Essay by Steve Pierson
Labor Day came into being in the late 1880’s and early 1890’s, during a wave of popular sentiment toward organized labor. Industry was on a steep upswing at that time, powered by leading-edge fossil fuel energy technology. Furnaces became the driving force of what is now the developed world. Big furnaces cooked metals out of ore. Smaller furnaces drove pistons and performed mechanical work. Furnaces were everywhere, behind every mechanical thing and every manufactured product. Mines fueled steel mills that built railroads that distributed goods. Manpower was in short supply, and a mass migration occurred from rural farm jobs to industrial jobs.
Eventually, cities like Detroit, and companies like General Motors, became central to the very definition of America. Fossil fuel was behind it all, and the furnaces were still behind and inside everything. Seemingly unlimited quantities of fantastically concentrated photosynthesis energy, sequestered over hundreds of millions of years of life on Earth, were extravagantly consumed in little more than a human lifetime. As more people relocated to urban areas, as population grew, and as machines became more sophisticated, the shortage of manpower gradually eased and became a surplus. Labor, especially organized labor with its ability to extract concessions from management, became an expensive liability.
The factories followed the periphery of the developed world, and are now far away from where they first emerged. Today, the industrial portion of the American heartland is known as the Rust Belt. Detroit is rapidly depopulating, and vacant lots are replacing thousands of houses. Large numbers of capable human beings are unemployed or underemployed. Where Labor was once a powerhouse, it’s now increasingly idle.
Now the concentrated fossil fuel energy for all those furnaces has reached the peak of its expansion, and is likely to enter decline. As if that weren’t enough trouble, the effects of the massive transfer of so much carbon from the Earth’s crust into the atmosphere is pushing our climate out of its familiar stable range. Both of these influences threaten to break down the global production and distribution system that we’ve become utterly dependent upon. The old rusty factories aren’t likely to reopen, and the Wal-Mart where idle workers buy low-cost imported equivalents of the goods the old factory once made may be far more subject to global disruption than people realize.
The Many Levels of “Green”
Now consider the word “sustainability.” While people do argue about the finer points, most agree that a sustainable society meets its present needs in a way that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In a society characterized by reliable furnaces and perpetual expanding progress, this can be luxurious. In such a society, inconveniently large sustainability gaps of today can be heavily discounted against presumed future technological developments. Therefore sustainability can mean simple substitution of goods and services whose environmental and social footprint represents an improvement over the status quo. I call this “Level 1 Green.” It tends to be easy steps, and it assumes there are no serious immediate consequences to moving too slowly, as long as the movement is in the right direction.
A more urgent take on our predicament, one that sees approaching fundamental discontinuities precipitated by climate change and peak oil, might actually (if temporarily) re-tool and fire up those old factories in a major push to build solar panels and windmills. I call this “Level 2 Green,” and it involves a second industrial revolution to replace all those still-roaring furnaces and processes with renewable ones. Level 2 Green is big, really big. It’s a colossal race to re-engineer our society so that it can continue to function at least as well as we’ve come to expect, while forestalling the rapidly approaching limits to our necessary growth. Level 2 addresses the very worst large-scale problems and buys us time.
But what I’m most interested in is “Level 3 Green.” Sustainability that’s determined to measurably fit within the carrying capacity of the local environment. One that does not push the hard problems off into the future but faces them because avoidance is no longer possible. This is the solution that a successful Level 2 buys us time to find.
So we’ve got an increasingly idle labor force and an increasingly distant and fragile supply chain of our basic necessities. I would propose that a truly sustainable Level 3 Green world entails restored local food and energy production, along with local craftsmanship and ingenuity, with very few of those industrial revolution furnaces. Think of it as the descendants of your local farmers market, grown into the primary marketplace of your community. Food production, tool-making, beer brewing, and the other things involved in a vital re-localized community all require lots of human effort by lots of human beings within those communities. People whose industrial jobs are already gone for good, and who may someday find that their necessities of life are no longer cheap and accessible at the local big box superstore.
Here is my Labor Day question for you: How can this transition reasonably occur? How can a dwindling demand for wage labor in energy-intensive industry transform into some other form of labor in direct support of revitalized communities? If you’ve heard of “Transition Towns,” how might Detroit successfully become one? I am not suggesting a total rewind to some pre-industrial world. I want to know how we can use our brilliant science and technology to make a modern and beautiful but much less energy intensive society. I am also implying that the only thing optional about this transition is how skillfully we navigate it. For the moment, we’re still educated and rich. What might we do today to make a functioning Level 3 Sustainable world a reality a generation or two from now? And how might this represent a complete transformation of the very meaning of Labor?
Steve Pierson is a 2008 Sustainable MBA graduate of Presidio School of Management. He is in a full-on leap of faith looking for productive ways to bridge worlds and surf sustainability inflection points. He believes that good allies extend one another’s reach, and that you might be an important one. Other writings in a similar vein may be found at his website, www.level3green.com.