More jobs? What about food?

Principal author:
John L. Clark


In response to a comment on my last article, I point out that emphasizing job creation reinforces unsustainable growth policies, and I also consider the relationship between jobs and food in our society.

In my most recent growth scan, I made the following statement:

Whenever any of us—including myself—wants a job that did not previously exist, we implicitly encourage the broad policy of economic growth.

Kimberly wanted to be careful about this point, and rightfully so:

I don't know that this is necessarily the case. We could want a job that didn't previously exist while being fine with the disappearance of a job that does exist. Or we could want there to be more but smaller jobs, so creating a new job involves splitting a previously existing job. The way I see it is that there's plenty of stuff that needs done, and (for now, at least) we can produce enough food for everyone, so employment is basically a logistical problem.

I have wanted to write more about this for a while, so this is a good opportunity to get some of that out. I started to respond as a regular comment to the original article, but that comment rapidly grew (heh) long enough that I thought it warranted its own article.

In her response, Kimberly touches on two important facets of this problem: the modern employment culture and food availability. One can certainly imagine people looking for jobs that complement the elimination of other jobs, or everyone working less in order to amortize the availability of income across all people. For example, with somewhere between 2 and 6 million people looking for employment in the United States, one plan would be to have several million other people work less, thus allowing the currently-unemployed to fill in the gaps, as it were. In fact, Professor Jackson talks about these sorts of strategies to arrive at a zero-growth economy in Prosperity without growth?

Are you, people you know, and others happy to scale back your job and coordinate with others to do your job together?

It's important to note that this is not where we are now, culturally. We don't generally tell each other that we should work less, but rather that we should keep climbing the ladder. We strongly encourage our fellows to become small (leading to, if possible, large) business owners (or in varied other ways to expand their practice), in order to create new jobs for others. Many of our policies are explicitly designed to support corporations and business owners, which facilitates this cultural imperative. I know from personal experience that members of the mainstream look with shock and something approaching horror at others who actively try to work less. This is a consumptive growth culture, not one that values sustainability.

What is so important about the employment of 200 million people in the United States today that was not being done by 20 million people a century and a half ago? It seems to me that there are enormous sectors of employment that offer very dubious value. 854,000 people with top-secret clearances forming “a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight”? Is that really necessary? Do we need all the jobs that correspond to a larger military outlay than the rest of the world combined? Many people know how I feel about the natural resource extraction industries, and I'm no fan of industries that have urged us to define ourselves by what and how much we buy. I could go on, asking pointed questions about the need for jobs in almost every sector imaginable. But the core point is there. What kinds of jobs do people actually do in the United States (and elsewhere), and why?

I debated whether to include that provocative sentence in my original article. It only provides part of the picture. We also encourage growth whenever we work to increase our consumption capacity, for which there is clearly a strong push in civilized culture. An excellent article about the whole military-industrial complex includes this very telling snapshot:

In a 1948 State Department document, diplomat George F. Kennan offered this observation: “We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population.” The challenge facing American policymakers, he continued, was “to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity.” Here we have a description of American purposes that is far more candid than all of the rhetoric about promoting freedom and democracy, seeking world peace, or exercising global leadership.

That was 63 years ago, though. A more recent study notes that “[a]lthough North America has only 6% of the world adult population, it accounts for 34% of household wealth.” Taking a global view, this study further notes that “[t]he richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of global household wealth”. As I mentioned earlier, instead of trying to work less, civilized people are generally working to get more.

Kimberly then points out that for many people, a job is just a way to acquire those necessities of life (represented quite understandably by food). Other than the now sadly impotent concept of charity (more on that in a moment), having a job is the only way for all but the wealthy to acquire food in our society. But having a job hooks you in to the monetary economic system, which exists primarily to facilitate and streamline economic growth. This is, of course, extremely useful, if you believe that economic growth is good.

It's interesting to reflect briefly on the nature of our food situation, while we're here. By definition there is enough food for everyone alive, as to be alive these people must have food. Of course, with 925 million people regularly going hungry and 1.345 billion people living on $1.25 a day or less, and with more than 20 million new people to feed each day (and accelerating, of course), the situation is precarious. Clearly, as mentioned above, many of us have far more than we need that could be used to try to ameliorate this crushing poverty. It's interesting—and deeply sad—to note how some people tell a story about how the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor, for example because they are lazy (see Denigrating the poor and unemployed, George Orwell on the poor and unemployed, Counting calories for the poor, Rich people have solution to economic crisis: Make lazy poor get jobs, Why the "lazy jobless" myth persists, and countless other sources for good discussions of this aspect of our culture). That, of course, links the food issue and the jobs issue, at least as these things are seen in civilized culture. Remind me that I want to return to this spot later to discuss it from a moral perspective.

So we may not be doing it very compassionately, but we can feed everyone. But what is the cost of the current food production system? My observations seem to indicate that ecologically (to choose just one of several possible ways to measure) it is extremely high. We take ever more land for producing food, destroy ever more forests, eliminate ever more soil fertility, reduce global biodiversity ever further, emit ever more pollutants, and generally push the resiliency of our ecosystem ever harder[1].

So yes, growth is dangerously powerful, and yes, our individual choices are both shaped by, and help shape, the culture around us, and yes, those choices include our commitments to our jobs and our food systems, and yes, we have been seduced by the lure of growth, the combined desire and imperative to take ever more from the world so as to better secure our own position in it[2]. But the world only has so much to give. Professor Bartlett sums all of this up pretty succinctly in what he calls the First Law of Sustainability:

Population growth and/or growth in the rates of consumption of resources cannot be sustained!

We need another way.


And these are just a tiny sample of a host of resources that discuss these problems, both on the Internet and beyond.


This notion of boundless growth is a key component to Derrick Jensen's definition of civilization.

This page was first published on 2011-02-05 11:41:00-05:00.

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