Monday 17 October 2011

Sustainable Livelihoods

This week is Sustainable Livelihoods week on This Low Carbon Life.

I proposed this theme on the blog because of observations I have made whilst I have been looking for jobs over the past few months. Firstly, that there is a huge problem with unemployment at the moment. The "jobless" rate is over 8% of UK population, and is far higher amongst young people at over 20%! Secondly, that many who are working are over-stretched, stressed, underpaid, working long hours and complain about not having the time to spend with family and friends. Thirdly, that the economic structure of our society exacerbates this trend, with corporate greed driving wages down and down and hours up and up to satisfy their own need for profit, whilst personal credit is available to "top up" earnings, or, more realistically, to ensure that the public are trapped in spiralling debt so that they will continue to work long, stressful hours to pay the interest on last year's Christmas presents.

It's essentially slavery. What makes it worse, it's voluntary slavery, entirely legal, and under no circumstances will you find a benevolent master willing, or even able, to free you.

So what options does that leave?

Well, there are some alternatives. Increasingly, there are books, magazines and movements in support of a changed attitude to work. Social Enterprises (where the social benefit of a company is essentially written into its constitution) are on the up. Starting a cottage industry, being self-employed or partially self-sufficient are all respectable career choices these days, and rightly so. "Consumers" are more aware of how their purchasing choices affect those involved, and the environment.

But this still doesn't answer the question - What makes a livelihood sustainable? What conditions must be met?

Firstly, there must be a continuing market. Farming, for example, will always be a sustainable livelihood, because there is always a market for food. Gadgetry, on the other hand, is only a market so long as the fashion calls for it, the advertisers make it desirable, and the "consumers" are in a position to be able to purchase it. Although highly profitable while those conditions persist, the industry must constantly service its own market and will die when fashions change.

Secondly, there must be a sustainable supply. One word - oil. I don't think we could possibly argue that there will ever cease to be a market for oil so long as it is pumped out of the ground, but such a supply of oil is limited and, on this basis, any industry which relies on the continued supply of oil cannot be sustained.

Thirdly, we must be in a position to connect the two without relying on unsustainable resources. This, in many ways, is the most important one. This covers all the skills, equipment, logistics and everything required to provide a product or service to a market. This is what takes time, thought and design.

At this point, I was going to give some examples of some jobs that I considered to be sustainable, but now that I think about it, there are too many different types of livelihood and structure that by picking one out, I wouldn't be doing justice to many others.

So instead, I'd like you to think about what you do, what you want to do, or what a close friend does. Consider each of the preceding conditions and see how they apply to that situation.

For many livelihoods, the supply and demand structure will be highly complex, but try to identify what human need they are ultimately satisfying. How much does the demand rely on marketing? Does the method of providing for that need use up unsustainable resources, like extensive travel? Is the method so complex that the failure of one part of it would negate the benefits that are being provided? Has the method been designed to meet the needs of humans, for their prosperity, or corporations, for profit?

Now, for the particular example you chose, where could improvements be made? How could reductions on the demand of unsustainable resources be made? How could you redesign the method of providing for the human need in a way that is not damaging, is resilient to shocks and benefits all those involved? Where unsustainable resources are being used, what alternatives are there?

Over the past few months, I have read many inspiring stories of people who have used their ingenuity to meet human needs in sustainable ways and started successful companies in the process. In the American magazine Yes!'s New Livelihoods issue, there's an article about SoupCycle, a company that delivers fresh soup made using local ingredients to nearby workplaces by bicycle. I've heard the story of a journalist who, rather than starting by pandering to the wants of the press and working their way up, has spent years on a shoestring, reporting about what they want until they earn the respect of major newspapers. I have heard the stories of community-owned energy companies, community-owned shops, transport, housing.

In Norwich, we have some way to go, but this certainly isn't an unrealistic fantasy - sustainable livelihoods are tried and tested all over the world!

Images: "Occupy Norwich" protest at the Haymarket on Saturday 15th October credit: Brian McHammer; quote by American founding father, Thomas Jefferson; Norwich Market; SoupCycler.


  1. The tricky part is finding a livelihood that is ecologically sustainable yet can pay a living wage. Though it's not a bad time to be on the dole as nobody is surprised if you pretend you can't find a job. The worst part is dealing with the stigma attached to "unemployed" people, even if in fact you're achieving a lot more for humanity than your average wage-slave, yet living on much less.

  2. Thanks for that Jon! That certainly is the issue, and unfortunately its one that has to be approached collectively, rather than individually. Certain complementary currencies have been established as one way of rewarding the building of social capital in a way that conventional currencies have failed to do, but of course, a successful complementary currency still needs a good deal of infrastructure. Have you heard that the Brixton Pound recently went digital though?