How Getting Rid of ‘Shit Jobs’ and the Metric of Productivity Can Combat Climate Crisis
By Simon Mair
Climate action is often about sacrifice: eat less meat, don't fly and buy less stuff. These things are essential. But climate action can also be about gain. Many causes of climate change make our lives worse. So transforming our societies to stop climate change offers us the chance to make our lives better.
Take work, for example. Work can be "shit" or it can be good. Sociologists and psychologists have developed various frameworks to explain what makes a job good or bad. And we've identified a few common factors. A good job is socially useful, it provides material security, it is varied and creative, and it offers us a degree of autonomy. A shit job does nothing for society, fails to help us meet our material needs, is repetitive and offers little autonomy.
The characteristics of shit jobs often come from chasing productivity growth. Productivity is a term economists use, which refers to the amount of output you get from a set of inputs. Usually the output is measured in terms of money. Your boss cares how much profit they make from your work. The government cares how much money you generate for "the economy." Productivity growth is the process of squeezing the inputs to get more outputs. Squeezing you to get more profit for the same salary.
An Age-Old Problem
Since Adam Smith in the 18th century, economists have known that productivity growth is improved by making jobs more specialized. This might make us more productive, but it often also makes work shit. Specialization means spending as much time as possible doing the same thing in the same way. Specialization is death to autonomy and creativity.
Specialization is also death to social purpose and leads to alienation from our work – something Karl Marx warned of in his critique of capitalism. Most of us are now so specialized that we don't get to see the end product of our work. We probably don't even know how the thing we make or service we provide ends up being used.
In the modern economy, the production of even the simplest product has many steps, spread across many countries. Production of a t-shirt involves growing, cutting, dyeing and sewing cotton. But it also involves the production of fertilizer to grow the cotton, the mining of metals to build machinery to process the cotton, the extraction of oil to power the ships that transport the cotton around the world, and many more such steps. The whole system is unfathomably complex. So your work could be socially useful, but how on Earth would you know if you don't see the end product?
So why chase productivity? One reason is money. Productivity growth measures monetary value. This means that making money is the priority.
Productivity growth keeps us chasing the production of stuff we don't need. Profit goes up when more stuff is sold. As William Morris, the famous designer and activist, put it, profits are maintained by the production of a "mountain of rubbish … things which everybody knows are of no use."
Chasing productivity growth sends us down the alley of working to produce the things people can be convinced to buy, rather than the things we actually need. Why do you think we have a teaching crisis, and a care crisis, but not a marketing crisis, or a plastic flower crisis?
An Endless Treadmill
What's more we're caught in what the ecological economists Tim Jackson and Peter Victor call a "productivity trap." If the economy becomes more productive, that means fewer people are needed to produce the same amount of stuff. Which is great, unless you're one of the people who's no longer needed.
For most people, as long as productivity growth happens, the only way they keep their jobs is if more stuff is produced. This is another way productivity growth creates a treadmill of production and consumption: keep buying the stuff you don't need otherwise you'll lose your job.
The endless treadmill of production and consumption is how the pursuit of productivity growth drives climate change. Chasing productivity growth means chasing continual expansion of production. All production requires energy. So chasing endless productivity growth means endless energy use. This makes it very hard to decarbonise the economy.
Fossil fuels are very high quality sources of energy. There is reason to believe that it will be impossible to produce the amount of stuff we have right now, using only renewable energy. Even if it is possible, if we keep chasing productivity growth producing what we produce today won't be enough. In the productivity trap, we don't just need to produce the same, we have to produce more.
But suppose we stopped chasing productivity growth. What might happen? It would make it easier to decarbonize. We'd no longer be stuck on the production-consumption treadmill. It would mean less stuff too. But do we need all the crap we have?
And although less productivity might mean less stuff overall, it could mean more of the really useful stuff. More nurses, more teachers, more care workers. If we stop chasing productivity, we're freed up to chase the things that really matter, rather than the things that make money.
This would be the first step in moving from shit jobs to goods jobs. Roll back specialization. Free us to be creative and autonomous at work. Let's work on problems we think are important, that contribute to our communities rather than generating sales. Let's work in different areas doing different things.
Yes, we'll be less efficient. But we'll be happier, more useful and better able to tackle climate change.
This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
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The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
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