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Creating Livable 21st Century Cities

The Work To Be Done: Making A Living While Making A Difference


 

 

By Melissa Everett
EcoIQ Magazine Contributing Editor

[The excerpts below are from a valuable and engaging new book by Melissa Everett -- Making A Living While Making A Difference. Her book guides the reader through a program for career development that stresses personal fulfillment, integrity, and contribution. It lays out a framework for dealing with the unique challenges of establishing and maintaining a value-driven career.]

From Chapter 2: The Work To Be Done

Fou are walking down to the corner cafe at dusk to buy a local newspaper, and you notice: how pleasant it is to have a corner cafe and to be near it, rather than in traffic, as the sun sets; how reassuring it is to feel safe strolling in your own neighborhood, since you remember years when the streets were less welcoming. Finally, you give thanks that there is a local paper available, owned by people you've met, to give you a flavor of news and commentary not available from the newspaper chains.

"Livable communities" is an intentionally broad category -- broad enough to represent the range of concerns that might be important to you, from safety to health to containment of sprawl so that residences and commerce are arranged for a mix of utility and beauty. Writing in the San Antonio Express in 1998, Mike Greenberg reports:

"In the 50 years after World War II, worry about suburban sprawl was the specialty of a small band of architects, critics and other intellectuals, largely on aesthetic and cultural grounds. Suddenly, the anti-sprawl voice has become mainstream. In recent years, voters across the country have passed measures to fight sprawl, rebuild inner cities and protect rural areas from suburban encroachment. Prominent centrist politicians of both parties, notably Vice President Al Gore among the Democrats and Christine Todd Whitman among the Republicans, see sprawl as among today's top issues."

The coalition of people and organizations working on some version of livability -- sometimes marketed as Smart Growth -- is enormous, and reflects a wide spectrum of views on how much growth can be smart in the final analysis. New Jersey's Governor Whitman has created an Office of Sustainable Development within the Department of Commerce to preserve land and help a greener business sector come to life through targeted state investment. Worldwide, people working on creating more livable communities may be elected officials and their staffs, employees of regulatory agencies, architects, designers, community and transportation planners, managers of public or private lands, civil servants such as police and court employees working on violence prevention, bankers and venture capitalists, local entrepreneurs and staffers in business associations, labor representatives, or advocates focusing on safer streets, housing, planning and zoning, employment issues, dispute resolution, public transportation, and more....


....Consider some of the heretical thoughts that have been circulating in the financial and business communities in my home state, New York. One is the idea that responding to the challenge of climate protection -- conventionally held to be an economic stretch of the highest order -- could actually be a catalyst for a healthier economy, smarter technological innovation, and more rewarding partnerships between the environmental and economic communities. In 1998, a task force representing respected organizations like the Association of the Bar of the City of New York and the state's

"Responding to the challenge of climate protection -- conventionally held to be an economic stretch of the highest order -- could actually be a catalyst for a healthier economy."

Environmental Business Association carried out an extended study of opportunities to be had by stepping out in front -- in their language, becoming the Silicon Valley of climate protection innovation.

While some of us would prefer to create our own regional identity rather than emulating other people's models, at least the Silicon Valley metaphor was being used in the service of something interesting. The vision was of a technological and financial center organized around innovation in energy efficiency, transportation efficiency, urban reforestation, ecotourism, and the policy tools that would encourage movement in all these directions. From factories producing alternative fuel vehicles in reclaimed "brownfields," to an "energy job corps," the proposal showed the potential of building the new on the existing infrastructure and creating financial incentives for the existing institutional players. Since the Kyoto agreement is built on a system of "emissions credits" that can be bought and sold, providing a financial benefit for early cleanup, the proposal also calls for establishing Wall Street as an emissions trading center -- initially for the region, and ultimately for the global economy.

Different readers will be attracted to different aspects of this vision, and will doubtless have their own views about the politics and economics of these options. I offer the whole scenario as an example of innovative thinking at the center of the economic power structure. It shows how far we have come since the era when it was taken for granted that environmental protection was a threat to jobs. It's getting easier to see how environmental initiatives can be as profitable as any other form of problem-solving. How fast the New York scenario (or any other) could be built up to its full potential depends greatly on policy decisions in the overlapping realms of environment, technology, social well-being and economics. But there is a solid foundation in the form of work being done right now....


....As new forms of work and enterprises come to life, also, it grows clearer that their "social" and "environmental" benefits are not so distinct. Healthy basics that are good for people tend to be good for the rest of the web of life, whether they are methods of food production that conserve water and land, or nontoxic paints and housecleaning compounds. Livable human communities are intelligently designed to preserve natural resources and habitats, as well as promoting conviviality, convenience and culture for people. Planet protection is clearly integral to maintaining livable communities, as every year's storm season makes clearer. Many emerging specialties, by their nature, address the linkage between social and environmental benefits. Consider toxicology, epidemiology, environmental health and safety, transportation planning, and prison garden programs as diverse illustrations of the same principle: that there are positive feedback loops between social and environmental renewal.

"Livable human communities are intelligently designed to preserve natural resources and habitats, as well as promoting conviviality, convenience and culture."

One of the more obvious benefits of a shift in thinking -- from single to multiple bottom lines -- is that it leads to the creation of products, services, and entire enterprises that "work" in more varied ways

All these lines of reasoning, and bodies of innovation, are converging in a new understanding of what the human economy can be: one designed with principles of nature in mind, including the nature and needs of human societies. Underlying and inspiring innovations in industry, transportation, the food system, the built environment, and more, is a body of thinking and practice articulated by such figures as architect William McDonough; Karl-Henrik Robert and Paul Hawken of The Natural Step; Hunter and Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and a host of others, working both at the level of specific industries and of entire communities. As Robert Frenay describes it in a 1995 article, "Biorealism":

"Many of our environmental problems stem from structural flaws in the world's economic system. For example, our current system considers it ‘realistic’ to cut down a century-old tree in Alaska, sell it for the price of a pizza, ship it to Japan, render it into snack-chip bags, then ship the bags back to the United States for sale. Such practices are commonplace, but compared with the resilient, economical systems nature has maintained for billions of years, they are far from realistic.

"McDonough and his associates reject the view that there's an intrinsic conflict between a healthy environment and a healthy business climate. Instead, they're calling for a new way of thinking. As they see it, evolution provides the surest guide to what is ultimately realistic. In his 1954 book, Survival by Design, the influential architect Richard Neutra proposed an architecture based on a comprehensive knowledge of biology and behavioral science... But Neutra was concerned primarily with architecture and city planning. The new biorealists are using nature as a model for reshaping science and industry as well. In doing so, they are going beyond the old romantic notion of living in tune with nature. With the current explosion in knowledge of how nature actually works, today's biorealists have access to deeper and more precise insights as they design new industrial materials and processes. They have also developed a new vocabulary -- with terms like industrial ecology, technical cycles, living machine, dematerilization, throughput, externalization, waste equals food -- which helps simplify and clarify the complex ideas involved. Biorealism is a nascent idea, but its potency as a unifying concept, the quality of the minds it attracts, and its potential for reshaping culture suggest that it could become a guiding theme for the next century."

Pockets of innovation, in this spirit, are occurring in most major cities and in many rural communities. By their nature, they are usually hard to categorize in terms of a single discipline....


....Environmental opportunities clearly go beyond the environmental industries. The Environmental Careers Organization offers the following, more comprehensive sketch of the terrain:

"Before 1960, the environmental field consisted primarily of rangers, foresters, and a handful of public health officials and advocates. Today, environmental professionals work for every municipal government in the nation. Each state has an environmental protection agency, and one would be hard pressed to find a federal agency that did not have a variety of professionals working on environmental issues. A great number and variety of environmental consulting firms have sprung up, offering services ranging from hazardous waste management to development of interpretive programs for nature centers. Even small companies are likely to have environmental health and safety staffs; large firms may have environmental personnel at every level from headquarters to plant, including engineers, public relations staff, and laboratory technicians. Nonprofit organizations exist not only in Washington, DC, but also in communities around the country; these organizations engage in public education, research, advocacy, and natural resource stewardship. Universities and technical schools have expanded or created departments to educate these professionals and are engaged in solving a myriad of environmental problems. Finally, the design and production of pollution control equipment is a multibillion-dollar-per-year industry."

The description provided by ECO covers all sectors: business, government, and nonprofits. And it goes beyond the conventional "environmental" professions to emphasize environmental specialties within the established careers of "accountants, computer specialists, journalists, educators, real estate professionals, lawyers, financiers, entrepreneurs, managers (and more managers), political scientists and librarians."

How far does it go? Is there any line of work that isn't, in a very real sense, part of the needed change? As Rob Day, a research associate with the Management Institute for Environment and Business in Washington, observes, "Some of the most important work to be done to create a more sustainable economy is outside the scope of the 'environmental' or 'activist' professions. If you want to make a real difference, consider going into a company as a product designer or accountant. Be a regular worker, but do your work in new ways."

Rona Fried, editor of the e-zine www.sustainablebusiness.com, makes a similar observation:

"We're on the threshold of the environmental age because we have to be. The next 20 years or so will be the transition. It follows that the people who will be most marketable will be those with the skills that can help their employers make the transition, wherever they may work. This includes people who understand sustainable agriculture, nontoxic pest management, green building, energy conservation, and natural products. It also includes people with a wide range of financial expertise -- in ecological economics, environmental policy, social investing. For starters."

A tremendous amount of the work to be done is taking the form of new strategies and positions in conventional types of organizations that are willing to become unconventional, and in roles that evolve as work organizations deepen their understanding of their roots in their communities. Much of it, too, will be carried out by people who do not see their jobs as anything special in social or environmental terms, but who are part of the web of decision making and production: the reporters who cover and shape the stories, the planners who use their ingenuity to make human settlements more people- and environment- friendly, the judges who rule on the constitutionality of environmental and social legislation, the health care people who decide whether to explore or ignore the social and environmental backdrop of their patients' complaints. This point is underscored by career counselor Andrea Diaz in The Harvard Guide to Public Service Careers, whose premise is that "'Public service' is not a simple field at all, but a value system or ethic that can be defined by each individual and incorporated into many kinds of work"....


....New lines of work are also arising in response to the climate challenge. In the world of finance, there is much talk and planning for the trading of "emissions credits" as provided by the Kyoto treaty. Trading in sulfur dioxide emissions credits has begun, and much expansion is in the planning stages on Wall Street. But it isn't only in the financial community that this concept is gaining credibility and reshaping established jobs. One of the first examples of a real, live emissions trader is Myra Flagler of the Dade County Department of Environmental and Resource Management, whose Urban CO2 Reduction Program rewards companies that reduce greenhouse gases, with modest but meaningful tax rebates.

There is also an upswing in opportunities to compensate for greenhouse gases already released -- better known as "carbon mitigation." Leading the way is the Portland, Oregon firm of Trexler and Associates, which helps companies to offset their emissions through reforestation, environmental restoration, and renewable energy projects. So far, Trexler has been able to bill itself as the largest carbon mitigation firm in the U.S. "Since we have a staff of seven, that reflects more on the industry than on us," chuckles CEO Mark Trexler. The firm serves as one part management consultant and one part broker, between companies with carbon emissions problems and organizations with cleanup projects that need financing. It has about 150 completed projects to its credit, from reforestation in Guatemala to straw bale housing in China. Over and above its tiny work force, Trexler is creating work for small nonprofit and private sector climate mitigation projects all over the world by matching them with financing.

Many of these opportunities are in well established lines of work. "A forester is still a forester, and a solar technician is still a solar technician," says Trexler. "But the new need is for people who can put together climate mitigation and protection strategies for companies and industries, and then implement them. That means people who can understand the technologies, the economics, and the policy issues." Not too surprisingly, there are more and more knowledge workers to match this demand. He observed in early 1999, "This year's graduating class of Master's and Ph.D. students is the first that's coming into the job market with thesis projects on climate protection strategies and technologies"....


....No matter how much government may devolve, there will always be a large role for federal, state, regional and local agencies in implementing current policies and building the next generation's policy framework. Working in governmental programs usually involves a mix of policing and promoting positive behavior change by working closely with members of the community, from businesses to neighborhood associations and even households. Many of these jobs are heavy in community relations and marketing in order to build public acceptance of new policy tools that may face initial skepticism. In the words of Dennis Church, principal of the consulting firm EcoIQ in San Jose, California, "You have to have the communications skill and savvy to overcome the natural mistrust that may occur when you say, 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"

There is lots of work to be done by expanding the definitions of current jobs, industries, and organizations. But that expansion is very much a work in progress, and there is constant tension between the work to be done and the configuration of actual jobs. In the words of Kevin Doyle, Director of National Programs for the Environmental Careers Organization:

"Where the jobs are, and where the cutting-edge problem-solving needs are -- these can be very different. People interested in really innovative work often need to straddle two worlds. On the one hand, they need to take a very locally-specific look at the work to be done to build sustainable communities, and find ways to do that, while realizing that the actual infrastructure of jobs hasn't progressed far past the paradigm of pollution control and resource management. If your local government doesn't have a position called 'bicycle transportation coordinator,' find a job in a related agency where people are open-minded, do your job, and make a project of the innovation you want to see."

This is true for two major reasons. First is the fluid nature of social and environmental policies, and markets, in all the areas described above. The second reason is the sea change we are living through in the economics of labor and the structure of work. William Bridges' Jobshift  makes the case that the job as a unit of packaging work is fading with the industrial era, and that we will all need to learn more fluid ways of defining our economic potential. Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work argues that technological changes, corporate consolidation and globalization are creating a long-term prospect of "jobless growth" on a scale the world has never known. The unknown factor in this analysis, of course, is what kinds of work opportunities and structures are being created, or can be. As an indication of how far these trends have progressed, a 1997 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 30% of U.S. workers were employed in "nonstandard" jobs,

"One of the most direct and tangible ways for every one of us to affect the larger society's agenda is through our choices about where we will bring our talents to bear."

including part-time jobs, independent contracting, employment through temporary agencies, contract or on-call work, day labor, or self-employment.

The mismatch between opportunities and stable jobs may require some of us -- those capable and willing -- to consider "hybrid" careers, for example, with one kind of income-producing work subsidizing another that is too inspired to let go. In the present moment, we cannot know how much of the cutting-edge work that attracts us is on the way to economic viability, and how much will always have to be supported by a separate income stream. This economic instability adds to the list of reasons why entrepreneurship is beginning to look like a social movement in its own right, although not one that works for everyone and not a solution to the erosion of the conventional employment contract. This flux has also given rise to an international movement that calls itself "New Work," which urges people to take the initiative and design their lives with multiple sources of security and expression, through personalized hybrids of jobs, business ventures, barter, and simpler living.

How far all these developments go depends greatly on collective political will. Do we care about our communities and the environment the way we have cared about the Olympics, the space program, national security? Do we have what it takes to translate that caring into action in one of the most challenging, and promising, arenas of our lives, the ways we earn our livelihoods? Today's challenge demands a great deal more personal engagement than these previous ones have. It isn't enough to endorse the efforts of scientists, athletes, or the military on our behalf. This time, the work to be done is for all of us. And one of the most direct and tangible ways for every one of us to affect the larger society's agenda is through our choices about where we will bring our talents to bear.


Melissa Everett is a professional career counselor and has written three previous books and many articles. She is the recipient of the Olive Branch Award of the NYU Center on War, Peace and the News Media for her book Breaking Ranks. She also writes a monthly column, "New World, New Work" for SustainableBusiness.com. She is an international speaker and workshop facilitator and has spoken on campuses including Harvard, Dartmouth and MIT.


For information about booking Melissa Everett as a speaker or workshop facilitator, visit EcoSpeakers.com.


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