The Dictatorship of Climate Change: Creating Jobs for Now and the Future

SOURCE ITEMS

A dangerous, large-scale feedback loop that promotes wildfires has emerged. Forests, woodlands and grasslands hold much of Earth’s terrestrial carbon. When they burn, more carbon dioxide is released, increasing concentrations in the atmosphere and causing land and sea surface temperatures to rise. This warming increases the likelihood of even more widespread and intense fires and exacerbates the severe weather and sea level rise we are now beginning to experience.

Don J. Melnick, Mary C. Pearl and Mark A. Cochrane. The Earth Ablaze. New York Times. August 8, 2018.

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Changes in the greenhouse gas concentrations and other drivers alter the global climate and bring about myriad human health consequences. Environmental consequences of climate change, such as extreme heat waves, rising sea-levels, changes in precipitation resulting in flooding and droughts, intense hurricanes, and degraded air quality, affect directly and indirectly the physical, social, and psychological health of humans.  For instance, changes in precipitation are creating changes in the availability and quantity of water, as well as resulting in extreme weather events such as intense hurricanes and flooding.  Climate change can be a driver of disease migration, as well as exacerbate health effects resulting from the release of toxic air pollutants in vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and those with asthma or cardiovascular disease.

Climate and Human Health, Health Impacts webpage. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Accessed August 9, 2018.

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Humanity’s challenge then is to influence the dynamical properties of the Earth System in such a way that the emerging unstable conditions in the zone between the Holocene and a very hot state become a de facto stable intermediate state (Stabilized Earth) … This requires that humans take deliberate, integral, and adaptive steps to reduce dangerous impacts on the Earth System, effectively monitoring and changing behavior to form feedback loops that stabilize this intermediate state.

Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, et al. Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, August 6, 2018.

COMMENTS

It is now well established that we are increasingly living under the steadily growing power of a climate change dictatorship that we brought into being.  The chance to choose a future of greater freedom is gone.  This global dictatorship will come to dominate our every waking hour and every aspect of our lives, including our work lives.  Our jobs will increasingly be the jobs forced on us by this dictatorship as it works its will on this planet with no concern for any of us.

Note that the “intermediate state” referred to in the Trajectories article is not a restoration to the cooler earth of a century ago.  It is a possible state of things that we must work hard to achieve, yet even if we bring this “intermediate state” into being, it will not be benign.  It will still inflict much ruin on our lives; it will still force us to create massive numbers of survival jobs that do not create new wealth or enhance our lives.  At best these jobs will sustain something close to the level of global human welfare we have now.  More likely, given how unwilling humans are to make proactive changes that make life less convenient and comfortable, we will not create the necessary wealth saving jobs fast enough to prevent massive losses of existing wealth.

Across the world, we can expect to see massive shifts in our work lives as the dictatorship of climate change becomes more demanding.  Just for starters, we should expect to see many more jobs in these categories of work:

  • Monitoring the conditions of the entire earth and initiating counter measures when that “intermediate state” begins to wobble in the wrong way.
  • Repairing and replacing wealth that is increasingly lost to the extreme weather events and political upheavals that will necessarily be part of a less hospitable “intermediate state” earth.
  • Population control – anger management counselors, psychiatrists and psychologists, prison guards, prosecutors, police officers, soldiers (in regular armed forces, in insurgent armed forces, and in unregulated militias and criminal organizations).
  • Medical services – to handle victims of interpersonal violence, political violence, and disease epidemics facilitated by hotter temperatures and more moisture in the atmosphere.
  • Construction – to build and maintain sea walls and levies, to reinforce existing structures against more severe stresses, to relocate homes and businesses away from flood zones, and to build border walls to check the flow of desperation driven refugees fleeing from climate change ravaged parts of the world.
  • Governmental agencies — to manage and fund the far reaching global responses to climate change crises.
  • Manufacturing — to provide equipment and supplies to facilitate all the other workforce changes taking place.

These are some of the most visible global workforce changes coming our way.  However, virtually no part of the world economy and no job will be untouched by the increasingly powerful dictatorship of climate change and the demands it is making.

 

Work and the Transition to a Solar Future: A Perspective

Societal change is an unavoidable constant.  The totality of humans, other species, and physical earth systems constitute a single economy (the Inclusive World Economy) that is continuously evolving.  This global process of change is driven by the constant flow of energy from the sun.  Energy must do what it does: change the materials it interacts with and change the forms in which it presents itself.  Materials must do what they do: interact with the flows of energy, be changed, and facilitate the transformation of energy forms into different energy forms. As part of this enormous configuration of processes I call the Inclusive World Economy, the world of work must continuously become different and we must become different in dynamic association with this process — but not necessarily in the ways or at the speed we expect or want.

We humans are among the vast array of material instruments through which the flow of solar energy drives change.  Work is the primary way in which we are instruments of change.  In the last several centuries we have vastly expanded and continue to expand the human role in the processes of change in the Inclusive World Economy.  We did this by borrowing solar energy from the past (stored as fossil fuels) and adding it to the flow of solar energy that daily fuels earth’s myriad systems.[1] This dramatic daily increase in the flow of energy through the Inclusive World Economy accelerated and continues to accelerate the global processes of societal and earth systems change, has changed and continues to change the way societal and earth systems change takes place, and has transformed and continues to transform us and almost everything about our planet.

We already know that we can’t keep increasing the use of fossil fuels to augment the daily flow of solar energy.  We have to dramatically limit our borrowing from past solar energy income.  More unsettling is the possibility that we must learn to share the budget of current solar energy flow with other species and with various earth system processes – such as cleansing water through solar powered processes – to a much greater extent than we now think.  We just do not know how much solar energy we can divert from other species and processes in the Inclusive World Economy without generating a new round of system level changes that are both massive and destructive to human wellbeing.

In a large, complex, and dynamic system, system level change can remain evolutionary even while subsystems are going through deep and far reaching change and components are being created and destroyed at a rapid pace.  This is what is now happening in the Inclusive World Economy.  Species are being destroyed; whole communities of people are losing their ways of life; institutions that have been central to our wellbeing are losing there effectiveness and new institutional arrangements are popping up; planetary threats that we have never encountered before have emerged.  The effects of climate change, species loss, limits to vital resources like fresh water and arable land, and conflicts over these things are multiplying and coming faster and faster.

Not surprisingly, the world’s institutional arrangements, which we took for granted only a few decades ago, are becoming dysfunctional in various ways and being subjected to mounting attacks from various quarters.  This is happening to the world of work, where big changes are under way and conflicts over these changes are growing.  The pay and benefits associated with high end jobs are disappearing; protections against harmful work environments are being weakened; more and more jobs involve the work of repairing the damages inflicted by climate change, wars, and illegal business operations.  The world’s stock of wealth (including its people) is growing older, forcing us to devote much more of our work activity to fighting the ordinary ravages of time.

Everything in the Inclusive World Economy is connected, so this is a very dynamic situation.  No one can escape this global upheaval, so everyone is or will be forced to respond to and manage the specific forms in which these massive and life-altering global crises visit us.  As we take actions to respond, every other part of the Inclusive World Economy will change in response to our actions.   Ironically, as we do more to respond to the crises by exerting more technological control over other species and earth systems rather than adapting our own activities to the laws of the universe as they operate in the Inclusive World Economy, the more we accelerate the intensification of the crises.  Unwittingly and carelessly, we have pushed the Inclusive World Economy into a new and dangerous era of change.

In this increasingly hostile global environment, many of us are already struggling with life-altering consequences of these global crises.  Where this is happening, working people are experimenting with old and new ways of making a living and old and new ways of protecting their work opportunities. They have no choice.  But, some of these efforts only work for the short term because they propagate effects through the dynamic processes at work in the Inclusive World Economy to intensify crises and create new ones.

The future of work is uncertain, but at the moment bad outcomes look more likely than good outcomes.  Rising support for authoritarian governments that divide the world’s workers into categories and help one category by taking from the others is accelerating the destruction of the very institutions we need to respond to global crises effectively.  Much more importantly, though, the world’s leaders continue to strongly embrace the idea that the economic growth “miracle” of the last two centuries has no end in sight.  If only we make the right policy choices,  they continue to claim, the material riches of the world can continue to grow, everyone can enjoy a share of those riches, and the crises will wither away like so many storm clouds.

From the perspective of the Inclusive World Economy, the end of the material growth miracle is right in front of us.  The era of fossil fuel energy is coming to an end, the world’s material riches are beginning to diminish, and the world of work is changing quickly.  A shift to solar energy, no matter how successful and complete, will not sustain the material wealth miracle created by massive fossil fuel energy flows.  The only choice before us is how we make the shift to a world of less.  For now, a democratic and equitable shift seems very out of reach, but an authoritarian and inhumane transition is not inevitable.  An inclusive perspective, attention to the limits of a solar future, and hard and careful political work can move the world in the direction of a much more desirable future than the one now looming darkly on the horizon.


[1] In economics we borrow from future income to augment current income.  In the case of energy, however, we can borrow from past solar energy income.

Hurricane Harvey: Good News for Jobs; Bad News for Wealth

SOURCES

Harvey to be costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with an estimated cost of $160 billion

USAToday Headline, August 30, 2017.

COMMENTS

The massive destruction of property caused by hurricane Harvey will certainly increase demand for goods and services – for building materials, machinery, and appliances for countless construction projects; for health care services and disaster related government services; and for countless personal items that have been lost.  Even though the disruption of Gulf Coast businesses and industries has idled workers in that area, the longer term impact on job growth will be large and positive.  The U.S. might finally see wage growth and more people coming back into the labor force.

Yet, there is a catch.  Massive destruction like we have seen with hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey reduces the total wealth in the U.S.  On average, the quality of life in the U.S. declines.  That means that most if not all of the added jobs will only only contribute to replacing lost wealth, not adding to the total stock of wealth.  (It is also worth adding that many of the goods that go into restoring the lost wealth will be imported, so some disaster induced job growth will be exported to low wage parts of the world.)

The bigger point is that we have to see Harvey’s impact on job growth as part of an epochal change in  job growth for the U.S. and for the world economy.  Three forces are coming together to accelerate the destruction of existing wealth in the world economy: climate change, which is producing more extreme weather events and putting negative pressures on the world’s agricultural industries; increasing civil strife and wars, which are destroying massive amounts of existing wealth in some places and forcing up the costs of protecting existing wealth everywhere on the planet; and the aging of the massive amount of wealth items produced and put in place over the course of the 20th century, which is accelerating the rates at which those items of existing wealth must be repaired and replaced.  These forces are transforming global employment.

In these historical circumstances, there will be plenty of jobs for the world’s people, but they will all be devoted to protecting existing wealth (military and policing forces, home security services, property insurance services, etc.) and to replacing wealth that is being lost.  Plenty of jobs, but a very big social justice question is emerging in this era of no net wealth growth: how do we fairly allocate jobs and income when trickle down wealth growth has come to an end?

My Book on the Future of Work is now Available for Your Enjoyment

The Future of Work in the Inclusive World Economy is posted to my website.  Click this link to view and print the book in PDF format: https://iweworkfutures.org/book-download/.

The timing for posting my book is not bad.  Gallup just published a major study of the slowdown in economic growth in the U.S., “U.S. Economy: No Recovery”,  and Robert J. Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War, has been getting lots of attention.  Yet, Donald Trump is vowing to buck the U.S. economic growth slowdown and a lot of economists will try to help him do it.  Elsewhere in the world, new leaders are making the same promises.  We have not had such a real world battle of economic policy ideas in a very long time.

A Return to Full Employment With Mixed Signals: This Time is Different for the World of Employment

SOURCE ITEMS

Chart-Employed Full Time Trend

St. Louis Federal Reserve, Accessed December 13, 2015.

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The Netherlands seems to be undergoing a sort of industrial revolution in reverse, with jobs moving from factories to homes. The Dutch labor market has the highest concentration of part-time and freelance workers in Europe, with nearly 50% of all Dutch workers, and 62% of young workers, engaged in part-time employment – a luxury afforded to them by the country’s relatively high hourly wages.

Sami Mahroum and Elif Bascavusoglu-Moreau, Is Jobless Growth Inevitable? Project Syndicate, March 25, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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Inequality, exclusion, and duality became more marked in countries where skills were poorly distributed and many services approximated the textbook “ideal” of spot markets. The United States, where many workers are forced to hold multiple jobs in order to make an adequate living, remains the canonical example of this model.

Dani Rodrik, The Evolution of Work, Project Syndicate, December 9, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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Forced labor permeates supply chains that stretch across the globe, from remote farms in Africa and the seas off Southeast Asia to supermarkets in America and Europe. Almost 21 million people are enslaved for profit worldwide, the UN says, providing $150 billion in illicit revenue every year.

Erik Larson, These Lawyers Want Slave Labor Warnings on Your Cat Food, Bloomberg, December 10, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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Over all, the Labor Department data painted a picture of an economy that is growing steadily and creating jobs at a healthy pace, even as wage gains remain subdued and many Americans are still stuck on the sidelines of the recovery.

Nelson D. Schwartz, Robust Jobs Report All but Guarantees Fed Will Raise Rates, New York Times, December 4, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

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In reality, the 35-hour workweek has become mostly symbolic, because a multitude of loopholes allow companies to work around the law. French employees work an average of 40.5 hours a week — more than the 40-hour average in the European Union — and have high productivity.

Liz Alderman, Smart Car Standoff Pits Social Progress Against Global Competition, New York Times, December 12, 2015. Accessed December 13, 2015.

COMMENTS

A question emerged after 2008 that unsettled the field of economics and is still unanswered: is this time different? Was the financial crisis of 2008 an economic crisis of a unique kind in the history of capitalism; or was it just a very severe version of a routine kind of economic crisis?

This phrase gained currency from the publication of the book, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, by Carmen Reinhart Kenneth Rogoff.[1] They argue that the financial crisis of 2008 is not different. But others disagree.

In a 2012 article, Lawrence King et al make the argument that this time is different because it is the result of a level of financial liberalization and a degree of free market economics that did not exist before the 1970s.[2]

A few of our world’s best and brightest economists expressed their uncertainty and sense that this time is different in this way:

“As a world economic crisis developed in 2008 and lasted longer than most economists predicted, it became increasingly clear that beliefs about macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy needed to be thoroughly examined. … we knew that we had entered a brave new world…”[3]

Different Seems More Likely Than the Same

After 2008 optimism about a return to robust economic growth has been the rule. But actual economic growth has not rewarded that optimism. A few economists have been trying to explain this poor record.

Robert J. Gordon, professor of economics at Northwestern University, recently asserted that “It is time to raise basic questions about the process of economic growth, especially the assumption – nearly universal since Solow’s seminal contributions of the 1950s (Solow 1956) – that economic growth is a continuous process that will persist forever.” He went on to propose that U.S. economic growth may grind to a halt because the kinds of technological innovations that drove rapid U.S. economic growth are not on the horizon.[4]

Professor Gordon was speaking only about the U.S., but the logic would apply to all of the world’s affluent nations.  Moreover, the World Bank and other global institutions have repeatedly warned of below par levels of global economic growth, in some cases for years to come.

Weighing anecdotal evidence, some discernible trends, and expert opinion, it seems reasonable to conclude that this time is different for economic growth.

That means this time is almost certainly different for the world of employment.

A Different World of Employment

In mainstream theories of economic development, the future of work is directly tied to the future of economic growth. Economic growth is the engine that pushes us toward the ever expanding prosperity goals that make for widespread affluence: high profits, high wages, and full employment. When economic growth slows down something has to give in the world of employment.  We are trapped in a long period of slow economic growth, so the employment trends of the past cannot continue.

We can be fairly certain that workers in the U.S. and other affluent nations will not experience the kind of return to full employment with high wage conditions we have known in the past. In the context of global competition and slow economic growth,  the world’s economic and political leaders are pressing hard to cap and reduce wage bills at all levels of employment. We have entered into an era of global degradation of employment.

In affluent nations they  are forcing working people to choose between fewer jobs and fewer hours at higher compensation levels or more jobs and more hours with lower wages and less valuable benefits.  In the rest of the world, where such a choice has seldom existed in any meaningful sense,  global competition and slow economic growth mean an end to the dream of jobs that will deliver better lives.  Everywhere, employment rights and workplace protections are falling away.

What we don’t know quite yet is how the ongoing degradation of the world of employment will play out in national and global politics. At the moment it appears that the world’s political and economic leaders have chosen to promote a free-for-all battle struggle among working people by defining rights to crumbs from the capitalist table using the old reactionary lines of difference – race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and nation. And, at the moment, too many workers in affluent nations are falling into this trap, as shown by the rise of Trumpism in the U.S., the growth of reactionary movements across Europe, and the destruction of governing institutions that embody common interests, and the rise of militaristic movements intent on redrawing national boundaries.

Intentionally engendering antagonisms can’t solve the fundamental problems for global economic growth, so the right wing policies can have only one ultimate outcome – a global catastrophe in multiple forms. Hopefully, this  will become clear to the world’s working people well before such a catastrophe becomes unavoidable.

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[1] Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press, 2009.

[2] Lawrence King, Michael Kitson, Sue Konzelmann and Frank Wilkinson Making the same mistake again—or is this time different? Cambridge Journal of Economics 2012, 36, 1–15 doi:10.1093/cje/ber045.

[3] From the Preface: Olivier J. Blanchard, David Romer, A. Michael Spence and Joseph E. Stiglitz, In the Wake of the Crisis: Leading Economists Reassess Economic Policy, MIT Press, 2012.

[4] Robert J. Gordon, Is US economic growth over? Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds, VOX, September 11, 2012. http://www.voxeu.org/article/us-economic-growth-over.

Crisis and Recovery Work: the Future of Jobs in the World Economy

 

SOURCE ITEMS

Pipes carrying Flint River water are opened; the Detroit supply is shut off. The switch was made as a cost-saving measure for the struggling, black-majority city. Soon after, residents begin to complain about the water’s color, taste and odor, and report rashes and concerns about bacteria. … Flint urges residents to stop drinking water after government epidemiologists validate Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s finding of high lead levels. Mr. Snyder orders the distribution of filters, the testing of water in schools, and the expansion of water and blood testing.

Jeremy C.F. Lin, Jean Rutter and Haeyoun Park, Events That Led to Flint’s Water Crisis., New York Times, January 21, 2016. Accessed January 22, 2016.

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Health care employment expanded by 475,000 in 2015, compared with a gain of 309,000 in 2014.Chart-Job Growth by Sector 2015

 

Source: Current Employment Statistics Highlights, December 2015, Bureau of Labor Statistics, January 8, 2016. Accessed January 22, 2016.

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Air, sea and land transport networks continue to expand in reach, speed of travel and volume of passengers and goods carried. Pathogens and their vectors can now move further, faster and in greater numbers than ever before. Three important consequences of global transport network expansion are infectious disease pandemics, vector invasion events and vector-borne pathogen importation.

Tatem, A.J., D.J. Rogers, and S.I. Hay. Global Transport Networks and Infectious Disease Spread. Advances in parasitology 62 (2006): 293–343. PMC. Web. 22 Jan. 2016.

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Thus, the net gain in jobs in New Jersey over the four year period would be 270,000 (281,000 construction-related jobs less 11,000 Travel and Tourism-related jobs). Of the 281,000 construction-related jobs, about 218,000 will be direct construction jobs. …

If all of this money is spent on reconstruction, the influx of new spending will generate $53.1 billion in new total output in those 13 counties and about 352,000 new jobs. About 299,000 jobs will be construction jobs.

Economic Impact of Hurricane Sandy, Economics and Statistics Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce, September 2013

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Future warming will bring a more volatile, dangerous world, even if the world manages to keep temperature rises within a 2C limit to which governments have committed, Fischer’s research found. On average, any given place on Earth will experience 60% more extreme rain events and 27 extremely hot days.

Karl Mathiesen, Extreme weather already on increase due to climate change, study finds, The Guardian, U.S. Edition, April 27, 2015.

COMMENTS

Safe water is one of those items of wealth that comes to us as both natural wealth and fabricated wealth. We sip water purified by nature from natural springs and we sip water purified by factories from our water taps.

The water crisis in Flint Michigan illustrates the extent to which we humans have damaged the natural production of many forms of wealth and been forced to replace natural wealth with fabricated wealth. Therein lies the story of job growth in the 21st century.

During the expansive years of capitalism (roughly the 16th century through the first half of the 20th century), we increasingly used fossil fuels to transform natural wealth into fabricated wealth. We had our eyes on the growing stock of fabricated wealth and failed to see the costs in natural wealth. Now we are beginning to see that there is no free lunch. The notion that humans figured out how to add to the total stock of wealth on the planet (the notion of creating fabricated wealth at no cost to natural wealth) has turned out to be an accounting sleight of hand.

We have never been able to increase net total wealth (natural wealth + fabricated wealth). By defining nations as economies, we externalized all costs to other nations and to nature and counted only what we wanted to: fabricated wealth. Our riches seemed to grow without end. Now we can no longer expand the stock of fabricated wealth fast enough to stay ahead of normal wear and tear and a rising tide of social, geopolitical, and ecological disasters.

The work we want to do is steadily being replaced by the work we must do. Steadily, our working hands and minds are being turned to the task of fixing damage inflicted on our fabricated wealth by domestic conflicts, wars, climate events, and just plain old wear and tear; and to the task of fixing the damages we have inflicted and continue to inflict on natural wealth.

The rate at which the world’s fabricated and natural wealth are being damaged is growing fast, so more and more our jobs will be in industries that repair our bodies (and replace body parts), that repair and replace our essential fabricated items of wealth (e.g., homes, tools, transportation equipment, educational facilities, health care technologies) and that repair the planetary systems we have damaged. The proportion of jobs that produce goods and services that can be counted as net new fabricated wealth will go down.

Into the 20th century, job growth was associated with expanding the production of net new fabricated wealth. That era is over. Job growth is now becoming associated with survival goals in place of greater affluence goals.

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

SOURCE ITEMS

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.

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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.

COMMENTS

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.

Notes

[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).