Jobs in the Era of the Politics of Apocalypse


This is a time of the politics of the apocalypse — an all-or-nothing view of the difference between winning and losing an election and of holding power or not holding it. There is no middle ground on what winning or losing means. This has been on the rise for a long time. But it has intensified of late. No one really knows how to roll it back. Politicians say that it is time for the country to come together. But on whose terms?

Dan Balz, Bomb scares and the politics of the apocalypse, Washington Post, October 24, 2018.


Back in Cold War times many smaller nations tried to be non-aligned, not on either side of the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union or China.  Neither the U.S. or the Soviet Union would allow that.  Political money and weapons poured into small nations to force a choice.  That was the geopolitical dynamic of conflicting ideologies and programs of all or nothing.  It was inescapable; it was unresolvable until one or the other side was beaten into submission.  After that, the world’s nations had only one choice.

This is the dynamic of the politics of apocalypse in the U.S. and across much of the world.  Decades ago, here in the U.S. many middle class Americans chose non-alignment through third party movements and political disengagement.  Back then, this was a politically affordable luxury facilitated by the continuing weakness of the extreme right wing.  But, that shift to non-alignment and disengagement gutted the moderate wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties.  The right wing was becoming less affluent and more militant while the left wing continued to enjoy much offered by middle class affluence and remained relatively passive – until it was too late.  We have now entered into a state of affairs in which non-alignment and disengagement are no longer viable choices.  The right wing has engendered a long march for all or nothing which can only be satisfied by the capitulation of the left.  To my knowledge when such apocalyptic challenges have arisen, such as the clash over control of the formation of new states in the western territories and the spread of the institution of slavery in the 1850s in the U.S., the left has never capitulated.  Nor has the right ever capitulated.  The only outcome now possible is apocalyptic victory for one side or the other.

So, what does this mean for jobs?  If you check out the employment reports put out monthly by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, you will have noticed that most job growth is in services and a big chunk of those jobs are in social services and health care.  This is to be expected.  Suicide, family crises, workplace accidents, random acts of violence, epidemics of depression, violence, and preventable diseases are to be expected in times of apocalyptic political polarization.   Overwhelming stresses drive immediate emotions to the front, short-circuiting the intellectual capacity to look down the road behind us and up the road in front of us.  People become overly oriented  to the here and now , which makes us more susceptible to ideological scammers who take advantage of emotional vulnerabilities and more limited understandings of our situations.

So, workforce growth is now being forced into two complementary paths: jobs causing destruction (both legal and illegal) and jobs assigned the work of repairing the destruction to everyday life (both paid and volunteer).  Take a look at the massive number of personnel that was deployed in Pittsburgh to deal with one event of destruction and consider the enormous volume of costly equipment involved.  Multiply  that response by a thousand times a day across the world.  Throw in the industries and business support services required to create and maintain the military and policing forces and social and health services required to respond to these destructive events.  Now allow yourself to accept that the scope of the global conflict will continue to escalate as the extreme right wing assault on democracy and human rights continues to grow, as right wing governments take control of more and more of the world’s military and policing forces, as more non-violent and violent acts of resistance are mobilized, and safe havens from the conflict continue to disappear.

The world of work is not separate from these trends.  It is being polarized right along side the polarization of our politics.  More and more our work choices are between those that create destruction and those that try to prevent destruction and those that involve repairing and replacing what has been damaged and destroyed.

All of this, of course, has to be understood in the context of the ending of the era of real growth in wealth.  That real growth was fueled by growth in the use of fossil fuels to augment human labor and to power technologies that require an intensity of energy flows that cannot be match by massing together armies of workers.  We are still pumping more and more fossil fuel energy into the world economy, but monitoring and repairing the destructive side effects (current and cumulative, environmental and geopolitical) now require the consumption of more wealth than the increase in fossil fuel use produces.   Thus the politics and jobs of apocalypse are very much the politics and jobs of a world of people trying to protect themselves from the losses of wealth that are happening all around them.  The wealth losses take many forms.  Some, like the loss of quietness in the night and open spaces where a person can seek solitude, we only notice when we try to take account.  But, the emotional toll is still very real and very costly.

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.