Leave It to Beavers: Animal Work in Austerity Environmentalism

In 2014, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States released a nature documentary entitled Leave It to Beavers. The film offers an environmental history of the animal in North America. It tells of the beaver’s demise as a consequence of the fur trade, before celebrating its return and resurgence within national parks and other marginal areas.

The film first mobilizes the figure of the beaver as a monogamous and hard-working animal. This imaginary was used to naturalize kinds of desirable work under settler colonialism (see Poliquin 2015): outdoor and physical for men; indoor and reproductive for women. The film then updates this allegory for an emerging model of environmentalism that values those nonhumans whose work can be made ready for market exchange. In so doing, the film articulates an emerging biopolitics of Anthropocene conservation in which only the nonhuman worker might be made to live.

We learn how “industrious” beavers are being “recruited” as “natural builders” for a range of restoration projects. With this language, the film articulates a growing movement within North American and European wildlife conservation that celebrates the beaver as an ecological engineer whose dams store and clean water, modulate channel flow to help prevent drought and flooding, create spaces for wildlife, and offer new economic opportunities for nature-based tourism (Campbell-Palmer et al. 2015).

PBS produced three educational posters for the film, which provide a compelling starting point for exploring the naturalization of work in contemporary environmentalism. In these posters, beavers are valued as workers during a period of public-sector austerity. “Leaving it to beavers” helps defray the costs of having conservation work done by people. Beavers can perform the kinds of labor-intensive, traditional or naturalistic land management that public authorities have supported in recent years. These include paying people to coppice trees, plant vegetation, or remove drainage to slow the flow of rivers. As people are laid off, beavers are presented as model (voluntarist and unpaid) workers for a form of austerity conservation that is based on working with the grain of nature.

With the shift that the film chronicles from the beaver as manual laborer to the beaver as ecological engineer, we see the animal retooled for work in the knowledge economy of postindustrial America. As with Heather Paxson’s hard-working postpastoral microbes, beavers are naturalized as workers for new forms of green capitalism. What the posters make clear is the valorization of the beaver as a flexible specialist: an idealized post-Fordist working subject. Leave It to Beavers tells us that the beaver is entrepreneurial, adaptive, and resilient. Beavers are able to start again when shocks happen. They move when food is short, taking their labor to places in need.

The flexible specialist beaver is still “employed” as a laborer, but he (as gendered in the film) is also an engineer, a scientist, and a nature warden. Beavers at work make visible a nonhuman division of labor. Beavers labor, they care, they design, and they also entertain humans. They enact at least two of the categories of nonhuman labor mapped by Maan Barua in his essay in this series. However flexible the beaver is, the services it delivers also rely on the work done by other nonhumans—from the provisioning of aspen or willow to the digestive labor of microbes and the affective labour of the fly-fished salmon or the photographed grizzly. Amid this workforce for austerity conservation, the beaver is presented as a keystone species: an organism with a disproportionate ability to shape its ecology. The beaver emerges as the archetype of effective pastoral management: a trustworthy handyman and middle manager.

Finally, beavers are not reintroduced to live in full control of their means of production. Nor do they enjoy an emancipated relationship with their work. Instead, their rights to the benefits of their work remains conditional on their economic performance. For example, the areas where land managers want beavers to work are not always the areas where beavers want to be. To prevent flooding, beavers need to be introduced into the headwaters of a river catchment. But beavers tend to prefer the floodplain where water levels are stable, the living is easy, and they do not need to build dams. Beavers may thus need to be fenced into labor camps of a sort.

When they range more freely on the floodplain, beavers cause problems when their landscaping impinges on the integrity of private property or public infrastructure. In Bavaria, where people and reintroduced beavers have coexisted for some fifty years in modern urban and agricultural landscapes, troublesome beavers are trapped and relocated or else killed. Beavers may be fenced out of some areas. Technologies have been developed to deceive beavers into building dams where humans want them, or to mask the artificial lowering of water levels (Campbell-Palmer et al. 2015).

Inline_fence_and_pipe_after_ireland_rd_2004
Photo by Michael Callahan, licensed under CC BY-SA.

Might we read these developments as early efforts toward the domestication of beavers? Here, beavers would follow in the long line of animals that survived by virtue of their ability to work well within the human domus. Valued beavers—like cattle, horses, or dogs—will be those that are subservient, sedentary, reproductive and resilient. Beavers may well flourish in an Anthropocene whose biopolitics is configured by the value of work done by nonhumans. But there are many nonhumans who cannot, or will not, work, and the contemporary is no place to be unemployed. Even in the wild imaginaries of environmentalism, there is a growing sense that there are only some types of nature that green capitalism can see.

References

Campbell-Palmer, Róisín, Derek Gow, Robert Needham, Simon Jones, and Frank Rosell. 2015. The Eurasian Beaver. Exeter, UK: Pelagic Publishing.

Poliquin, Rachel. 2015. Beaver. London: Reaktion.