State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


A Sustainable Lifestyle and the Changing Nature of Work

Environmental advocates often focus on individual behavior and say we need to develop lifestyles that consume less and do not damage ecosystems. On a worldwide basis with billions of people aspiring to higher levels of material consumption, individual reductions in consumption in the developed world will have little real impact. But I have hope that we can and are changing the nature of consumption just as we are changing the nature of work. Economic consumption is based on exchanging accumulated wealth for products and services. The prices charged in the exchange are not related to the size of the material involved in consumption. The biggest car need not be the most expensive one. If you buy an expensive software application, view a movie or buy a subscription to a streaming music service, the only material used in the exchange is energy- which someday will be renewable.

We spend more and more of our time each day interacting with our social and professional network via cell phone, text or email and absorbing information we receive from the web. That is a form of consumption. The business models that provide resources for the organizations that create and disseminate information and entertainment content vary, but they do provide resources that pay for work. Sometimes content is paid for by item, sometimes by monthly subscription and sometimes in exchange for watching an advertisement. Increasingly the higher value added parts of our economy are not in the production and distribution of material goods, but in the design, creation and marketing of both products and services. And this is a trend that is accelerating. The hardware in our laptop is now advancing at a much slower pace than the software. In fact, it will be the need for additional computing power, speed and media capacity coming from new apps that will drive the development of new hardware.

The 21st century brain-based economy has changed the nature of production and consumption. We spend our time differently today than we did in the 20th century. We work at different jobs. At the start of the 20th century 40% of Americans worked in agriculture. Today it is about 1%. Projections of the next decade indicate that our aging population will require more health care workers and that manufacturing will continue to decline. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

“Service-providing sectors are projected to capture 94.6 percent of all the jobs added between 2014 and 2024. Of these 9.3 million new service sector jobs, 3.8 million will be added to the healthcare and social assistance major sector… Healthcare and social assistance is projected to increase its employment share from 12.0 percent in 2014 to 13.6 percent in 2024. Construction is projected to add 790,400 jobs by 2024. Even with these additional jobs, employment in the construction major sector is not projected to return to the 2006 peak. Manufacturing employment, between 2014 and 2024, is projected to decline at a 0.7 percent rate annually, a more moderate decline than the 1.6 percent rate experienced in the prior decade.”

These changes relate to the global economy that the United States participates in and in many respects continues to lead. Even as manufacturing grows in the 21st century it will be largely automated. This has already happened to agriculture, and the trend continues. Our labor needs are changing and the resources required to buy material goods are also in relative decline. This means that the proportion of our income devoted to food and clothing and maybe someday to shelter is a declining portion of our income and therefore of our overall consumption. There is less unskilled manual labor and more skilled service-oriented labor. More and more of the labor involved in manufacturing requires the skilled operation of complex machines. Event planners, software designers, communications strategists, policy analysts, web designers, personal trainers, health care workers, social service providers, and countless other service professions are replacing the “butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker.”

The evidence of this change is everywhere. You can see it in the physical changes on the West Side of Manhattan near my home. The best example of this in New York is the now world famous High Line Park. The High Line was a freight train that carried raw materials and manufactured goods from the West Side docks to nearby Manhattan factories. The docks are gone, replaced by a beautiful park and a growing number of amenities; the manufacturing firms are gone replaced by Google, media companies, fancy restaurants and even fancier apartments. The elevated train track is now a beautiful, world class path-breaking public park. Technology forced the change. The West Side docks could not accommodate containerized shipping and so the freight port moved across the river to New Jersey. The factories themselves sat on real estate that was too valuable for the old functions of packing meat, making clothing, and fabricating other materials central to the early and mid-20th century economy.

The changing economy challenges our labor force and our educational system and in the mid-1970s it almost drove New York City into bankruptcy. But New York City struggled and then managed to adapt and change. In the process of changing the economic role of the city, we need to pay more attention to the impact of our production and consumption on the environment and on all elements of the supply chain that bring goods and services to us. Building systems that reduce environmental impacts is more important than individual consumption patterns. That is not an argument for wasting energy and other resources, but to imbed new patterns of consumption in more sustainable supply chains. Individual behavior is not enough. We need institutional behaviors that ensure production and consumption with the least possible impact.

Tangibly, that means that our food waste and sewage need to be reprocessed for fertilizer. The waste stream must be mined for resources and, to a growing extent, reused for new production materials. It goes without saying that all of this will require increasing amounts of energy and that energy must not be generated by fossil fuels. There are other system-level changes needed, particularly our educational system which must do a better job of preparing people for the professions of the future rather than the jobs of the past.

And what of sustainable consumption? It will happen to the extent that our consumption shifts from filling our closets with shoes to filling our minds with ideas and our souls with friendship, relationships, music, film, theatre, culture and dance. Visits to the mall may be replaced by visits to cafes to argue politics with friends, watch the ball game, or by trips to the gym, the ball field, the basketball or tennis court, or by a hike in the park. Car rides replaced by bike rides. Motorboats replaced by sailboats. Jet skis replaced by surfboards.

It is not difficult to imagine these changes, but the only way they will happen is if people are positively attracted to them rather than punished for their attraction to non-sustainable consumption patterns. Culture and values are far more powerful forces of social change and consumption patterns than regulation. Prohibition didn’t end drinking. If someone wants to buy 50 pairs of shoes and ride around in the water on their speed boat that should be their right. But hopefully the images of interesting and exciting work and play will reflect the growing understanding of the need to minimize the damage of our work and play on the planet that sustains us.

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