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.

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).