Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Stuck in the Box

I find myself in a serious dilemma after becoming convinced that the majority of our economic system is geared toward damaging and unsustainable growth of material consumption that is at or near its limits. I want to work toward reforming (or replacing) the system so the destruction will stop; but I depend on the system for my family’s survival, as do the other people who must also make the reforms.

After losing my job last year, I felt an irresistible revulsion at the thought of going back into a similar situation. To use the precious hours of my life supporting an insatiable beast that devoured nature and people just to keep getting bigger did not feel like the right thing to do. For a few months I have been able to focus on what I believe I do well: constructing and purveying valuable ideas in written form.

I’ve done this with the full support of my wife, who is still (unfairly) locked into the system. Sensitive to her situation and having reached a plateau with my novel completed, I have begun a job hunt and found that the prospects for the kind of job I would like are not good.

An obvious place to start is with organizations that work to preserve natural systems and encourage sustainable living.

Most “environmental” companies tend focus on mitigating the negative environmental (and sometime social) impacts of business activities, tweaking rather than challenging the existing business model. Any efforts toward sustainability are limited to efficiency measures, “restoring” material extraction sites, “cleaning up” material outputs, and educating people about reuse. Because these companies must serve their customers, they are unable to do more than suggest alternative practices that necessarily support or enhance the customers’ existing goals.

Alternative technology companies are also constrained to the dominant business model, forced by the demands of investors to attempt to grow without limit. Because most are at a competitive disadvantage compared to traditional sources, they are often forced to rig the system (through subsidies, tax breaks, and lobbying for legal advantages), a process that corrupts the feedback consumers need to make good choices. Since most of these companies tend to only add efficiency (when you count all the materials that go into them) and perpetuate the social order that encourages increasing consumption, I consider them to be only transitional to a sustainable economy.

Non-profits are closer to my organizations of choice, though they tend to be very small and totally dependent on donors for their survival. They are therefore forced to rely more and more on commodification and viral advertising to reach their audiences. The denaturalizing box we are all stuck in is hard to escape, even for those on a selfless mission to help people.

This appears to leave government, whose preeminent job is to preserve the commons for everyone. Unfortunately, it too has been co-opted by the culture of consumption, increasingly treating citizens as customers rather than people, and converting the commons (which includes other species) into commodities that can be divided up among those with enough influence (“demand”).

What’s left? One option is to work for myself, but the time and resources required may be too limiting at this point. Another option is to get into any of the existing organizations and work for change from the inside; a “job within a job” (I wonder how many hiring managers would go for that).

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