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Redesigning Work


The following article was submitted to Permaculture Works, the journal of the UK Permaculture Association in January 2020. You can download a fully referenced version here [pdf]

We are in a crisis of work. A survey of the UK reveals that despite record levels of employment, wages have stagnated for a decade, millions live in in-work poverty, most social security benefits go to those in work, nearly a million workers in the UK are on ‘zero hours’ contracts with no guarantee of paid work, 37% of people feel that their work is not making a meaningful contribution to the world, and work-related stress, depression and anxiety are increasing rapidly. Our work-centred society is carbon-intensive with a strong correlation between hours worked and greenhouse gas emissions.

As we look to the future, the automation of tasks, and in some cases whole jobs, through technological advances in robotics and artificial intelligence threatens to disrupt employment in several occupations. There are suggestions that robots could take up to 30 per cent of UK jobs as soon as 2030, and the Bank of England has advanced that 15 million jobs, nearly half of all jobs, may be at risk.

While increasingly-more of us will live to 100 or older and will need to sustain livelihoods for longer, in parts of the UK the life expectancy at birth is below 68 years, with healthy lifespan even less. Meanwhile the state pension age is increasing to 68, 70, or even 75 in some proposals. The whole concept of retirement or a life after work has an uncertain future as the demography and economic models on which it is based alter, and the risk of maintaining a flow of income sufficient to meet needs is transferred to the individual. The very concept of retirement as we currently understand it is perhaps a product of the petroleum interval, the finite period of time in which we have access to the dense energy of fossil fuels, and cannot survive it.

So, work is certainly a suitable subject for design and many permaculturalists have engaged with that challenge. One goal has prevailed: to derive income from ‘right livelihood’ (one that ‘suits our needs and is line with our ethics’). Over time different design strategies have predominated. First wave permaculture focused on established counter-cultural trends and a retreat from the formal economy, either through going ‘back to the land’ and self-sufficiency/self-reliance or by a more domestic pursuit of voluntary poverty aka voluntary simplicity or frugality (to the fore again with the publication of David Holmgren’s Retrosuburbia; The Downshifter’s Guide to the Future). These have been joined latterly by strategies of poly-income generation, deriving income from more than one source, (the principle of diversity ‘applied to the way we make our living’) and the concept of the permaculture/regenerative/transition entrepreneur.

For reasons that go back to the great dispossession of lands through confiscation, enclosure and clearance, the UK working age population’s primary engagement with work is as an employee. Just 15% of that population are self-employed. However, all of the strategies listed above privilege self-employment and share a framing of ethical livelihood as, primarily, a personal and individual challenge. They encourage pursuit of the Holmgren pattern ‘From Employed to Self-Employed’. This reflects both Mollison’s prime directive of permaculture: ‘the only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children’, and the Gandhian maxim to ‘be the change, we want to see in the world”. It also mirrors a disillusionment within parts of the broader environmental movement regarding the prospects of large scale change, and a retreat from “the political”. David Holmgren warns against the risks of ‘pouring all our energy into attempting to reform some aspect of the wider society while our domestic realms drift along without addressing the critical issues that bring the problems home’. Nick Srnicek, however, has expressed the counter risk that ‘building bunkers to resist the encroachments of global neoliberalism… has become a politics of defence, incapable of articulating or building a new world.’

There is clearly value in focusing on our circle of influence, but this stance also reflects the neoliberal positioning of us as consumers with all our agency delimited to individual choices, and the responsibilities for climate change, resource use, waste, creating the conditions for right livelihoods etc. devolved down from corporations and states to individuals and households. In doing so it tends to reinforce atomisation, promotes strategies of self-reliance ahead of those for interdependence, prioritises personal action over collective, and cedes the realm of the political to interests counter to our own.

The structural weaknesses of growth-based society have informed a mind-set in permaculture of the need for personal energy descent through downshifting, to ‘collapse now and avoid the rush’. Two decades on from the moment when ‘peak oil’ broke, however, increasing numbers of energy descent activists will have noticed that the petroleum interval might extend past their working lives and that conventional strategies in the formal economy for ‘obtaining a yield’ might have offered better returns for building assets in service of resilience and eliminating debt than voluntary poverty or marginal enterprises. A contracting economy has not lowered basic living costs. Indeed, David Holmgren has noted that early adopters of downshifting will face strong ‘economic… penalties’, which suggests that only those with enough capacity to absorb those penalties on the way down will successfully manage such a shift. Wealth in Great Britain is more unequally divided than income. In 2016, the Office for National Statistics calculated that the richest 10% of households hold 44% of all wealth. The poorest 50%, by contrast, own just 9%. Generational inequalities have additionally disadvantaged the young, with wealth increases for those who have defined benefit pensions or were already home owners outstripping income growth so that ‘inheritance from family may have more of an impact on individuals’ lifetime living standards than how much they earn’. The Knowledge Exchange for Entrepreneurship in Permaculture (KEEP) project which surveyed permaculture-inspired entrepreneurs found that ‘75% of respondents were over 40, and only 5% under 30’. The previous decade has been characterised by the artificial scarcity of political austerity, which has reinforced wealth disparities, rather than by the biophysical scarcity of planetary limits.

Brenna Quinlan illustration from David Holmgren’s RetroSuburbia

The predominant livelihood strategies therefore favour those with access to existing pools of capital (financial, material, living, social, intellectual, experiential) obtained through an intergenerational transfer of wealth and/or previous wealth accumulation in the formal economy. In doing so they will tend to reinforce existing inequities and offer a limited opportunity space for the average person. For example, a contemporary manifestation of poly-income is the experience of those who juggle multiple employments out of the sheer economic necessity of making ends meet, working in the uncertain world of the gig economy. They are members of the precariat – ‘an emerging class, comprising the rapidly growing number of people facing lives of insecurity, moving in and out of jobs that give little meaning to their lives.’ Another manifestation is the ‘side-hustle’ taken on alongside a full-time job as an employee, via which free time is allocated to additional work rather than spent in service of family, sociability, housework, creativity, community, health, play and other discretionary activities. These strategies may also offer little to those who are already limited in the time they can allocate to work due to illness or disability, and/or because they have caring responsibilities.

A design approach to work that ignores the collective in favour of the individual will exclude other strategies and techniques such as labour organising, collective bargaining, industrial action, co-operatives, solidarity economies, income solidarity, and capital pooling that might effect change within organisations, communities and groups of affinity. It will also overlook opportunities for redesigning work at the societal level towards a new political settlement for an equitable eco-social nation. Such a settlement might inspire techniques for better capturing surpluses such as land value, financial transaction and carbon taxes, or licenses to use scarce resources; and for equitably distributing those surpluses, such as investments in public goods and social services that de-financialize basic needs (universal basic services), a universal basic income (UBI), automation for the people and reductions in working time.

This, after all, is the context in which we take our individual actions. We cannot withdraw from the formal economy if doing so leaves us without the resources to live. Patterns found in Holmgren’s work like ‘Single Income Household’, ‘Working Part-time’, telecommuting etc. are choices made in the face of economic, political and corporate environments which are more or less amenable to such choices. The recent electoral rejection of parties supporting rebalancing work emphasises this. We have instead chosen a Prime Minister who has suggested that the British workforce suffers from ‘sloth’, whose cabinet members have written that the ‘British are among the worst idlers in the world’, whose Chief Special Adviser promotes overworking and whose government has already rolled back earlier commitments on the minimum wage, while ministers have also discussed withdrawing from the EU working time directive and raising the retirement age.

The alternative political calls for UBI, universal basic services, a shorter working week, and protecting the collective bargaining power of unions are societal strategies for pro-social working conditions that might support an individual’s pursuit of right livelihood by cradling it within a solidarity economy based on fair shares. As citizens, we can educate, agitate and organise in favour of redistributive actions and elect representatives who will implement those policies. As employees, we can affiliate with our colleagues in trade unions in order to improve working conditions and protect good work.

Yes, this is a design problem, but the structural elements of wealth disparity and inequality of opportunity in the UK ensure that it is a design problem that must be addressed at the societal level as well as the individual one. If the regenerative future of work and human flourishing involves a retreat from the financialization of everyday life and a re-engagement with the informal economies of household, community and commons then the transition will take more than individual decision making. In Holmgren’s RetroSuburbia he is clear on the scope of his downshifting guide: ‘it focuses on what can be done by individuals at the household level (rather than community or government levels)’ but he also notes that while ‘grand schemes to reform the economy are unlikely to gain traction’ finance and economics ‘cannot be fully retrofitted without parallel action in the wider society’. If we cannot think, and design, beyond the personal then permaculture becomes, contra the popular maxim of Mike Feingold – organic gardening disguised as revolution.

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