10/06/2011

Low tech jobs

The Great Requalification

With the oil era entering its second phase and industrial society beginning down the unstable road of a catabolic collapse, we must prepare ourselves to see another labour revolution unfold. The changes that are coming are likely to be every bit as traumatising as those that brought forth the industrial revolution. It remains to be seen however, what the jobs of tomorrow will be, and how we can adapt to them.

Changes in the nature of work are not new. Since the beginning of industrialisation, new techniques and new economic factors have seen the creation of many new types of jobs, just as others have become rarer or disappeared.

Historically, as civilisations have gained in complexity, there has been a tendency to increase economic specialisation. The basis of this increase in specialisation has been agricultural surplus. An agricultural surplus allows a society to liberate part of its workforce from producing food, to move into other roles such as soldiers, artisans and bureaucrats. Unlimited supply of fossil fuels during the last two hundred years has reinforced this tendency to role specialisation – from dog walkers to neurosurgeons, traders to airline pilots – to the point where only 4% of the French population is employed in agriculture today.

The collapse of socio-historic systems has historically resulted from a reduction in a civilisation’s level of complexity and a corresponding reduction in its economic specialisation.

For the unemployed it may be useful to understand the implications of the changes underway, so as to be better prepared for the jobs of the future.

But before going on, let us examine what this catabolic collapse will look like.

Catabolic collapse (=molecular degradation of an organism)

Four factors are working together towards this economic collapse: climate change, peak oil, the depletion of natural resources and the instability of the financial system.

If industrial civilisation continues on its present course, we will be confronted with:
– Less abundant, more expensive energy, due to both rising oil prices and the decline of Energy returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) for the exploitation of energy sources and the extraction of fossil fuels;
– Less abundant and more expensive food sources, as the quality of crops deteriorates under the impact of climate change, and phosphorous and oil based inputs, water and arable land become rarer;
– Less and less wealth, as the enormous availability of credit associated with the second half of 20th century contracts due to the two previously mentioned factors;
– Ultimately the factors mentioned above will lead to a decrease in technology, as the reliability and availability of cutting edge technology decreases due to a combination of factors such as the availability of material, the interruption of the global supply chain and a reduced consumer base because of the reduction in purchase power internationally.

Of course the impact of each of these factors will be very variable, depending on the region and on the country, both in terms of scale and speed. Some things will remain constant however. Those industries that are dependent on cheap energy, high revenues and the expansion of credit are likely to see a downsizing of their activities. Industries such as aviation, tourism, and financial services will be particularly vulnerable. Even governments and bureaucracies, with the exception of the police and the army will shrink in the long term as financial resources decrease. Governments will undoubtedly pursue their industrial choices instead of beginning reconversions, up until the point where industries like aviation and nuclear power will no longer be financially viable. But what will become of the employees in these high-risk industries? The reduction of industrial activities will pour qualified workers onto the job market, in far greater number that it will be able to absorb.

Reduce the complexity
Joseph Tainter, an American archaeologist, born in 1949, defined complexity around three parameters:
– diversification of social, economic and political roles ;
– development of means of communication;
– growth of economy and services.
All this must be supported by high levels of energy consumption. When civilisations are confronted with new problems, they increase the complexity of their economic, social and political organisation.
For example: The Roman Empire attempted to resolve its problems by enlarging its territory, which led to increased maintenance costs. This is the phenomenon of marginal decreasing gain. In this case, collapse resulted from a political process.

Ideally, given the speed of the crisis, we would begin preparing now: we should already be in the process of anticipating the collapse of the complex systems we live in.

Complex systems are fragile, in spite of the best attempts of the most qualified engineers, as the recent financial crisis, the Macondo-BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the nuclear accident in Fukushima all show. Of course, increasing complexity should reduce the frequency of such accidents, but at the price of more substantial impacts when the system fails.

The failure of complex systems will become more and more frequent in the years to come as the complexity of the global economy contracts.

Better to be prepared, when so many jobs depend on these complex systems, on our inability to predict the next financial or environmental disaster, the next political upheaval or supply crisis. Better to be prepared, physically, mentally (now is not the time to have a nervous breakdown when the familiar world crumbles), and with a wide range of skills and knowledge to propose an alternative to traditional employment in either the formal or informal economy. That would indeed be a good investment in an uncertain future.

For those employed in vulnerable industrial sectors, it would be a good idea to prepare for the possibility of another kind of life in the future.

Perhaps we should we think about going back to a subsistence economy on a domestic level: market gardens, backyard veggie gardens and fruit trees, keeping chickens and so on. For example: during World War II the “Victory Gardens” programme enabled the production of 40% of America’s vegetables, in suburban backyards.

Reducing our dependency on the formal economy would also mean reducing the impact of employment crises and other systemic crises in the future. In fact, as the formal economy progressively contracts and increasingly less jobs are needed, the number of people employed in domestic labour or in the informal economy will increase.

Agriculture will become one of the principle growth sectors. A decrease in agricultural inputs heralds a country of farmers. The equation is simple: 1 barrel of petrol = 25, 000 hours of human labour, or 12.5 years of work at 40 hours/week. This means that as petrol becomes rarer, work based on high petrol consumption will have to be replaced. Human and animal labour will be part of the solution.

We will witness the transition to a spectacular increase in the search for people trained or employed in the areas of permaculture, organic gardening, the production of organic fertilisers, the maintenance of soil fertility, animal husbandry, landscapes rehabilitation, and seed conservation and distribution.

The great requalification
With de-globalisation, delocalised jobs in industry will be relocalised because the technological objects of low technology will have to be produced locally, in many smaller scale operations, using a smaller range of objects, and a combination of skilled and unskilled labour rather than assembly-line practices.

Artisanal industries will return in the decades to come; the making of clothes, soaps, medicinal products and so forth will give rise to the creation of numerous fields of employment.
Expertise in renewable energy and small-scale systems will be in high demand, as will the ability to repair various kinds of objects, tools and machines, most of which are today created for obsolescence but which we will want to keep operational.
This is food for thought about the job choices of today for tomorrow’s economy.

The message pounded out by the media and politicians about the return to growth does not help prepare the population, which will be absolutely helpless in the face of the upheaval of the industrial changes to come.

It is in our interests to prepare ourselves for autonomy, domestic subsistence and a wide range of skills and knowledge.