Getting Back To Work
These are times of crisis; that much is quite universally understood. It is much less clear, however, what sort of crisis this is.
Sure, there is a lack of jobs, and people suffer from this lack of employment opportunities – to the point where any and all environmental concerns are once again being presented as the luxury hobby and oppressive tool of coercion through which liberals and greens (always a power-hungry bunch, apparently) prevent *you* from the standard of living you are entitled to, if not from feeding your family.
There was an attempt at changing this story through the suggestion that lots of green jobs await, and support for those could kickstart the economy, raise employment, as well as change energy production towards alternatives and modernize infrastructure. It looks not to have come too far.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”
Thomas A. Edison
Meanwhile, though, the true nature of the crisis may be rather different, and the tension between work and environment may exist to some point, but its obviousness hides a deep overlap – and much of this overlap connects the reality for much of the world and most of human history with the most forward-thinking, seemingly radical, ideas of today. Think creative self-employment, entrepreneurial/start-up life… ways of making a living and living better, not “making a killing” and increasingly destroying our chances for better.
The New (?) Normal
While people are waiting for things to “get back to normal,” it’s not just a post-peak oil or similarly challenged/challenging future that looks like it will be very different, “the new normal” is here already.
Even before “the crisis,” it was difficult to stay in, let alone join, the middle class if you were in a “developed” country. In newly industrializing countries, it was much easier – and still hard enough.
Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun. But technology evolves, increasing the limits of the possible; however, social complexity also increases, and with it the problems of resolving social tension. Great engineering solutions are all very well…; but a society that builds splendid aqueducts and sewers, and then leaves its less fortunate citizens to a diet of bread and circuses, is a society doomed to eventual bloody destruction.
Peter Hall, Cities in Civilization
Economic (i.e., GDP) growth mainly meant a rise in corporate profits, but much less so in employment numbers, let alone in wages. Yet, even in the middle of crisis, and even looking at the average lifestyles in barely industrialized countries, more of the Earth’s ecological capacities are needed than can be maintained – sustainably used – over a longer period of time. The way we are doing things, we are in ecological overshoot.
And what do heads of corporations and heads of states want to talk about? Nothing but growth. Even if it means that you and I don’t make enough for a living, but are supposed to go into debt to afford the latest electronic gadgets, ever-bigger houses, and junk food to keep alive enough to consume more, the promise is that it will keep “the economy” healthy, and that this, in turn, will keep us in bread and games.
It doesn’t, and it can’t work like that.
It is all a dream palace, made up of the clouds of burning fossil fuels and petrochemicals that made possible the Industrial Revolution, and built on hopes of “making it,” even while it concentrates power and wealth, suffocating all our chances.
Real Work Creation
Then again, there are chances. They just don’t come from playing the tiring old game, but by digging even deeper. After all, there are no jobs on a dead planet, but there is the work of life, with all its meaning and purpose, as part of a flourishing planet.
Demands of labor, to quite some extent, brought concessions from factory owners; with and without these better conditions, industrialization has been continuing apace because it brought economies of scale, higher profits, and, also, higher standards of living. It has also been rather easier to earn more, and from ostensibly less back-breaking, sweat-on-your-brow work, in industrial(ized) processes.
We are still seeing the industrial mindset at work, however, from factory farms to the replacement of human labor with machines and computer systems, even in the provision of services, even while it is ever more clear that the profit gained by doing so, the economic growth it enables, is hardly even economic.
It brings money to a few, but imposes costs on everyone: unemployment, wages below the existential minimum, pollution, resource overconsumption, debt and obesity, concentrations of power and control, and the ever deeper entrenchment of systems structured in ways that are highly efficient in squeezing out the last bit of financial profit from the destruction they wreak – and at the same time, highly fickle and fragile.
We can build better.
Smaller, human-scale, predominantly local and/or niche businesses can return to being the predominant economic occupations.
After all, people do and will always need food, clothes, fun, learning – and it is only with the industrialization of everything down to our mindsets and societies that this has been disappearing in favor of the big box stores. Simply take away the cheap fuel to transport everything everywhere at low cost per unit, and globalization proves a rather literal pipe dream; add in the growing disruption in agriculture, and food produced far away is not competitive with that produced locally because it simply doesn’t go around to all.
You don’t even have to look far back to see such local ecosystems of jobs and occupations.
Immigrants to New York raised geese in tenement basements and produced other foods to supply their communities according to their tastes, peddled their wares from pushcarts, established front room eateries – or worked on the docks and in the shirtwaist factories – hardly a hundred years back. (The book 97 Orchard provides fascinating insights on that.)
Of course, there would have been tailors and shoemakers and repair stores of all kinds, as well. You needed a wardrobe or a desk, you found yourself a carpenter who could make that at a price you could afford – and when you could afford it, it was probably made well, to last, and to suit the customers’ tastes. Yes, things were not cheap, it was not so easily possible to live with an effusion of stuff – but in the process, it was also more possible to have ideas and rise above humble origins, and it was normal to live within means (much more so in terms of personal finances, and quite a bit more so in terms of ecological connections).
This is not a naïve call for a return to a past that is typically half-imaginary anyways, and that forgets about the squalor that also existed. It is, however, a call and challenge to not forget about the squalor and misery that exists today. (Reading “Stealth of Nations” is highly recommended for insight into the ways that the modern economy “in the shadows” still works a lot like it has in the times of the above-mentioned immigrants.)
Most people don’t hold “regular’ jobs even today, they hustle. The future for all of us looks like the career is dead, the future is low-wage temp work.
So, this is a call and a challenge to get to work creating better. Better economies, and the better ways of (making a) living that they arise from.
“The economy,” they say, may be hurt by the millennial generation giving up on buying cars and houses (or come back to growth stronger than ever) – but actually, what is called “the economy” there is not real.
The real economy arises from the economic activities of people, the buying and selling – and the producing! – that people do. It is not producing ever more junk and then coaxing and coercing people into purchasing and consuming (or just storing) ever more of that supply, it is seeing needs and meeting them. Or at least, it was, should be, and ultimately has to be.
The “stupid economy” still survives and dominates, churning out ever more stuff and crying for support when it doesn’t all get sold as well as expected. Way too much of its senseless stuff still gets sold, simply because “it’s cheap!” is still a rallying cry for all too many.
Increasingly, though, we can see signs of the return to sanity, and the progress towards better:
Agriculture, as is widely recognized, has been moving (back) into the urban areas; interest in farm living – modern homesteading – has been on the rise … and this is not the peasantry of old, nor the “modern” industrial production of so-called food.
Rather, often and at its best, it is a “crafty,” agro-ecological, permaculture-oriented way of (making a) living by producing real food. As such, it is good both for personal independence and a local supply of fresh and good produce, as well as for the production of goods with local and distinct character. It helps health and it provides pleasures, it grows food, it sells, and it can be supportive of the wildlife and ecological functioning of cultural landscapes, as well as contribute to the greening and (thus) livability and viability of cities.
Craft production of goods, albeit rather focused on ‘luxury’ adornments rather than necessities, has also been making something of a comeback, and also in novel ways. While crafted, newly bespoke products do not yet have the local support they need (still being drowned out by the flood of the cheap and – thanks to externalities – supposedly “cheaply” produced stuff), they have found their marketplaces online and their customers in the cybertribes that arose on the web. As well-made things to cherish, to have for a long time and get repaired when necessary – itself, a great field for work opportunities and a more sensible society -, they ultimately come cheaper, but provide many more benefits over their lifetime, rather than only an initial low price.
Naturally, there are challenges – but whether new local economies will become necessary with “peak everything” and/or disruptions caused by climate change or some-such problems, or whether we have to re-build better, or want to build better, escaping from having no other chance than finding a 9-to-5 job and more likely not even finding a job like that paying a living wage, it will be necessary and good to learn to provide for ourselves and our communities again, to create work and shape life paths ourselves, to support communities and contribute to culture. It is not easy, but it is worth it and contributes to happiness, in the skills it allows us to develop and deepen, in the social ties it builds, in the chances and self-determination it opens… in living and doing the work of life.