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What is a green job?

by Ellie Hopgood

Addressing climate change is going to require reimagining how we do, well, everything. The way we generate and distribute energy, the way we build houses, the way we eat, the way we move through a world straining under the weight of billions of people trying to live ever more energy-intensive lives. It will definitely require us to think about what work could look like in a post-climate crisis world, because the industries pumping out oil and the endless parade of unnecessary consumer toys, clothes and electronics that are then shipped all over the world are all staffed by people, who need these jobs to obtain money to live. This is not just true for people in manufacturing and energy, but also people working for the airlines transporting all these goods and individuals around the world and the millions of people working in tourism and the farmers herding methane-spewing cattle. These livelihoods all depend on behaviours that are unlikely to survive the green transition, at least without some kind of sustainable update. And this is to say nothing of the millions of people working in offices, in jobs that will vary in terms of the energy-intensiveness, but that still involves the maintenance of enormous buildings and the energy it takes to transport all these office workers to and from the fringes of major cities to the centre almost every day of the week, so we can all congregate in workplaces that are not that productive anyway. Our warming world will also have profound implications for anyone working outside in hot or tropical countries, where the increased heat will make outdoor jobs unsafe or even deadly, and will change the nature of medicine as tropical diseases become commonplace in areas where they’ve never been detected before. So many specific professions will be affected by climate change, along with the very nature of work itself.

As David Graeber compellingly argues in his recent book Bullshit Jobs, many of today’s jobs are unnecessary, even before climate change enters into the equation. All of the gains in automation and robotics that we’ve made in the past century should have freed up so much human time that now, the only question would be what we’re going to do with all this leisure time, as went the prediction by twentieth century economists. But in practice, we have merely ramped up our consumption to falsely create a need for output, and kept many people trapped in the perpetual pursuit of their paychecks. In a world so wealthy and technologically advanced, there is no reason that so many people should be working more now than ever before, especially when you look into progressive policies like Universal Basic Income, which could make working solely to afford your basic necessities, if not a decent life overall, a thing of the past.

So, what is a green job? Often, the first thing that comes to mind is all the jobs that will come from the green energy transition, like installing solar panels, making wind turbines and checking up on hydroelectric dams. The world will still need to be powered and that will provide millions of jobs across the world, especially for those who already work in the energy sector. As we start to talk more about phasing out fossil fuels, a common objection is what will happen to the millions of people who work in the fossil fuel industry, which may be as many as two million in America alone, a sentiment that the article I just linked to invokes heavily. However, needing to keep a few million people in employment is a pretty poor rationalisation for damaging the planet irreparably, especially when the stats don’t suggest that this is by any means the only way to keep skilled people in the energy sector in work. In fact, New Scientist recently reported that the US green economy employs ten times as many people as the fossil fuel industry. Whatever the exact numbers are, it follows basic reasoning that if the world still needs energy, there will be jobs to be had in the energy sector, jobs that it will hopefully be possible to staff with some of the people who lost out as coal fell out of favour.

There will be lots of work available in enacting the green transition, from the aforementioned green energy employees to the architects designing more climate conscious buildings to the engineers bringing new public transport systems to life. Every industry will be redesigning itself in order to evolve with the changing times, something we can already see as companies bring out more green products and make ambitious carbon reduction promises. Now, this isn’t to say that all these efforts are effective (greenwashing is all too prevalent and the idea of following the money – which is ultimately why all these companies are now going green – is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place), but it does suggest that plenty of energy will be put into trying to green the fashion, finance, fitness and tech sectors, among others. However, there are whole sectors that are already green jobs, though they don’t come to mind when that phrase is uttered. Teaching, nursing and care work are already low carbon jobs, and it’s likely no surprise that these jobs, which are primarily done by women, are erased from the green jobs conversation, where mental images of solar power engineers invariably comprise of men for most people. Green jobs don’t necessarily look ‘green’ and they don’t necessarily come with a title containing the word sustainability. They might just be the kind of jobs that give more than they take and produce few carbon emissions to boot. It’s a good thing, then, that we desperately need more teachers, nurses and carers.

It’s almost funny to me that the conversations about work and the climate crisis are so full of fear for a future in which we all work fewer hours, in more meaningful jobs, with a much greater focus on avoiding long travel distances and huge offices. As with many aspects of addressing climate change, the greener future might not just not be worse than now – it might actively be better. Modern work culture is defined by long work hours, stress and mental health issues, an almost religious obsession with productivity and long commutes which have been shown to increase your risk of depression, all while real wages haven’t risen in years, perhaps decades. I don’t know about you, but this doesn’t look like something worth holding onto, certainly not in its current form. Some research suggests we may have to work as few as nine hours a week to keep the economy at a level that can sustain the planet. I can’t profess to know exactly what the new world of work will look like on planet that’s not on the brink of environmental collapse, but I do know that it could be better. There is enough money on this planet and enough resources that work doesn’t need to look like this for us to live good lives. There is enough to be done to keep everyone hale and whole on our greener planet that there will be plenty of meaningful work to do – though not so much that most of us don’t have more time for family, friends, hobbies and just being a person. Perhaps we don’t have to choose. Perhaps we can heal our broken work culture and our planet at the same time. That sounds like something worth working for.

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