It is a mug’s game to attempt to predict the future. As the economist John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” That said, some educated guesses can be made. There are several converging trends that will change the employment picture in significant ways. Those changes will be driven by increasing oil prices and ‘environmental’ problems. Together or separately, they will of necessity produce changes in who gets to do what in developed countries like Canada and the United States.
Back to Basics
More of us will have to go back to supplying basic needs. Look at it this way: a certain number of people are required to produce the necessities of life for everyone: food, water, clothing. After that, everyone else can do whatever they can get someone else to pay for. In the United States, approximately 9% of the population is engaged in farming or farm-related activities, from actually growing food, to producing canned goods and tractors, to distributing and selling all those items. (As of 2002, but close enough. Things get muddled because some of those farmers are exporting food, and we also import food.) That means 91% of us don’t have to worry where our food comes from and can do other things like write blogs, do cosmetic surgery, screw people over by being a bankster, and so on.
However…changes are coming, and the result means more of us must do farm-related work and fewer of us will be sitting in cubicles. The two gentlemen and their donkey require zero fossil fuels, but our system is completely dependent upon them. The price of oil is only going to go up from this point forward. There was a limited supply of the stuff to start with, and demand continues to increase. Modern fertilizers and pesticides need natural gas or oil; we do not have substitutes at this time. Nobody is working on hydrogen-powered tractors, or on electric trains to replace diesel trucks. The entire “Green Revolution” requires large inputs of fossil fuels for fertilizers, pesticides, tractors, irrigation, transportation, and so forth. This means that, as the price of oil increases, so will the price of industrially-produced food.
If every farm switched to organic production, almost zero fossil fuel-derived fertilizers and pesticides would be required…but food prices would go up – look at the prices of organic foods in the grocery stores. Industrial farming is subsidised up the wazoo, making prices of industrially-farmed products artificially low, especially meat and dairy. Check the US farm subsidies chart; most of the subsidies go to animal feed (Corn/feed plus Soybean).
Well, food price increases don’t necessarily mean you’ll soon be ploughing fields with Bessie, right? You might be happy to have the job. As oil and food prices increase, non-rich people have less money for other things like iPods and cars and clothes and so forth, meaning a decline in employment in these fields.
Green Acres is the Place to Be
Fortunately, there will be more careers in farming. Here’s the thing about organic farming: it is roughly as productive as industrial farming during good growing conditions, and much better during adverse conditions. (This will become increasingly important as climate change progresses, but that’s a story for another time.) But that is productivity per unit area (e.g. per hectare or per acre.) Industrial farming replaced a lot of farmers with tractors, pesticides, irrigation (requiring pumps driven by electricity or gas) and so forth. Organic farming requires more people but less energy (oil, etc.) to produce the same amount of food.
Of course, as industrial farm productivity has increased since the advent of the Green Revolution, there are fewer farmers and farms are getting larger, including ownership by absentee “farmers” who rent the land to others, and corporations, so you might find yourself a tenant farmer or employee of a farmer, traditionally not a very well-paid position. An MBA is not required to shovel real shit, only the kind that emanates from boardrooms. On the upside, you get several months off each year. Unpaid, but still. And you really can’t put a price on the serf-of-the-month award.
So oil price increases are one factor that will change employment prospects. The other trend is ‘environmental’ factors, in which I am including climate change and peak-everything-other-than-oil. (I do not want to diminish the impact oil price increases will have; our entire industrial society, from manufacturing to commuting to Wal-Mart, is heavily dependent upon oil. As the price of oil increases – likely in economy-damaging spikes-and-retreats, but trending steadily upward – the price of almost everything will go up. James Howard Kunstler covers this very well in his book: The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century. I interviewed Mr. Kunstler recently.)
The Green Economy
But won’t those environmental factors produce all kinds of green jobs? Isn’t that what is happening in Germany, Denmark, and even China? Won’t you simply be switching cubicles? Maybe, yes, and don’t count on it. It is true that some countries are greening their economy and producing many new jobs as a result. If you live in one of those countries, consider yourself lucky, and apply pressure on your government to move faster.
If you live in Canada or the United States, there is enormous corporate and ideological resistance to greening the economy, and that will likely only be overcome by a crisis – at which time it could be too late. Look at the banking sector in the United States; clearly corrupt and highly successful at resisting changes that would contribute to long-term stability, even in the midst of a financial crisis they created.
Other executives also have a solid grasp on the reins of power, and they will not let go willingly. The oil, coal, and auto executives have done everything possible to stall development of alternatives; GM had an electric car years ago and scrapped them all. They even bought up streetcar systems and ripped up the tracks. All three sectors have been funding climate denial for years. (The link is to a meticulously researched book on the topic, with everything tracked back to original sources. We interviewed the author Jim Hoggan recently and the podcast should be available soon.)
The U.S. and therefore much of the world economy is based on cheap energy and continuous growth, neither of which are sustainable and both of which appear to be hitting nature-imposed limits, but there is no significant greening of the economy in North America. For example, rather than the recent bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler, a much more sensible course would have been to let them fail and use the bailout money to launch new jobs in wind and solar power, high-speed electric trains, and so on. You’ll note that didn’t happen.
Things will likely not change in oil-dealer Canada and oil-junkie United States until there is a much bigger crash and angry people are out in the streets. Don’t count on getting a ‘green job’ in those countries any time soon.
The Local Economy
As energy prices increase and as we make feeble attempts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, transportation becomes more costly. The good news is that this means it will be more cost-effective to manufacture closer to market, meaning more manufacturing jobs in Canada and the United States.
There is another issue, frequently overlooked: in a green and local economy, there just won’t be enough work for everyone. Our current consumption-based economy requires massive waste to maintain current levels of employment. Eliminate that waste, and suddenly the four-day week becomes easily attainable, but you can bet those at the top will also resist this to the end. For example, imagine you could live without a car because you could walk or use transit to get easily to work, shopping, play, school, and so on; the loss of that expense alone is enough to put a four-day week within reach of many people. That also means many fewer cars are needed – meaning many fewer car manufacturing jobs, and steel mill jobs, and mining jobs….
Overall Employment Outlook
In conclusion, there will be more jobs on farms. There will be fewer jobs in luxuries for the non-rich. The rush to green the economy, and therefore green jobs, may come too late – once the cheap energy is gone, the economy is trashed, and governments and investors have no revenue to fund it.
If you are worried about your own future or wondering what field to suggest to your children…that’s a tough call. The stability of the post-war boom years is likely gone for the foreseeable future, making career predictions difficult. Global corporations heavily dependent upon cheap energy, such as Wal-Mart, are going to struggle. So will those dependent upon subsidies, which at this point includes most of the older industries such as automobile manufacturing and industrial-scale farming, as governments have less revenue.
When major changes in employment will occur is anybody’s guess. There are many variables. It could happen literally overnight; the global economy is very complex and fragile. If a significant part of the oil flow were to stop for any reason, for example – boom. There would be panic, huge price spikes, layoffs galore, and possibly more wars. Or things could chug along for awhile, seemingly relatively normal. My best guess is that, by 2020, the danger from peak oil and climate change will be no longer be deniable and we will be attempting to rapidly green the economy as best we can.