Making a Living
Perhaps one of the hardest conceptual hurdles to get over in thinking about and implementing a sapient governance system will be how individuals will make a living. Recall that one of the aspects of a sapient governance system is that the economy will be in a steady-state condition with respect to energy flow. There will be no overall material growth when the human system is in balance with the Ecos. A no-growth economy need not mean that human development ceases as well. Rather, I've pointed out that the quality of life for individuals living in a reasonably sized population can be quite high and would emphasize mental and spiritual growth over technological growth.
This would not mean that work would not be done. We wouldn't all sit around reading and contemplating our navels all day long. There is entropy to be fought on an on-going basis. Things would need to be built to replace things that are no longer serviceable, repairs to infrastructure and private capital would need to be made, and social services, like fire fighters, healthcare, and communications would need to be maintained. So there would still be plenty of work to be done. There would need to be art to produce, dances to be danced, stories to be told, and music to be made. There would also be science and invention as now, perhaps even more so. There would be plenty to do. Food must be grown, harvested, and distributed (although I suspect far more would be grown on personal property).
Making a living means doing work for which one is rewarded with compensation to buy the necessities and pleasures of life. In the world of money = energy and steady-state economics that means one receives energy credit for producing energy available to do useful work. In my March 25 blog, "What is money, really?", I outlined the nature of money as a token conveying information about the amount of energy that is available to do useful work. In that blog I also mentioned that work which increased net available energy was the basis of real wealth. A little later in this posting I will expand this idea and provide some details of what it means in practice.
For the moment I want to review some basics about the nature of working for a living. How did our modern version of working for a living derive from our basic animal need to find food, shelter, and mates? It all started when we started relying on external sources of energy. That is energy flow that was not directly obtained from food.
Somewhere between 400,000 and 150,000 years ago Homo sapiens discovered how to control fire and it has been work, work, work ever since!
The most likely sequence of events goes like this. First man discovered fuels that supported small fires. S/He probably noticed brush and wood burning in a forest fire and simply carried some burning material off to a secluded location to have a contained fire. It was probably some time later that some bright bulb discovered that rubbing two sticks together generated enough heat from friction that a tiny ember could be created and puffed into a fire in some kindling. Prior to that event, however, it was likely necessary to keep the home hearth burning by continually stocking fire wood. That meant trips to the forest for more supplies.
Humans were always omnivores and probably discovered the benefits of eating cooked foods they scrounged from forest or grass fires. So they were motivated to tame fire for heating as well as culinary delight (actually this means deriving more calories from each unit of cooked food). Prior to that discovery their 'work' consisted of hunting, fishing, digging roots, foraging for fruits and nuts, making temporary shelters, and basically keeping tabs on each other. That was making a living.
After taming fire things started to change. As mentioned there was the necessity of keeping fire wood handy. That required additional scrounging but there was a net gain in energy (additional energy available for heat and release of calories in foods minus additional energy needed to scavenge wood) that made it worthwhile. In the early days another problem arose as a result of keeping a hearth going. It was necessary to stay in one place to keep the fire burning as one could never quite be sure where the next natural fire would occur. This problem may have been the introduction of humans to staying in one place for longer stretches but that need was lessened once humans learned how to start fires themselves.
However it played out, humans became dependent on an external source of energy to subsidize their living standards very early on. And we've been slaves to this need ever since. The agricultural revolution simply deepened this need considerably.
From that time on, humans have had to work at chores beyond mere biological necessity of food and warmth (shelter). They might have had to expend less energy to get and digest food, but they had to expend extra time doing support work to gain that advantage. Judging by the lifestyles of modern day hunter-gatherers it appears that humans basically made a trade off of time for energy.
The average human male burns something like 2000 Calories a day (actually kilocalories in energy metrics) to do the basic work of living. This includes basal metabolism (just breathing) and elevated metabolic rates to maintain body temperature as well as finding and digesting food, maintaining a shelter, interacting with others, supervising offspring, and doing the chores the mate requires. From that caloric burn comes arrow heads, patching holes in the shelter, gathering wood, etc. Putting effort into energy subsidization schemes such as fire and agriculture, clothing production, and any other technology that provides mechanical advantage has a great payoff. You put time into those chores, yes, but you also start to accumulate 'capital'. You also have more resources for producing families. All-in-all, work directed at improving your external sources of energy flow (beyond the food you eat) has a great payoff.
Somewhere along the line human industry started to produce excess capital. More grain in the granary. More bread than could be eaten, and so on. Excess capital meant spare time for leisure and play. It also meant some few individuals could live off the excesses of the labor of others. But that was OK because that was about the time that the total work effort needed some kind of coordination. Enter the hierarchical control system — bosses were born.
Specialization set in and individuals became locked into doing a specific kind of work that contributed to the whole social effort. The chores became the jobs. And the regimentation of work created a workplace and a work ethic. If you wanted to eat and feed your family, you did your job.
Today you get an education, learn a skill or two, and get a job. You get paid in cash for the work that you do, and a labor market sort of sets the price you can charge for your efforts. In this age of globalization that hasn't quite worked out for some folk. When jobs can go chasing the cheapest labor the buyers of labor seem to have the upper hand. But the rules are pretty simple. You work for a living.
There are a few main questions that have to be addressed in thinking about working in a steady-state economy. First the kind of work that needs to be done must be understood in terms of how it contributes to one of a few necessary functions. If a job is involved in creating new available energy, say an assembly line worker at a solar photovoltaic panel manufacturing company, then it should be valued. Second, work that ends up saving energy, like a home retrofitter for insulation, should be highly favored. Third, anyone developing tools that save energy or make additional energy available should take top billing. Jobs that repair infrastructure or educate (and I mean real education!) children and adults are contributing indirectly to the sustaining of our social matrix. Healthcare, and communications workers should be highly prized.
Designing bigger SUVs is probably not going to be highly thought of in such an economy. Any work that dissipates energy without contributing to the gaining of new energy or conserving energy is a loser. I suspect some entertainment jobs are going to be needed simply to provide diversions at a reasonable level. Mass entertainment strikes me as having some similarities to infrastructure — it's there for all of us. So it should probably be paid for in a manner similar to infrastructure construction and renewal. But that is a minor detail.
There are a huge number of jobs in today's bustling world that appear to serve little purpose than to help us all consume more. Advertising comes to mind. I suspect a huge part of the so-called service industry fits into this category. In a sapient governance approach it would behoove society to find ways to channel people into productive (i.e. energy sustaining) jobs and away from energy dissipating ones.
But this is why I say this is a big hurdle. People pursue careers today with no thought as to how it contributes to the sustaining of activity. In a world in which the flow of energy will be declining, there will be a much greater emphasis on jobs that contribute to energy flow and people who have pursued energy dissipating careers will find themselves increasingly on the fringes. Everyone would do well to consider how what they do for a living contributes to energy flow in some way. If you can't see the relationship, it might be a good time to start thinking about another career.
Some excellent reading resources:
Crosby, Alfred W., (2006). Children of the Sun: A History of Humanity's Uappeasable Appetite for Energy, W.W. Norton & Company, New York.
Smil, Vaclav (2008). Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems, The MIT Press, Cambridge MA.