It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
– Upton Sinclair
On my last day of teaching Environmental Studies, I posed a question to my students. I explained that for some time in my childhood, my father worked in the airline industry. “What does this have to do with the environment?” I asked. Sadly, even after an entire semester, few if any of my students could make the connection. Air transportation is one of the most polluting industries. Depending on the type of car you use and the amount you use it, one to two flights can generate the same amount of carbon emissions as a whole year of driving. From the consumption of fossil fuels, to the toxic substances utilized or emitted such as jet fuel and de-icing fluid, to all of the disposable products and packages within the plane and the airport, to so much more, there is nothing sustainable at all about air travel. Thus, for a part of my childhood, the majority of our family income was derived from a highly polluting industry that has contributed greatly to the dire environmental predicament we are currently facing.
Of course, mine is not the only family whose income is linked to environmental destruction. In fact, one could make the case that nearly all American households, especially the most affluent, have made their money through directly or indirectly exploiting and polluting the environment (and often exploiting people as well). For example, a conference on “Peace Engineering” just concluded, which implored engineers to consider “ethics, social good, the biases and unintended consequences of the technology they build.” Clearly, this implies that engineering does not usually contemplate the deleterious environmental and social effects of its work. My point in bringing this conversation to my students was to help them think about the career paths they were exploring or embarking upon and for them to keep in mind the ecological impact these careers. At this crucial time in history, when thus far we have all but ignored the warnings to drastically reduce our resource consumption, toxic waste, and carbon emissions for the sake of our incomes, it is imperative that this generation of students take bold steps to help make the fields in which they work more sustainable and to help to permanently put to rest unnecessary industries that are not. In fact, a group of French college students are trying to do just that.
This past September, students from the top universities in France unveiled a manifesto entitled “Wake Up Call on the Environment.” They are attempting to utilize their collective power as future employees to compel companies to prioritize environmental concerns over economic bottom lines, with a tacit threat to withhold their labor from workplaces and industries that do not make radical strides toward sustainability. As of this writing, there are over 23,000 signatories to the manifesto, which includes the following insight:
…Does it mean anything to ride a bike when you work for a company whose activities contribute to increasing climate change or draining natural resources? As we get closer to our first job we realize that the system we are part of steers us towards positions that are often incompatible with the result of our reflections. This system traps us in daily contradictions.
For sure, this is not the first time students have acknowledged the detrimental effects of our corporate, capitalist workplaces on environmental and social well-being. There are those in past generations who have attempted to opt-out of environmentally and socially unjust work, but rather than being seen as proactive, concerned citizens, they were often marginalized. Many Baby Boomers who refused to participate in ecologically destructive jobs were deemed “hippies.” Those in Generation X were called “slackers.” Finally, Millennials who tried to resist harmful jobs on ethical principles were largely lost amid the rest of the unemployed and precariously employed. The difference between this French student manifesto and the individual actions of past generations, though, is the power that a collective force – especially a union of people who reside in the upper echelon of their society – brings to effect change.
If nothing else, the student declaration finally draws attention to the fact that our concern about the environment cannot be decoupled from our careers. If we deem ourselves environmentalists, if we declare we are committed to do everything we can about our global ecological crises, we cannot maintain our integrity if we also work (an activity to which we in Western societies devote the majority of our adult lives) in industries that contribute to the very ills we purport to want to remedy. It is not only disingenuous to ignore the inherent contradictions between our work and our ecological knowledge; it is suicidal to continue on this path.
Back when I was a college student, I spent a considerable amount of time volunteering with the homeless. I recall once serving a meal at a soup kitchen when I struck up a conversation with an attendee. He explained to me that he had graduated from Harvard and that he was homeless by choice. Though that may have sounded like a tall tale, I got the impression he was sincere. I was probably only 19 or 20 at the time and had not yet come to fully understand the destructive force of corporate capitalism on society and the natural environment, but I already had enough experience with the privileged elite at my own university to comprehend why someone with a conscience would choose to no longer participate in such a system. Furthermore, it seemed completely logical to me that a person who had attended Harvard would know better than anyone how the sausage was made, and would want neither to help make it nor to eat it.
Making a principled decision to potentially sacrifice income and livelihood for the benefit of the greater good probably will be a hard sell to many Americans. I will never forget arriving at college, meeting the young women in my dorm, and sharing our aspirations for our impending educations. One roommate blithely stated, “I just want to be rich.” Indeed, “follow your dreams” is American gospel, regardless of what repercussions those dreams may have for your fellow citizens or for society, and regardless of how narcissistic or adolescent that credo may be. It is all the more difficult to publicly suggest that environmental sustainability and social justice might entail a modicum of self-reflection when the people who have the strongest voices in our society are precisely the ones who have followed their dreams, regardless of the costs. These people (like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, the Walton family, as well as countless financiers and celebrities, for example) may have wreaked the most havoc to the environment and to our collective socioeconomic well-being, but they have the microphone to amplify and rationalize their vapid messages of personal ambition and their phony, superficial commitments to social good. Their messages then echo in our heads, given our almost constant exposure to mass media and marketing. So, penetrating the platitudes of American society to create environmentally and socially just work will be exceedingly difficult.
Several months ago, at my mother-in-law’s funeral, I spoke to an old friend of hers whose grandson had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where coincidentally, I had received my graduate degree. The man suggested that the university had placed some crazy “liberal” notions in his grandson’s mind, but that his grandson – now confronted by the “real” world – abandoned those previous “ridiculous” ideals to take a good solid position in finance (or some similar endeavor).
It is precisely this careerist mindset that may have already cost humanity the ability to persist on the planet. A perilous economic circumstance is without a doubt a harsh reality for a substantial number of young people, not to mention a majority of Americans of all ages, in addition to all of the anonymous forgotten resisters who have already tried to opt-out of corporate capitalism to live a principled, sustainable life amidst a wholly unsustainable system. Nevertheless, succumbing to business as usual only solidifies an ecologically perilous future for us all.
Unfortunately, so many of us still characterize the real world as the economic world we created rather the biological world that bore all of humanity. In the actual “real” world, imperiled by catastrophic climate change, toxic pollution, and the loss of biodiversity, the lack of a high-paying job is no longer the major impediment to a good, long, prosperous life, as it may have been for a miniscule moment in human history. Now it should be clear that the impediment to a good, long, prosperous life is the sustainability of our global ecosystem. As long as the foundational elements of our modern socioeconomic systems – our jobs – do not comply with the realities of our ecological limits, our species will have no choice but to comply with the reality of extinction.