Work that is meaningful
The month of October has been a real roller coaster ride. I just realized I have gone the whole month without an installment in this series. Between the campaign, the financial crisis, the stock market volatility, and a continuing stream of bad news from oil production and global warming, it has been distracting. This week alone I heard the word 'historic' used in at least five different contexts in the above topics. Everything happening now seems to be historic!
But before the month is up I want to get back to thinking about the future. This series of posts regarding the implications of what moving to what I call a sapient governance might be needs to continue as we think more about what needs to be done in the future. After all, it may be that that future gets here sooner than anticipated.
One of the implications that I have touched on lightly in prior postings is what kind of work we will be doing in the future. How will we value human labor and thought? How will people make a living and pay for the things they need but can't produce for themselves? Clearly an economy in which people trade goods and services for some kind of money will be needed. But how will people earn that money?
The real question boils down to what are the goods and services society will need in order to sustain both a reasonable living standard and an Ecos in balance? If you have followed my earlier writings about energy and its relationship to the economy, and about the definition of useful work, then you might anticipate where this is going.
Recall that I defined useful work as any activity that 1) increases the net quantity of energy (available to do useful work!); 2) increases the efficiency of any other work process such that there is a reduction of demand for energy, hence increasing the quantity of energy available; and 3) increases the true
Anything that doesn't fit into one of these three categories is suspect in terms of its usefulness to society. For example, building luxury yachts is probably not doing anyone any good, except the pride of the rich owner. Oh sure, the work provides jobs for a few people. They can then buy the goods they need and so on. But how does society or the Ecos gain from this?
Useful work, by my definition, is any work that is regenerative and enables the steady flow of energy through the social fabric. In the world I suspect we will soon be living in, any work that doesn't fit this criterion will be wasteful and entropic.
Let me distinguish between work and skills. The former refers to specific jobs; how you deploy your skills and knowledge. A person with a set of skills and knowledge can apply those to either entropic jobs (designing and building yachts) or to regenerative jobs (designing and building more efficient transportation systems).
Some of you may be quick to point out that I am making a value judgment about the 'goodness' of types of jobs. And you are absolutely right. But also note that it is a value based on a non-arbitrary requirement for life — namely the sustained flow of energy needed for a viable economy. Jobs that produce things that only allow the consumption of energy without producing energy are a drag on the sustainability of the economy as a whole. And this will be more evident (and painfully so) in a world with a fixed steady-state supply of renewable energy, such as a solar/geothermal/tidal based economy.
The current economic crisis, which I expect will worsen and, frankly, not ever get better judged by the criteria of business as usual (you know, the attitudes and actions that got us into this predicament in the first place), might better be viewed as an opportunity rather than a depression. I say this because many people are soon to face layoffs and loss of income under the standard system. Most of these people think of their skills as being strictly job related rather than transferable. This is an unfortunate attitude since most such skills are immanently transferable — but that is another story. Two sapient things need to happen (though, having concluded that we are not very sapient, they probably wont.) The first is that the governance body has to identify and breakdown all regenerative work, things like building a national electrified train system, building a smart grid, turning to organic permaculture, etc. They need to determine categories of work based on how our energy use and production will be improved. They then need to work with managers who are willing to shift their skills to managing these sorts of projects. This will, no doubt, require considerable training, especially on the goals of energy management. Then these non-capitalistic organizations can hire labor and with rational financing begin to regenerate those aspects of the infrastructure needed for a future society.
The second thing that needs to happen is that our education system has to make a tremendous shift to help educate everyone about the energy-based economy. Forget about training rocket scientists for a time. We will not be going anywhere off this planet anytime soon. We need just enough people, and the very brightest people who have an inherent interest in the subjects, to keep the sciences alive and operating. We are not going to make every student a scientist, nor should we. They do need the fundamentals of systems science, as I have argued. That provides them with a framework for thinking and solving problems. But they do not need to all be biologists or mathematicians. The education system has to turn its attention to reality and how to prepare people to meet it. Of course, as with governance, since I have already noted that our educators are no wiser than the population as a whole, this is very unlikely to happen either.
So what will happen? In all likelihood, our leaders in government and education (as well as everybody else) will simply continue to try and apply the old rules and stick to the desire to grow the economy. Companies will continue to seek profits, educators will continue to focus on getting people ready for jobs (regardless of the worth of those jobs), government will continue to fudge statistics so as to make everyone think everything is OK. But all hell will break loose anyway. And then we will be talking about salvage, not saving.
Meanwhile, consider your own trade. What do you do for a living? Does your work contribute more energy to the world? Does it help others save energy? Does it contribute to mental wellness so that others can do their jobs more productively? If your job basically simply provides luxuries or over-the-top entertainments, then you might want to consider how your skills and knowledge could do better. This is where we will all be in a few years. Most will be concerned with basic energy supply (food). Most will be just trying to eek out a living. But for those who recognize the fundamental value of energy flow, and have thought ahead how they can service that flow, they will probably do OK.