Sustainability and the Inevitable Return of Physical Activity and Physical Exertion to Jobs in the Affluent Regions of the World


Professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service workers (except private household service workers) grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment between 1910 and 2000; laborers (except mine laborers), private household service workers, and farmers lost the most jobs over the period

Ian D. Wyatt and Daniel E. Hecker, Occupational changes during the 20th century, Monthly Labor Review, Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2006. Accessed October 17, 2015.


The amount of time that most of us spend sitting has increased substantially in recent decades, especially as computers and deskbound activities have come to dominate the workplace. According to one telling recent study, the average American sits for at least eight hours a day.

Gretchen Reynolds, The Marathon Runner as Couch Potato, New York Times, October 30, 2013. Accessed October 17, 2015.


One of the well known trends in the evolution of jobs in the affluent parts of the world during the last few centuries has been a decrease in physical activity and physical exertion. Sedentary office jobs abound and many jobs in industries traditionally associated with hard physical work are not physically demanding (e.g., ditches and trenches are no longer dug by sweating men with shovels and wheelbarrows but by men sitting on padded seats, and sometimes in air conditioned cabs, operating earth moving machines).

This trend has been powered by the massive and still growing use of fossil fuels and small amounts of nuclear fuels to augment and displace the use of human caloric energy in the production and distribution of goods and services. Sustainable growth optimists believe this trend is sustainable, even as fossil fuels are phased out of the world economy. They believe humans can continue to increase energy use to spread affluent lifestyles (and less physically demanding work) to more and more of the world’s people as long as we abandon fossil fuels. However, this sustainability logic is flawed.

Sustainability optimists get their optimism about holding onto the affluent lifestyle by continuing to divide the earth into the human world economy and the rest of nature, as economists have traditionally done. This keeps open the option of attributing the most threatening environmental problems to the types of energy we use, not to the massive amount of energy we use. This option disappears when we see the human world economy and the rest of the earth as a single Inclusive World Economy. Not only can the types of energy humans use endanger our wellbeing, the amounts of energy, regardless of type, can also endanger us.

The Inclusive World Economy concept counts all the material items on earth and the totality of energy flows from stored solar energy sources (fossil fuels), from geothermal sources, from nuclear sources, from gravitational sources (ocean tides) and from current solar energy flows (wind, photovoltaic, flowing water) as a single system that produces and distributes a vast array of goods and services we humans use and consume. This is a sum total of wealth, a wealth constant, if you will.[1]

Humans can neither add to nor subtract from this totality; we can only speed up or slow down the rate at which the materials of the earth are processed from one form into another form (e.g., clay into pottery). We can change the transformation rate by mobilizing and demobilizing flows of energy (e.g., by using more or less fossil and nuclear fuels) and by diverting existing energy flows from natural processes to faster or slower paced human controlled processes.

In this Inclusive World Economy view, humans cannot solve environmental degradation problems by only changing our energy sources. The use of each energy source has its own inevitable, unintended, and destructive consequences, but so too does the volume of energy being used by humans. The wealth constant in the Inclusive World Economy requires that increasing the use of solar energy to fuel the human world will divert equivalent amounts of solar energy away from natural material transformation processes.  This must have unintended consequences, some of which will be detrimental to humans and other species of life.

Inevitably, covering vast expanses of desert with solar panels, populating thousands of square miles of farm land with wind turbines, and dotting miles of coastal waters with massive machinery to harness tidal energy will have multiple unintended consequences, not just the intended consequence of powering the human world. Those unintended consequences will propagate throughout the entire Inclusive World Economy, just as the unintended consequences of burning fossil fuels at a rapid pace have. The existential threat from fossil fuels may go away, but another form of existential threat will emerge to take its place.

A solar future is necessary and inevitable, but the Inclusive World Economy view precludes a solar future in which the caloric energy of billions of humans is not a very large part of the total amount of energy derived from solar sources to power the human world. Continuing to create jobs in which human energy plays less and less of a role in processes that transform materials from form to form will only continue to move us further into a world of existential threat and catastrophes. If we don’t stop ourselves, the rules of the universe that control the Inclusive World Economy will.

Some of the broader implications of this conclusion for the future of work are clear. Rebuilding the role of human energy in the production of goods and services will entail refitting our many workplaces with machines that are manually powered. For example, we will almost certainly decide to replace electric pencil sharpeners and staplers with manual types and stop using “always on” electrical equipment. But, such small changes will not go far enough.

To increase the share of human energy in the total energy flow into human purposes enough to sustain the viability of the planet for human habitation, we will have to invent new ways for human energy to power the human world. In the past we have put small generators on bicycles to convert human energy into electricity to power the lights on the bicycle. To create the human energy centered workplace of the future, thousands of innovations and thousands of changes in human work activity will be required.

Restoring the role of human energy in the human world economy will also require a slowdown in the overall rate of material transformations involved in the production of goods and services for human use and consumption. To accomplish this, quantity of output will have to give way to quality of output so product life cycles become much longer. Again, accomplishing this will entail vast changes in workplace environments and workplace practices.

The role of human energy in the human world economy is already increasing, although this change is largely invisible. The world’s governments are only able to monitor a portion of the world’s workplaces. This is the formal part of the human world economy. The informal part of the human world economy has been growing in recent years as formal jobs have disappeared. Jobs in the informal sector are generally more physically demanding, so this shift can be interpreted as an increase in human energy inputs into the production and distribution of goods in the human world economy.

Even in this formal part, work is becoming more physically demanding. In the U.S., this shows up as less equipment per worker – reducing costs by increasing the number of shared printers means more workers have to get up and walk to the printer to retrieve a print job. This is certainly a minor increase in physical activity, but it suggests a trend that will develop as U.S. employers work to reduce energy use both to cut costs and to meet environmental regulations.

Most of the world’s peoples and their leaders have accepted that the world must transition to using less fossil fuel to using more solar energy. We just haven’t realized that in the not so distant future even those who are middle class will have to put more physical effort into their jobs because a very big part of the flow of solar energy that powers the sustainable human world world economy will have to be human energy.


[1] For additional reading on the argument for conceptualizing the human world economy and the non-human natural world as a single economic entity, see my article, Replacing the Concept of Externalities to Analyze Constraints on Global Economic Growth and Move Toward a New Economic Paradigm, Cadmus, October 19, 2014, and the work of Jason W. Moore and his colleagues at their website, World-Ecology Network).