-scarcity world, in the west, our major problems are those of excess – obesity or substance abuse as individual problems for example and global warning and the plastic pollution of our seas as global examples.
This is possibly the reason that all the major religions had as an important focus the advice to avoid excess. Gluttony, avarice, lust and covetousness are sins to be avoided and all the main religions advice that we should try and control our desires. Going back to the stoics, they advice that we should try to have and want less, to not be controlled by our desires. It is possibly a perfect storm in the developed world, that as the productive powers of capitalism reaches its zenith the advisory power of religion plumbs its nadir.
Thinking about the changes that have occurred in how we shear sheep has made me think that if we want to survive we need to change. As individuals we have to learn to rein in our desires which I think will require a rebalancing. We will need to rediscover localism so that our wants and needs play out on a smaller stage. We need to reduce the size of the states we live within so that they are no more than is necessary and allow individuals to create small communities on a more human scale. We have to learn when enough is enough and this going to be difficult. As individuals we are going to have to break out of the role of being primarily consumers and reclaim our private lives. This is no easy feat but as Tolstoy said “In order to land where you wish, you must direct your course much higher up.”