The Future of Work for Most of Us is Survival Work

In our memories of recent jolts to daily life, the 9/11 attacks, the 2008 financial meltdown, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people across 14 countries, the destruction of life and property by hurricane Katrina along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, and many others, stand out.  COVID19 stands out differently.  All the others were massive jolts to particular people in particular places.  COVID19 is one of a growing wave of destructive events that will sweep over large parts of the world’s population, and sometimes everyone.  We are in the early stages of a massive wave of destructive events that will in one to two generations alter the entirety of our modern way of life.

We are used to thinking in terms of us and them, us and the weather, us and the oceans, us and other living things, yet our lives are connected to everything, literally everything, that makes up this globalized and overworked planet. Perhaps waves of extreme climate events, pandemics, and species die-offs are not the only waves of devastating events that climate change is visiting upon all living things on this planet. Perhaps even the seemingly solid earth itself is not untouchable by climate change.

A British scientist argues that global warming could lead to a future of more intense volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. And while some dismiss his views as preposterous, he points to a body of recent research that shows a troubling link between climate change and the Earth’s most destructive geological events.

The most solid evidence for climatic influence on geology comes from the end of the last ice age, around 12,000 years ago, says McGuire, who is a volcanologist and professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London. Analysis of volcanic deposits, published in the past decade by several authors, has found that this period of rapid climate change, when ice sheets retreated from much of the planet, coincided with a sudden outburst of geological activity. The incidence of volcanic eruptions in Iceland increased around 50-fold for about 1,500 years, before settling back to previous levels.

Fred Pearce, Could a Changing Climate Set Off Volcanoes and Quakes? Yale Environment 360, May 7, 2012.

The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria are another stark indicator of the future of work in 21st century.  News reports say more than 45 countries have offered to help Turkey and Syria with rescue efforts, thousands of rescue workers are on the scene, more than 21,000 have been killed and tens of thousands are homeless.  The number of people who are now unavailable to do the usual work of everyday life is small for a planetary human population of 8 billion people, but they have to be added to all the other workers being shifted out of lines of work that contribute to expanding affluence and the growth of a global middle class.  More and more workers are being drawn away to do the work of preventing, preparing for, and recovering from wars, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, mass shootings, and other disasters.

This shift is cutting deeply into the flows of human, animal, and machine energy that are available for all the things we want.  Climate change and the impacts of a too large and still growing human population on the earth’s many ecosystems and even its geology are forging a world of work that is not the work we really want to be doing.  No end to this ongoing shift in the tasks of work is in sight.