Rethinking Sustainable Design: Question 2 – Work

What kind of effect do you think giving workers more fulfilling work will have on community, family, industry, etc?

There is a long tradition in ecological politics arguing that the problem is not consumption but work conditions. Because work is unsatisfying people either have to be tricked or forced to work, remediating their lives by buying stuff. This line of argument is evident in William Morris’ applied art socialism, ecosocialists like Murray Bookchin and Andre Gorz, and more recently Juliet Shor and Umair Haque.

Juliet’s argument is also part of an insistence that people work less hours per week. This increases employment levels through job sharing, and restores a work-life balance. This deals with the hint in the question that if work were more fulfilling people would pay less attention to community and family.

There are a few assumptions in the question that we need to be careful about though. The first is that time spent on ‘community and family’ is less materials intense, less consumerist. This however depends on a very superficial understanding of consumerism, as the gratuitous purchase of false needs. Think for example about things that you do during ‘family time’: camping, cook-outs, fishing, ball games, going to museums, etc. In each of these cases there is a whole bunch of specialist equipment that you need to buy, and rebuy if you don’t take care of these only occasionally used items. There is also a lot of car travel involved. Just because it is with family, doesn’t mean that it is ecofriendly.

The second is that we all want a fulfilling job. Some of us get fulfillment by doing things that no-one could ever pay us to do. As a result some of us need to do jobs that are not what ultimately give us fulfillment, but are instead merely means to our other more fulfilling activities. This is what is getting called ‘the slash slash’ generation: someone who is a ‘waiter/bass player/carer of the aged.’ Conversely, sometimes a menial job can be quite satisfying. There can be something meditative about doing a repetitive job, if the rest of your life is chaotic; or there can be something fun about doing a job that is not inherently fulfilling but gets done with a lot of other fun people.

The third is that of course not every job can be fulfilling. There will always be jobs that need doing that are dirty or difficult or dull. Richard Florida recently drew attention to the fact that the ‘creative class’ only get to be ‘creative’ in their professional lives because there is a tranche of service workers maintaining their everyday lives. If you live in a cohousing situation, the division of labor always involves doing some of the less desirable jobs some of the time.

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