Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Just Livelihood

Just Livelihood. We must choose a livelihood that neither exploits people—in any of their many roles: worker, consumer, community member—nor the Earth, and ideally, a livelihood that actively heals the Earth and nurtures human society.

Many of us are committed to doing good with our lives and yet our jobs often work at cross-purposes to our volunteer work, our consumption choices, our political views. And now with unemployment increasing and the media scaring us with questions like “Could this be the next Great Depression?,” few people are willing to even consider changing jobs, even when their work is unengaging, uninteresting, or—worse—actively exploiting communities, consumers, or the planet.

How do we change that? The best way is to choose a job that epitomizes your values. Instead of marketing junk food, create marketing campaigns for healthy foods. Instead of injecting foreheads with Botox, focus your medical skills on helping people to live healthily and heal life-threatening diseases. For entrepreneurs, convert your small business so it becomes a symbol of your beliefs. Advertise the fact that your store runs on renewable energy, sells fair-trade products, pays a livable wage—the benefit will come not just to your conscience but to your bottom line as customer loyalty and worker pride grow.

Of course, even at the best businesses, there will still be room for improvement, so one should still work within one’s organization to challenge it to do more. That could mean efforts as simple as helping to “green” office operations, pushing for more eco-friendly fair-trade products to be stocked, or spreading an environmental ethic to colleagues.

What about the majority of workers who don’t work for responsive companies or can’t easily change jobs? Before answering this, one point to remember is that the more simply one lives, the fewer hours one will need to work, since personal spending will be lower. Moreover, this will free time for leisure and lower one’s ecological footprint (since one cannot afford to consume as much when working fewer hours).

Suppose you have to work full time to survive, perhaps even more than one job; what do you do when working for an exploitative company and no other option seems to exist? If possible, push for change from within, directly or through a union. If that fails, try to facilitate change from without. For example, one could assist shareholders with filing a resolution, serving as a source of information. Or, if the company is not just acting immorally but illegally, whistleblowing is an important option.

Organizations available to help whistleblowers include, for government employees, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which provides guidance and legal support and also offers a guide, The Art of Anonymous Activism, that teaches employees how to safely blow the whistle.

But activism of this sort can mean risks, and few are willing to put their security on the line. So for them, there is foot dragging, an effective tactic to imperceptibly slow down work, whether by moving just a bit more slowly, filing papers incorrectly, or entering data with a small error (just a few examples). For an effective (albeit academic) treatise on this, read Weapons of the Weak by James Scott.

If done right, managers won’t detect it’s intentional (or you!) and the company’s productivity will decline. Indeed, in 2002, disengaged workers cost U.S. organizations US$250 billion, according to a Gallup poll. The Kabachnick Group estimates that up to 65 percent of U.S. employees are already disengaged, or, in other words, “have already quit but forgot to tell their bosses.” When “slowing down the machine” is one’s only option, it might just help to buy time for a new sustainable economy to emerge and replace the existing exploitative economy.

First printed in World Watch Magazine, Jan/Feb 2009 issue.

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