Skip to content Skip to footer
Rethinking Jobs for a Sustainable Economy

Rethinking Jobs for a Sustainable Economy


Atlanta, Georgia – The possibility of environmental catastrophe has led many leaders,
scholars and average citizens to reconsider an economy based on constant growth.
It is becoming clear that people, especially in the United States, will need to
consume less in the way of natural resources to avoid planetary peril.

The million-dollar question, of course, is how the U.S. can move to a sustainable,
zero-growth economy without losing more jobs. If people are consuming fewer goods
and services, does that mean fewer jobs in the manufacturing, sale, and provision
of those goods and services?

“It’s a good question because we are faced with unsustainable levels of consumption
right now,” said John Talberth, president for the Center for Sustainable
Economy. “The whole economy collapses if we don’t consume enough, and we’ve
got to change.”

To be sure, the Barack Obama administration is pushing green jobs – in clean energy
sectors like wind and solar – as a way for the U.S. to stay economically competitive
and address issues like climate change.

However, green jobs only go so far, mainly replacing dirtier energy jobs like
those in the oil, coal and nuclear industries; this does not address the possible
loss of jobs implied by decreased overall consumption in the U.S.

Many U.S. citizens are already beginning to cut back on consumption, not necessarily
out of concern for the environment, but because the economy is in terrible shape.
And as people cut back on consumption, more and more restaurants and stores are

Cities, which depend on sales taxes for their budgets, are being forced to cut
back on services like parks and police when people cut back on shopping.

IPS spoke with several U.S.-based experts on sustainable economy regarding this
dilemma and found a variety of answers, including localism, new kinds of jobs,
and even working less. The common thread of these solutions is a fundamental restructuring
of the economy.

Moving Toward Localism

The trend of the last several decades has been towards globalisation, centralisation,
specialisation, and mass production. The economic argument for centralisation
is one of efficiency – that more goods can be produced by fewer people. However,
this in itself has contributed to unemployment.

“The mass efficiency we see in going from small- to large-scale industry
has resulted in less demand for labour,” Talberth noted.

“We’ve come off three decades now or more of focusing on an economic policy
of globalisation. That has, as we know, led to the huge demise of the manufacturing
base in our country and has been detrimental to communities throughout the world.
If we shift the focus from globalisation to localisation, we’re going to create
a fantastic amount of new jobs,” Talberth said.

In one vision of a new economy, “The jobs that are about manufacturing mindless
consumer goods that aren’t needed will be replaced by meaningful jobs that are
helping to build local self-reliance,” said Judy Wicks, founder of the Business
Alliance for Local Living Economies.

“Most of our food is imported into our community and processed by big companies
elsewhere. We need to not only support our local farmers, but also jobs and businesses
to distribute the fresh foods… [and] manufacturing for processing our foods,
so canned goods in our grocery store are from our local economy,” she said.

Gloria Tatum, a massage therapist in Decatur, Georgia, came to that same conclusion
when demand for massages dropped last year. She decided to grow vegetables in
her front yard. Last year, she said she grew more than half of the food she ate
and hopes next year to get up to 75 percent.

“It’s going to mean more businesses, many more owners. Business ownership
will be distributed much more broadly,” Wicks said. This means that the benefits
of our consumption as a community will go more to families, and less to stockholders
and financial institutions, she explained.

“Local ownership really brings out the unique, supports local innovators.
In local living economies, we support our local artists, local musicians, our
local culture, so that our community creates unique products that express our
local culture. It might be a great wine, a great cheese, a new fashion… it could
be anything a community creates,” Wicks said, “so that our economy is
about creating things that celebrate our being human [instead of] commodity crops.”

Green Investments and Social Investments

“Our economy should grow, but [our] investments should be green investments…
energy efficiency of existing buildings and existing industries, to promote wind
and solar power, to invest in mass transportation, a big investment,” said
James Heintz, an economics professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Political Economy Research Institute.

“Part of all of this would be modernising the electrical infrastructure in
the country. The current grid is very centralised and old, it can’t accommodate
solar and wind energy,” he said.

“All of these investments I just described would create jobs and would help
sustain jobs in areas of the economy that are currently existing as well,”
Heintz added.

President Obama and the U.S. Congress recently passed a “stimulus package”
or spending bill called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“That contains about 100 billion dollars to support these sort of green investments,”
Heintz said. “It not only creates investments in green jobs, but it also
leaves behind assets to move the economy into the future.”

“Energy efficiency standards for buildings, new buildings, they pay for themselves
very quickly because of the energy savings. It’s paid back in five years,”
he said.

However, he said the ARRA money for energy efficient buildings won’t address all
buildings in the U.S., which will take at least 30 years.

“You have to put incentives in place now to shift the economy into kinds
of production and consumption that make much more efficient use of the scarce
resources we have, and make less demands on the environment to assimilate the
pollution that’s generated,” Heintz said. Energy efficiency will also save
families money, he added.

Talberth also said the U.S. needs to make social investments.

“The source of jobs and job growth is not limited to what we consume. The
government plays a large role by taking the social surplus and investing in our
natural capital base, in education, health care, rebuilding our infrastructure
and housing stock. That public investment is going to be even more significant
in the future in terms of employment creation,” Talberth said.

Working Less

Some suggested that society may conclude in the future that it is neither necessary
nor desirable to have everybody working 40 hours per week, and that we could collectively
produce all that is collectively needed with less labour or fewer labourers.

“If we’ve got everybody taken care of in terms of poverty and hunger and
health care and education, there’s no reason everyone should work their butts
off 40 or 60 hours a week. There’s got to be more incorporation of leisure time,”
Talberth said.

“It also means we work less too. A lot of times people are desperate for
money because they want to buy all this junk. Maybe if we changed our values,
you don’t need as much money, you don’t need to work as much,” Wicks said.

“If you start to work four days a week, maybe three… that’s something about
indigenous cultures. They spend a lot of time talking to people and making music
together… we lack [this] because we’re on this treadmill of making more money
to buy more stuff,” Wicks said.

“All the time-saving inventions like washing machines and whatever are great
things, but what should happen is that we have more leisure time. Instead we’re
just creating more and more work because the economy keeps producing more desired
things you have to have to be happy.”

​​Not everyone can pay for the news. But if you can, we need your support.

Truthout is widely read among people with lower ­incomes and among young people who are mired in debt. Our site is read at public libraries, among people without internet access of their own. People print out our articles and send them to family members in prison — we receive letters from behind bars regularly thanking us for our coverage. Our stories are emailed and shared around communities, sparking grassroots mobilization.

We’re committed to keeping all Truthout articles free and available to the public. But in order to do that, we need those who can afford to contribute to our work to do so — especially now, because we have just 5 days left to raise $40,000 in critical funds.

We’ll never require you to give, but we can ask you from the bottom of our hearts: Will you donate what you can, so we can continue providing journalism in the service of justice and truth?