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The End of Employment

Nothing is easier, as the Long Descent begins to pick up speed around us, than giving in to despair—and nothing is more pointless. Those of us who are alive today are faced with the hugely demanding task of coping with the consequences of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, and saving as many as possible of the best achievements of the last few centuries so that they can cushion the descent and enrich the human societies of the far future.  That won’t be easy; so?  The same challenge has been faced many times before, and quite often it’s been faced with relative success.

The circumstances of the present case are in some ways more difficult than past equivalents, to be sure, but the tools and the knowledge base available to cope with them are almost incomparably greater. All in all, factoring in the greater challenges and the greater resources, it’s probably fair to suggest that the challenge of our time is about on a par with other eras of decline and fall.  The only question that still remains to be settled is how many of the people who are awake to the imminence of crisis will rise to the challenge, and how many will fail to do so.

The suicide of peak oil writer Mike Ruppert two days ago puts a bit of additional emphasis on that last point. I never met Ruppert, though we corresponded back in the days when his “From The Wilderness” website was one of the few places on the internet that paid any attention at all to peak oil, and I don’t claim to know what personal demons drove him to put a bullet through his brain. Over the last eight years, though, as the project of this blog has brought me into contact with more and more people who are grappling with the predicament of our time, I’ve met a great many people whose plans for dealing with a postpeak world amount to much the same thing.  Some of them are quite forthright about it, which at least has the virtue of honesty.  Rather more of them conceal the starkness of that choice behind a variety of convenient evasions, the insistence that we’re all going to die soon anyway being far and away the most popular of these just now.

I admit to a certain macabre curiosity about how that will play out in the years ahead. I’ve suspected for a while now, for example, that the baby boomers will manage one final mediagenic fad on the way out, and the generation that marked its childhood with coonskin caps and hula hoops and its puberty with love beads and Beatlemania will finish with a fad for suicide parties, in which attendees reminisce to the sound of the tunes they loved in high school, then wash down pills with vodka and help each other tie plastic bags over their heads. Still, I wonder how many people will have second thoughts once every other option has gone whistling down the wind, and fling themselves into an assortment of futile attempts to have their cake when they’ve already eaten it right down to the bare plate. We may see some truly bizarre religious movements, and some truly destructive political ones, before those who go around today insisting that they don’t want to live in a deindustrial world finally get their wish.

There are, of course, plenty of other options. The best choice for most of us, as I’ve noted here in previous posts, follows a strategy I’ve described wryly as “collapse first and avoid the rush:”  getting ahead of the curve of decline, in other words, and downshifting to a much less extravagant lifestyle while there’s still time to pick up the skills and tools needed to do it competently. Despite the strident insistence from defenders of the status quo that anything less than business as usual amounts to heading straight back to the caves, it’s entirely possible to have a decent and tolerably comfortable life on a tiny fraction of the energy and resource base that middle class Americans think they can’t possibly do without. Mind you, you have to know how to do it, and that’s not the sort of knowledge you can pick up from a manual, which is why it’s crucial to start now and get through the learning curve while you still have the income and the resources to cushion the impact of the inevitable mistakes.

This is more or less what I’ve been saying for eight years now. The difficulty at this stage in the process, though, is that a growing number of Americans are running out of time. I don’t think it’s escaped the notice of many people in this country that despite all the cheerleading from government officials, despite all the reassurances from dignified and clueless economists, despite all those reams of doctored statistics gobbled down whole by the watchdogs-turned-lapdogs of the media and spewed forth undigested onto the evening news, the US economy is not getting better.  Outside a few privileged sectors, times are hard and getting harder; more and more Americans are slipping into the bleak category of the long-term unemployed, and a great many of those who can still find employment work at part-time positions for sweatshop wages with no benefits at all.

Despite all the same cheerleading, reassurances, and doctored statistics, furthermore, the US economy is not going to get better: not for more than brief intervals by any measure, and not at all if “better”  means returning to some equivalent of America’s late 20th century boomtime. Those days are over, and they will not return. That harsh reality is having an immediate impact on some of my readers already, and that impact will only spread as time goes on. For those who have already been caught by the economic downdrafts, it’s arguably too late to collapse first and avoid the rush; willy-nilly, they’re already collapsing as fast as they can, and the rush is picking up speed around them as we speak.

For those who aren’t yet in that situation, the need to make changes while there’s still time to do so is paramount, and a significant number of my readers seem to be aware of this. One measure of that is the number of requests for personal advice I field, which has gone up steeply in recent months. Those requests cover a pretty fair selection of the whole gamut of human situations in a failing civilization, but one question has been coming up more and more often of late: the question of what jobs might be likely to provide steady employment as the industrial economy comes apart.

That’s a point I’ve been mulling over of late, since its implications intersect the whole tangled web in which our economy and society is snared just now. In particular, it assumes that the current way of bringing work together with workers, and turning the potentials of human mind and muscle toward the production of goods and services, is likely to remain in place for the time being, and it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that this won’t be the case.

It’s important to be clear on exactly what’s being discussed here. Human beings have always had to produce goods and services to stay alive and keep their families and communities going; that’s not going to change. In nonindustrial societies, though, most work is performed by individuals who consume the product of their own labor, and most of the rest is sold or bartered directly by the people who produce it to the people who consume it. What sets the industrial world apart is that a third party, the employer, inserts himself into this process, hiring people to produce goods and services and then selling those goods and services to buyers.  That’s employment, in the modern sense of the word; most people think of getting hired by an employer, for a fixed salary or wage, to produce goods and services that the employer then sells to someone else, as the normal and natural state of affairs—but it’s a state of affairs that is already beginning to break down around us, because the surpluses that make that kind of employment economically viable are going away.

Let’s begin with the big picture. In any human society, whether it’s a tribe of hunter-gatherers, an industrial nation-state, or anything else, people apply energy to raw materials to produce goods and services; this is what we mean by the word “economy.” The goods and services that any economy can produce are strictly limited by the energy sources and raw materials that it can access.

A principle that ecologists call Liebig’s law of the minimum is relevant here: the amount of anything  that a given species or ecosystem can produce in a given place and time is limited by whichever resource is in shortest supply. Most people get that when thinking about the nonhuman world; it makes sense that plants can’t use extra sunlight to make up for a shortage of water, and that you can’t treat soil deficient in phosphates by adding extra nitrates. It’s when you apply this same logic to human societies that the mental gears jam up, because we’ve been told so often that one resource can always be substituted for another that most people believe it without a second thought.

What’s going on here, though, is considerably more subtle than current jargon reflects. Examine most of the cases of resource substitution that find their way into economics textbooks, and you’ll find that what’s happened is that a process of resource extraction that uses less energy on a scarcer material has been replaced by another process that takes more energy but uses more abundant materials. The shift from high-quality iron ores to low-grade taconite that reshaped the iron industry in the 20th century, for example, was possible because ever-increasing amounts of highly concentrated energy could be put into the smelting process without making the resulting iron too expensive for the market.

The point made by this and comparable examples is applicable across the board to what I’ve termed technic societies, that subset of human societies—ours is the first, though probably not the last—in which a large fraction of total energy per capita comes from nonbiological sources and is put to work by way of  machines rather than human or animal muscles.  Far more often than not, in such societies, concentrated energy is the limiting resource. Given an abundant enough supply of concentrated energy at a low enough price, it would be possible to supply a technic society with raw materials by extracting dissolved minerals from seawater or chewing up ordinary rock to get a part per million or so of this or that useful element. Lacking that—and there are good reasons to think that human societies will always be lacking that—access to concentrated energy is where Liebig’s law bites down hard.

Another way to make this same point is to think of how much of any given product a single worker can make in a day using a set of good hand tools, and comparing that to the quantity of the same thing that the same worker could make using the successive generations of factory equipment, from the steam-driven and belt-fed power tools of the late 19th century straight through to the computerized milling machines and assembly-line robots of today. The difference can be expressed most clearly as a matter of the amount of energy being applied directly and indirectly to the manufacturing process—not merely the energy driving the tools through the manufacturing process, but the energy that goes into  manufacturing and maintaining the tools, supporting the infrastructure needed for manufacture and maintenance, and so on through the whole system involved in the manufacturing process.

Maverick economist E.F. Schumacher, whose work has been discussed in this blog many times already, pointed out that the cost per worker of equipping a workplace is one of the many crucial factors that  mainstream economic thought invariably neglects. That cost is usually expressed in financial terms, but underlying the abstract tokens we call money is a real cost in energy, expressed in terms of the goods and services that have to be consumed in the process of equipping and maintaining the workplace. If you have energy to spare, that’s not a problem; if you don’t, on the other hand, you’re actually better off using a less complex technology—what Schumacher called “intermediate technology” and the movement in which I studied green wizardry thirty years ago called “appropriate technology.”

The cost per worker of equipping a workplace, in turn, also has a political dimension—a point that Schumacher did not neglect, though nearly all other economists pretend that it doesn’t exist. The more costly it is to equip a workplace, the more certain it is that workers won’t be able to set themselves up in business, and the more control the very rich will then have over economic production and the supply of jobs. As Joseph Tainter pointed out in The Collapse of Complex Societies, social complexity correlates precisely with social hierarchy; one of the functions of complexity, in the workplace as elsewhere, is thus to maintain existing social pecking orders.

Schumacher’s arguments, though, focused on the Third World nations of his own time, which had very little manufacturing capacity at all—most of them, remember, had been colonies of European empires, assigned the role of producing raw materials and buying finished products from the imperial center as part of the wealth pump that drove them into grinding poverty while keeping their imperial overlords rich. He focused on advising client nations on how to build their own economies and extract themselves from the political grip of their former overlords, who were usually all too eager to import high-tech factories which their upper classes inevitably controlled. The situation is considerably more challenging when  your economy is geared to immense surpluses of concentrated energy, and the supply of energy begins to run short—and of course that’s the situation we’re in today.

Even if it were just a matter of replacing factory equipment, that would be a huge challenge, because all those expensive machines—not to mention the infrastructure that manufactures them, maintains them, supplies them, and integrates their products into the wider economy—count as sunk costs, subject to what social psychologists call the “Concorde fallacy,” the conviction that it’s less wasteful to keep on throwing money into a failing project than to cut your losses and do something else. The real problem is that it’s not just factory equipment; the entire economy has been structured from the ground up to use colossal amounts of highly concentrated energy, and everything that’s been invested in that economy since the beginning of the modern era thus counts as a sunk cost to one degree or another.

What makes this even more challenging is that very few people in the modern industrial world actually produce goods and services for consumers, much less for themselves, by applying energy to raw materials. The vast majority of today’s employees, and in particular all those who have the wealth and influence that come with high social status, don’t do this.  Executives, brokers, bankers, consultants, analysts, salespeople—well, I could go on for pages: the whole range of what used to be called white-collar jobs exists to support the production of goods and services by the working joes and janes managing all the energy-intensive machinery down there on the shop floor. So does the entire vast maze of the financial industry, and so do the legions of government bureaucrats—local, state, and federal—who manage, regulate, or oversee one or another aspect of economic activity.

All these people are understandably just as interested in keeping their jobs as the working joes and janes down there on the shop floor, and yet the energy surpluses that made it economically viable to perch such an immensely complex infrastructure on top of the production of goods and services for consumers are going away. The result is a frantic struggle on everyone’s part to make sure that the other guy loses his job first. It’s a struggle that all of them will ultimately lose—as the energy surplus needed to support it dwindles away, so will the entire system that’s perched on that high but precarious support—and so, as long as that system remains in place, getting hired by an employer, paid a regular wage or salary, and given work and a workplace to produce goods and services that the employer then sells to someone else, is going to become increasingly rare and increasingly unrewarding. 

That transformation is already well under way. Nobody I know personally who works for an employer in the sense I’ve just outlined is prospering in today’s American economy.  Most of the people I know who are employees in the usual sense of the word are having their benefits slashed, their working conditions worsened, their hours cut, and their pay reduced by one maneuver or another, and the threat of being laid off is constantly hovering over their heads.  The few exceptions are treading water and hoping to escape the same fate. None of this is accidental, and none of it is merely the result of greed on the part of the very rich, though admittedly the culture of executive kleptocracy at the upper end of the American social pyramid is making things a good deal worse than they might otherwise be.

The people I know who are prospering right now are those who produce goods and services for their own use, and provide goods and services directly to other people, without having an employer to provide them with work, a workplace, and a regular wage or salary. Some of these people have to stay under the radar screen of the current legal and regulatory system, since the people who work in that system are trying to preserve their own jobs by making life difficult for those who try to do without their services. Others can do things more openly. All of them have sidestepped as many as possible of the infrastructure services that are supposed to be part of an employee’s working life—for example, they aren’t getting trained at universities, since the US academic industry these days is just another predatory business sector trying to keep itself afloat by running others into the ground, and they aren’t going to banks for working capital for much the same reason. They’re using their own labor, their own wits, and their own personal connections with potential customers, to find a niche in which they can earn the money (or barter for the goods) they need or want.

I’d like to suggest that this is the wave of the future—not least because this is how economic life normally operates in nonindustrial societies, where the vast majority of people in the workforce are directly engaged in the production of goods and services for themselves and their own customers.  The surplus that supports all those people in management, finance, and so on is a luxury that nonindustrial societies don’t have. In the most pragmatic of economic senses, collapsing now and avoiding the rush involves getting out of a dying model of economics before it drags you down, and finding your footing in the emerging informal economy while there’s still time to get past the worst of the learning curve.

Playing by the rules of a dying economy, that is, is not a strategy with a high success rate or a long shelf life. Those of my readers who are still employed in the usual sense of the term may choose to hold onto that increasingly rare status, but it’s not wise for them to assume that such arrangements will last indefinitely; using the available money and other resources to get training, tools, and skills for some other way of getting by would probably be a wise strategy. Those of my readers who have already fallen through the widening cracks of the employment economy will have a harder row to hoe in many cases; for them, the crucial requirement is getting access to food, shelter, and other necessities while figuring out what to do next and getting through any learning curve that might be required.

All these are challenges; still, like the broader challenge of coping with the decline and fall of a civilization, they are challenges that countless other people have met in other places and times. Those who are willing to set aside currently popular fantasies of entitlement and the fashionable pleasures of despair will likely be in a position to do the same thing this time around, too.


Photo credit: Wikipedia/Rex Miller

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