For years, I have been bouncing around from job to job, most of them contract positions as a technical writer – which eleven years ago was intended as a transition to the career I was going to pursue for the rest of my life. Now I'm 50 years old, and with less than 20 years of working time left, it's time to complete the transition.
I didn't waste the transition time, which actually extends back to when my father died. From college graduation in 1982 until that fateful day in 1992, I had fully intended to be writing and developing aids for showing children and adults how to learn in the novel yet ancient way my father had discovered. We were going to save the world by reforming education; but from that point on, it was all I could do to save myself. I accepted the limits of my control and responsibility, and set about to build something resembling a normal life. In my thirties and forties, I did what most people do in their teens and twenties, but which I had consciously avoided: I matured socially, emotionally, and psychologically. I examined my core beliefs, along with every other aspect of my life, and developed my own value system. I became, for the first time, a complete person, and met the woman I will spend the rest of my life with.
Then I discovered a far greater threat to the world than the deterioration of education, though not totally unrelated to it, and spent an increasing amount of my spare time researching and writing about the nature of the threat, and what, if anything, could be done about it. That threat, of course, is humanity's destruction of the biosphere and depletion of the critical natural resources that drive civilization, which have reached critical levels that could lead to global population collapse by the time I reach retirement age.
Looking for something to do besides writing and talking about the problem, I joined several groups at both the local and national level, supporting them with money when I could. But when it came down to actually volunteering time and effort, I found myself holding back. Trying to understand this uncharacteristic ambivalence led me to once again question my career path, because there, too, I was holding back, wandering through life rather than committing.
Pressure began to build, both from the inside and the outside. Without a clear set of achievements to point to professionally, I couldn't effectively market my writing, including my first novel and some music I wrote for it, or provide credibility for my ideas. I could sense the frustration of people in the groups I belonged to, who were growing tired of my criticism without any action to support the solutions they were pursuing. Long-term job opportunities in my transitional field were appearing; and with both a mountain of debt and a jaundiced economy, it was becoming hard to turn them down. Also, I was getting tired of my own complaining and the negative feelings that accompanied my growing awareness of civilization's imminent demise.
I've done the self-assessment many times in the past, and the results are always the same. I have two strengths, one I enjoy and am proud of, and the other I am driven to use but consider a curse. The “good” strength is the ability to make complex ideas understandable, and helps me immensely as a writer. The “bad” strength is the ability to see gaps in understanding and find unorthodox ways to fill them, which helps with research and test engineering, and pretty much sabotages everything else. They are mutually reinforcing: understanding complex ideas leads to recognition of the flaws in other descriptions, which leads to greater understanding.
Sometimes, and most frustratingly, I sense the gaps before I know what they are and what they mean, and must fight both time and the impatience of other people to prove that they are both real and potentially symptomatic of a larger problem that could – often embarrassingly – expose other gaps. In such situations, my first instinct is to doubt what I'm feeling and begin to test whatever it is. If the testing reveals that my feelings are justified, then I become obsessed with trying to understand the situation. When, at last, I do understand, there is an emotional and physical high associated with the epiphany that is more powerful than anything else I have ever experienced. As a bonus, if the original gaps represent a problem of some kind, as I encountered when I worked as an engineer, the final understanding almost always makes the solution self-evident.
From about the ages of eight to 20, I seriously considered becoming a scientist, beginning with astronomy. Scientific research is one of the rare occupations that is tailor-made for people with my particular proclivities. But, as I discovered during my undergraduate study in physics, it paradoxically also demands a great deal of conformity in how one thinks: You have to thoroughly understand a theory before you can debunk it. I found that I wasn't nearly as interested in studying what everyone else thought, as trying to figure out things on my own. I wanted to begin testing ideas from the start, rather than earning the right to test them through years of what felt like brainwashing. That experience of academia, along with my father's own particular brand of brainwashing (effectively encouraging my attitude, because it was also his), kept me from going back to school, which at various times seemed nonetheless like a potentially good fit, such as when I gave well-received lectures to tutoring students and special interest groups.
I also considered becoming a journalist, having successfully used similar skills in my technical writing career. There, too, my individualistic streak got in the way: it seemed like it would be too confining, relying as it did on well-defined topics. I wanted to be able to bounce around from one topic to another, exposing their interrelationships – because it was that which interested me – the details, the bread-and-butter of journalism, served merely to expose them. This was related to my problem with the specific disciplines of science (including, you might be surprised, physics): following the abstractions where they led didn't seem to be in the job description.
When I've had time to myself, I've fallen back on creative writing, which allows me to express my ideas pretty much without any filter. But, as I mentioned, marketing has been a problem. Part of the reason is that I have a fundamental issue with commoditizing people, and “selling yourself” is a major prerequisite for selling your work. Over the course of developing my own value system, I realized that one of the main reasons people harm each other is because they do not consider everyone equally human (valuable), and I find myself bristling every time I see people treated as “resources” by companies and the people who run them. Curiously, I haven't had this problem getting jobs, where job interviews are all about selling yourself, so it may be contributing more to my lack of effort than actual performance.
This leads to an alternative, and more likely, explanation for my lackluster success at creative writing: my subject matter is typically very unpleasant. My wife has half-jokingly called me “Bummer Brad” because of my obsession with the world crisis, and my writing (including my novel, which deals with a sped-up version of the collapse prediction) has been one of my main ways of getting through it. When I have written something light-hearted – or even dealing with normal life – I've gotten accolades, suggesting that I might still have a good shot at making creative writing more than a hobby, but only if I abandon the subject I care about the most (at least in my current phase of thinking about it) or target a very limited group of people who like the subject matter already – which would defeat the purpose of sharing it.
Two years ago, I felt I understood the world crisis and had the outlines of a solution, and in addition to the other career options, I looked for “green” jobs using my established skills, recognizing that some of the parts of the solution were already being implemented. Unfortunately, the closer I looked at what other people were doing, the more I realized that it was nowhere near enough to avoid casualties, and I began to balk at the idea of using the current socioeconomic system to solve the crisis. I began to fear that the tools were simply not available to avoid a population collapse; that it was simply too late. My fears were confirmed after I turned 50, with the economic collapse forecast by my models in full swing, news of the melting of sub-sea methane threatening to drastically accelerate global warming, and the realization that the world's population was rapidly approaching the point where the best available options for coexisting with Nature could not sustain everyone with even a marginal standard of living.
One day recently, I woke up severely depressed. I deduced that my subconscious had concluded that the kind of change necessary to avoid total calamity was practically impossible, driven by an overwhelmingly powerful majority of people valuing all life as much as their own. Anecdotal evidence from the news of the day seemed to bear out that conclusion. The politics of immigration reform had taken a savage turn with Arizona's adoption of a racial profiling law designed to find and deport illegal aliens, which to me represented a fundamental devaluing of one group of humanity by another. Meanwhile, lawmakers were threatening to derail legislation to fight global warming if the huge amount of oil spewing from a damaged oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in any restrictions on oil drilling, which represented a fundamental devaluing of other species (not to mention willful stupidity).
The next day, I happened to read a particularly insightful passage in Jeremy Rifkin's book “The Empathic Civilization” (which argues that people are inherently empathetic, and that highly developed empathy can help us deal with the crisis of entropy – waste – we have been creating in the world): “Shame has the effect of turning off the innate empathic impulse." (p. 130). The book also points out that empathy can be disabled if we overload ourselves to the point that we can't take care of our own needs.
I realized that in my writing and my interactions with people, I (along with others) was invoking shame along with guilt. By tying its remediation to a limitation of consumption and production, the growth of which most people consider necessary (a need which, thanks to the debt-based structure of our economy, is more than just an impression), I was offering an apparently impossible tradeoff. No wonder I felt like I was being ignored, even with people who generally shared my views, especially after I began sharing my opinion that we need much more aggressive action than anyone is contemplating.
One of the objectives of the sustainability movement is to develop and market a new lifestyle that by itself is a clear improvement on the lifestyle that's killing our planet. If successful, this could help counter the perception that accelerating consumption is necessary, showing that its cost to the individual (regardless of its impact on the rest of the biosphere) outweighs its benefits. Another objective is for people to establish personal bonds with other species through direct experience in natural environments, including local gardens; this helps create an empathic bond with the creatures we are annihilating as well as creating a setting for a less stressful lifestyle. In principle, working toward these objectives can go a long way toward building an alternative, more healthy culture.
Even with this new understanding, I felt there was still something critical missing, and finding and implementing that important piece of the solution was where I wanted to focus my attention. I suspected that one possible clue about the missing piece was my own reaction to the alternative lifestyles being proposed and tried out.
For much of my childhood in the 1960s and early 1970s, my parents were creative with the land they owned, including growing various types of trees and maintaining a handful of gardens scattered around our yard. They both agreed that my younger brother and I should learn and practice a variety of life skills. With my father, I learned many skills, among them carpentry, landscaping, and electronics. What my mother taught me included gardening, house cleaning, and cooking. Of all these skills, I hated gardening the most, while landscaping and house cleaning tied for second.
Today, I consider permaculture (the application of ecology to land use) fascinating and important, but find the prospect of using it (even if I had a stronger back) less attractive than gardening was when I was a kid. Still, I want to support it as a “backup” to the current system, which uses a lot of resources packaging and shipping food and whatever else it could ultimately provide (such as clothes and building materials), so I donate time and money to people who are enthusiastic about it. But even for most of the enthusiasts I know, it's basically a hobby; like me, they depend on money earned by supporting the existing system, and the output of the gardens (which still require technology and resources accessible by conventional economic activity) has a minimal effect on their daily lives. Perhaps if we all suddenly found that we couldn't depend on the current system for the necessities of life (as I imagined in my novel “Lights Out”), permaculture or something like it would be attractive (if not critical) to a lot more people, but I'm afraid that's what it would take.
Another vision of alternative living involves more efficient use of the resources we already consume, along with some new ones such as solar and wind energy, and biomass (including synthetic organisms), to extend the amount of time we can maintain something like our current lifestyle. Extensive research has convinced me that we might buy a decade or two using this approach, but it's ultimately doomed to failure on a global scale. The main reason is embodied in the direct correlation between population, per-capital consumption, and available resources observed and captured in my mathematical models: Efficiency and introduction of other resources will be perceived as a net increase in available resources, resulting in an increase in per-capita consumption and population. As much as I would personally like to continue living somewhat like I have, for as long as I can, is it worth the effort to do so if my goal is truly to contribute to long-term sustainability?
In both cases – permaculture and “green” technology (an oxymoron in its current use) – a person's current lifestyle is the benchmark for determining its appeal and its impact. Permaculture has high (positive sustainable) impact and low appeal for most Americans, while green technology has low impact and high appeal. In other, “poorer” parts of the world, I would expect permaculture to have a slightly lower impact and higher appeal, with green technology having a low impact and higher appeal.
I've come to the tentative conclusion that we should all be prepared to “live off the land,” or with as few resources as we can imagine, whether or not we actually have to, and learn to feel comfortable (perhaps even enjoy) doing so. My father, despite his high-tech credentials, believed something similar, and some of my fondest memories are of the two of us coming up with elegant low-tech solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Like the fictional MacGyver, my father relished relying on his wits to use whatever was around him to meet his goals (or something just as good), and instilled the same desire in me. This spirit of adventure in one's daily life paralleled his love of learning, which often by accident propelled him into becoming an expert and an original innovator at whatever he did.
In a global economy driven by the desire to create more convenience, we have not only created a lot of waste, we have progressively denied ourselves the existential pleasure of exploring how to do things and know things ourselves. We have also reduced the ultimate source of meaning in our lives – our relationships with each other – to a power struggle over how to get more stuff, and get it with less effort.
In the world I want to live in, to help create, we all have our highest allegiance to the entire biosphere, and focus on establishing healthy relationships with each other and other species. We accept that we are transient, yet important, parts of this larger whole, occupying a critical niche of protecting it from threats it was until now powerless to mitigate (instead of becoming a larger threat ourselves). We also allow ourselves to experience a kind of joy we are uniquely capable of doing, as a proxy for the other species who can't (which they likewise do for us). That joy comes, ironically, from the enabler of our darkest deeds: the comprehension and use of abstractions (through conversion into new types of experience) to fathom the fundamental structure of the Universe over a large range of distances and scales.
As I pondered these things, developing some insight into what my new career path should be, I considered what to do if I was asked to work full-time at my current position. From the perspective of my transitional career, it would be a very big deal. It would also, almost certainly, increase my income substantially, helping to erase my family's debt, providing for some much-needed home repairs, and perhaps providing some working capital for future options. The company had a good record for using traditional “sustainable practices” such as reducing waste, even though its main business depended almost exclusively on oil-based materials. If I were in any other state of mind, it would have been a no-brainer.
In every professional full-time job I've ever held, work has taken over a larger part of my life than I felt comfortable with. If my creative energy was being hampered as a contractor with eight hour days, it was almost certainly going to take a larger hit if I went on salary, especially if I had to work overtime. My wife was already very tolerant of my need to write and pursue the “hobby” of supporting sustainability, which currently occupied one to two hours a day on average (only one of those she noticed because of offsets in our work schedules), and happened to be the minimum I needed to feel I was contributing to a better future. A full-time position, to me, is at least a two year commitment; and I perceived a very real possibility that I would effectively be going into creative dormancy for that period, given my unwillingness to cut any more into my personal time.
A risk isn't a certainty, and I couldn't ignore the opportunities a new job might create for making a real difference. Being honest with myself, I had to admit that the impending stress of looking for work after my current assignment ended wasn't likely to help my creativity anyway, despite the fact that my wife had enough income to at least pay our regular bills.
Thrown into the mix were the lessons from a couple of movies I saw during my deliberations. The first was “Dirt! The Movie,” which describes the role of soil in connecting virtually all of life on our planet. The so-called “web of life” depends on a huge number of interactions that move, recycle, and create chemical compounds critical to the survival of all life. Dirt, as the “skin” of the Earth, is the medium for much of this, and a few humans are rapidly destroying it to create a world out of just a few parts they consider valuable. James Cameron's popular movie “Avatar” has a parallel message: it borrows the web of life concept, translates it to an alien planet, and pits a native species living sustainably within that web against a rapacious group of humans determined to plunder one resource at the expense of the anyone or anything that lives on top of it.
Like any good consumers, the first thing my wife and I did after watching “Avatar” was to buy the movie on DVD and the soundtrack on CD. Then my wife reminded me of the real significance of the movie: the value of relationships, including ours. It was an excellent bookend to my thinking of what an ideal world should be like, both as a goal, and as a tiny (and shrinking) part of what we already have.
The next day, I revisited the possibility of getting more education, and was stymied by the huge cost. Knowing full well that the economy was going to shrink over the time it would take to pay off any loans, I considered it highly unlikely that I would earn enough in related jobs to meet my financial obligations. Though my wife insisted that we could find a way, I once again shelved the idea.
Then I had another of the mini-epiphanies that marked the process I had embarked on. In the communities of a sustainable future whose population leveled out at the amount of replaceable resources that were available, education would necessarily be scaled to a level everyone could afford. There would be a high demand for people who could take the complexities that now required a huge army of academicians to process, and enable everyone to understand them enough to use. The inductive learning approach my father had championed could be a valuable part of that effort, and I already knew how to make it work.
In my current job, and its hypothetical extension, I was already performing a related task: summarizing how people did their jobs and the variables they had to work with, and creating practical guidance for newcomers. Setting aside the company's role in the enabling of our rapacious culture, the skill set was scalable. Also, I might have some input into adding “meat to the bones” of the incorporation of variables that could make the company's behavior more responsible, which it was already claiming to do.
Well aware of the risk of rationalizing, I followed the logic of another lesson from “Dirt! The Movie” (“do what you can”) to the conclusion that wherever I was and whatever I was doing, I could be an agent of change for the better. There were, after all, people in that and other organizations who, as individuals, wanted to do the right thing. Why not take on the personal mission of finding elements of an ideal world in any situation, and try to connect them and empower them as much as possible to help establish at least a local “web of good”? With luck, I would find others who felt the same way, and we could mutually reinforce our efforts.
I understood that like another movie, “The Matrix,” part of daily life is real and the rest is an illusion imposed on us by lifeless machines whose main goal is the use of living people as “resources” to increase their power. Life-reinforcing relationships are real, and the death-dealing relationships are illusions that can only be successful if we believe they are real. The authoritarian lines of responsibility and authority that determine our behavior in artificial organizations (abstractions) must be distinguished from the personal ties that bind us to each other as real humans who are an integral part of the larger biosphere (reality). The abstractions are tools, which only have uses, not value, and the only legitimate uses of those tools are in the service of life. If those tools are used to destroy life, then people who would use them that way must be persuaded to stop, or the tools rendered useless, or both.
To use a familiar example, working for an organization is like working for a machine; it makes no sense unless we understand that we are really using the machine (or someone is using the machine to use us). Understanding that our true “employer” is really the web of life, through our relationships with each other and other species, we can judge whether we are serving that employer or working against the employer, and by extension, ourselves. The artificial constructs (organizations) we choose to let guide our actions and our relationships with each other are either serving the same master, or not; but ultimately we, and not the organizations, are accountable to that master for the reality that unfolds from our choices.
The morning after I conceived that analysis, I realized that for all practical purposes it was a load of bull crap. Being employed by a company is like entering a marriage. If you get married with the intention of cheating on your spouse, then...
Just as I wrote that last line, I heard a loud pop. Then one of the nearby smoke alarms began chirping, indicating that its battery voltage was too low. I changed that battery (which my multimeter confirmed was under voltage) and then one next to it began chirping. After replacing the second alarm's battery I noticed that it had been the source of the popping sound: the bottom was blown partly out.
I'm not superstitious, but that was one weird set of coincidences, and it got me to reconsider my “load of bull crap” assessment. I thought of the really nice and responsible people I worked with, and then a better analogy hit me: The company was like a ship about to sink, and I was like a visiting crewman. Was it right to do the equivalent of deserting the ship when I could warn the other people on it, giving them a chance to do something about it (or at least save themselves)? In that light, outright rejecting the possibility of working full-time would be an act of cowardice. I just had to follow through on my reason for being there, and help as many as I could.
This new way of looking at my situation was a good way of framing the problem of “changing course” for countless others “in the same boat” -- if, indeed, it was still possible. Creating smaller, more durable and agile “lifeboats” out of the larger one might be a better option. Growing a network of survivors that could live off any land we might be lucky enough to encounter, and smart enough to preserve, was a good way to think about the task ahead.
Of course, chief among the potential survivors is my wife, and I felt I was a long way from convincing her that the “ship” was sinking. Creating and living in “lifeboats,” such as the resilient communities envisioned by the more hardcore sustainability proponents, wasn't yet an attractive alternative to our current way of life. “Living off the land” sounded like too crude an existence to seriously consider. More than once, she half-jokingly warned me that she would leave me if I chose “to live in a tent” or a commune like that described in my novel. Her concerns mirrored those of most other people I knew, which was a major reason I felt comfortable focusing so much on these issues in my personal deliberations.
If I took what was sure to be a higher-paying position, at the present company or another, then at least for the short term we could keep up our lifestyle while we paid off debt, fixed up our house, and got in better physical shape. We might even be able to put away some money in case retirement actually became an option, though I would argue for keeping it liquid enough that it could be used to ride out some of the economic bumps ahead and invest in any alternative living arrangements that required initial monetary investment. In the process, I could keep writing on the side, perhaps take some classes in subjects closer to my interests, and eventually have enough credibility and experience to move into a profession that was more relevant to a sustainable future and personally fulfilling. If my employment ended up conflicting with these goals, I would start looking for something else -- as just a part of my real job as a human in this critical time: growing the Web of Good.