Talk of saving our economy by creating jobs has been rampant in liberal and progressive circles, but it wholly neglects ecological concerns. Creating more jobs is an environmentally unsustainable solution to our current predicament; providing jobs with a living wage could be the answer.
When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money. ~ Cree Prophecy
I must start with the caveat that I am not an economist, nor do I wish to be one; I have only a cursory knowledge of economics. Nonetheless, anyone with a perfunctory knowledge of ecology or biology knows that the continuous growth model on which our capitalist economy relies is completely incompatible with life. Ecologists, environmentalists, and ecological economists have been screaming this for decades. It takes nothing more than common sense and observation with one's own senses to understand that we live on a finite plant with finite resources which we depend on for life, and these resources are being plundered at an ever-increasing rate. Yet, this simple truth garners very little attention in the press where the environment is a "second tier" issue. The only issue that merits attention in the context of almost any discourse in the media is the economy.
The "health" of the economy is meaningless without healthy ecological systems to support it.
When speaking about our manufactured economic "crisis," a fraudulent hoax created by wholly lopsided wealth distribution rather than actual scarcity, the right promotes putting more money in the hands of the rich, the so-called job creators. This meme should be put to rest once and for all, as it has been proven without a doubt that the accumulation of wealth by the rich does not result in job growth, but in hoarding by the upper classes. The left, on the other hand, feels that the government should be at the forefront of job creation. In either case, the belief is more jobs equals better lives. This is a myopic and dangerous assumption that will lead to the inevitable obliteration of our species.
We are in an age of ecological crisis. Just about every biological system on the planet is in decline. However, to combat this tragedy, instead of reduce, reuse, and recycle, we delude, deny, and distract.
Nearly every job requires the expenditure of tremendous amounts of energy. Now, if the energy came simply from manpower, then it would be a non-issue. Regrettably, the energy is generally generated from environmentally destructive fossil fuels or other renewable sources which may impart less harm, but still have negative effects on geological systems and/or organisms. For example, wind turbines are fatal to many birds and bats, and have been linked to illnesses in humans. Solar panels require mining, sometimes for very rare materials obtained via slave labor in Africa; they require a great deal of energy to produce and maintain; and the materials used and/or the by-products of production can be toxic. Of course, these are merely two examples, but for every large-scale energy infrastructure, there are great numbers of deleterious environmental effects. So, the more we work at jobs, the more energy we use, the more harm to ecosystems.
As for jobs themselves, no matter what they are, they all utilize materials and create waste. Moreover, many involve direct and/or indirect forms of exploitation of the environment, animals, or other humans. So the more jobs we have, the more harm to ecosystems.
We have enough basic goods to sustain every human on the planet. New and used clothing items far exceed the number of people who need them. (One need only see a Hollywood costume warehouse to realize our glut of clothing.) Empty homes dot the landscape across North America. Half of all food produced is wasted. Potable water would likely not be an issue if it were not utilized in and polluted by wasteful industrial processes (i.e., problems of overuse and contamination). Granted, the unequal distribution of these basic necessities renders them inaccessible to many humans on the planet, but that is a problem of allocation, not supply.
Despite the optimism of technophiles, "green" jobs and "green" products are more of a marketing ploy than a reality. Certainly, the basic necessities of life (food, clothing, shelter, and water) when not obtained through reuse and recycling, should be produced and distributed in the most sustainable way. But we also know that when we produce other less necessary "green" products -- more energy efficient light bulbs, refrigerators, or cars -- we tend to just utilize more of the products themselves and rarely gain a net decrease in energy or materials consumption. Industrial production is clearly a source of unspeakable consumption and environmental degradation due to pollution and toxic waste. Increases in production and consumption of any kind are simply incompatible with environmental or biological sustainability. Sustainability requires jobs that maintain "needs" rather than jobs that produce "wants."
Due to global capitalism, most of us do not have access to the means of production of our basic needs. We do not have land to grow food, materials for clothing, or materials to build shelters. We do not have clean water bodies of our own. We are wholly reliant on jobs to live.
Given these circumstances, how might we reduce production and consumption and still enable a populace to survive when they are faced with record high unemployment? One solution toward that end, one stop-gap measure on the road to localization, corporate annihilation, and total sustainability, could be a world-wide mandate for a living/livable wage.
I rarely feel a great deal of pride about my undergraduate alma mater, Georgetown University -- a place that produced the likes of Bill Clinton, Pat Buchanan and Antonin Scalia. Six years ago, however, I was bursting with admiration for twenty-two brave young students there who staged a ten-day hunger strike to pressure the administration to implement a living wage for campus workers. Many of the service workers at the university could not come close to making a livable income to support their basic needs in our nation's capitol, and these students took a bold stand in solidarity with the workers.
As income stratification has grown and wages for the majority of the population have stagnated, many people, if employed at all, find themselves with jobs that do not provide enough money to actually pay their bills. Thus, they are forced to take on second and third jobs -- all at inadequate wages -- which leave them with little or no time for their families.
Unemployment is obviously untenable for families, but so too is over-employment in low-paying jobs. And yet, as unions are being obliterated and CEOs b*tch and moan their way to record obscene profits, the majority of jobs being created are lower and lower wage.
Imagine if every job was a 40-hr-a-week position that paid a living wage, a salary that enabled a person to cover her bills and live in a modicum of comfort. Economists will tell you that if you implement a living wage, the total number of jobs will decrease. That is precisely the idea. We do not need more destructive, crappy jobs. With living wages, perhaps only one parent would have to work rather than two. Perhaps the children could forgo working and concentrate on their educations. Then, more jobs would not be necessary because more people would not need to work. Some of the unemployed might be able to be categorized as non-employed and not needing to look. Others of the unemployed could take on the second and third jobs vacated by workers who no longer need them. We would not have to create more jobs; we could get by with fewer. (And that is the point, because fewer jobs mean less ecological destruction.) Additionally, governments would not have to expend as much on programs such as welfare and food stamps, which only have to exist because of insufficient corporate wages and greed at the upper echelons of society.
Sure, CEOs would complain that they could not afford to pay a livable wage, but we know that is an utter lie. Perhaps they might have to learn to cut from the top rather than from the bottom. Maybe they'd have to learn to live without those gold-plated bathroom fixtures, that extra corporate jet, or those thousands-dollar red-bottomed stilettos for a month or two. We know that their salaries alone could be slashed in half and used to pay their employees, and they would still be multimillionaires. We can no longer allow the lies of the elite class to be taken for granted and perpetuated unchallenged.
A livable wage would be harmful to no one but the people at the top to whom too much is never, ever enough. It could be a means to begin to deal with the immediate problem of poverty, the social problem of the deterioration of the family, and the longer-term, most vital problem of ecological sustainably. I'm certain that all of the economists out there will find fatal flaws in my argument, but consider this in your critique: Do you have any way to attempt to deal with the crisis of ecology in your criticism? Do you even consider it at all?
Kristine Mattis received her PhD in Environment and Resources at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As an interdisciplinary environmental scholar with degrees in Biology and Earth System Science & Policy, her research focuses on environmental risk information and science communication. Before returning to graduate school, Kristine worked as a medical researcher, as a reporter for the congressional record in the U.S. House of Representatives, and as a schoolteacher.