People love to tell stories about climate change. And they love to tell stories about the future of work, too. Put them together, and they form a knot of issues that countless researchers, writers, and executives are struggling to disentangle.
These stories have a lot in common. Often, they alternate between doomsday and hyper-growth scenarios, each equipped with their own heady tale:
All jobs are automated away, leaving no option but state-sponsored Universal Basic Income (UBI) and a population of care workers. The shift from fossil fuels to a green energy economy leads to mass reskilling, as workers struggle to keep up. Tech rises to the challenge of sequestration and human ingenuity triumphs. Social responsibility becomes the next edge in branding, and consumers vote, daily, dollar by dollar.
You’ve probably heard these stories, and you might have told them, too. The common thread is a linear path from the present world to the future.
We draw these lines to help manage the difficulty of imagining wide-scale social change. Often, using heuristics and half-baked ideas, we project our assumptions forward and don’t ask whether these realities make sense. That’s why futurists, echoing Marshall McLuhan, often say that we “drive into the future using our rearview mirror.”
But, often, this approach misses the point. When we approach the future this way, we tend to select things that are loud, flashy, or seemingly inevitable, and not necessarily one’s that are most realistic, or, even likely. We forget to ask: what do we really want? And we ignore shifts taking place at the margins, or right before our eyes.
So how can we take a more nuanced view? The following is a collection of signals and themes I picked up while working with my colleagues at From Later, a Toronto-based foresight studio. At From Later, we studied the intersection of climate change and economics to help guide the strategy of a number of large organizations.
These observations aren’t meant to be exhaustive, but they do provide a framework of signals and questions to consider as we begin to form a view of how these forces might interact. The goal isn’t to provide clean, easy answers, but to challenge, complicate, and provoke.
- Reframing AI
- Thinking Beyond Growth
- Decentralized Climate Activism
- High Road Employment
- From Shareholder to Stakeholder Capitalism
- Healing & Rejuvenation
- Climate Weirding
The conversation around artificial intelligence tends to shift between two alternatives: either that AI will totally change the workplace, displacing jobs in the process, or that it will expand what’s available by creating new industries altogether.
But another way to look at it starts by asking what forms of labor will help us survive as a species (e.g., care work, mounting a climate response, political organization), and, from there, exploring whether AI can create ways for more people to pursue these. Can AI help us direct people to more impactful work?
By 2030, for example, the World Health Organization projects a worldwide shortfall of about 18 million healthcare workers. Could AI help match workers with the employers that actually need them? Rather than design a care economy built on creepy robots, can we build one that better leverages our capacity for empathy?
Similarly, about 14% of health care spending in the U.S, or $91 billion, is wasted on inefficient administration from paperwork and red tape. Instead of using AI to eliminate humans, can it be used to eliminate drudgery? Can it be used as an enabler of human creativity, not a tool to eliminate it? AI, depending on how you relate to it, can be part of the problem or a boon.
Thinking Beyond Growth
When it comes to climate change, economic growth is a problem. On the one hand, growth is what happens when things go well: jobs are created, poverty declines, social welfare rises as costs go down and wealth is distributed, at least in theory. On the other, when the economy grows, so does the environmental load—be it in the form of garbage, exhaust, or computing power.
This creates a paradox: growth (and, by extension, the creation of jobs) is tied to carbon emissions, so targeting growth can impact the labor market, particularly among lower-income workers.
But, recently, theorists have been challenging this assumption. For example, the degrowth movement emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis as anger over stagnation and inequality began to blend with fear about climate change. It describes how society could look if prosperity and environmental health were decoupled. What would happen if advanced economies chose to pursue zero, or even negative, growth?
Similarly, doughnut economics frames sustainability as the goal of living within a safe zone, or “doughnut” of growth, where humans can meet their basic needs while not going beyond the ecological ceiling. It draws on a wide range of economic thought and envisions the creation of economies that are safe and just, while also being regenerative and distributive.
What might happen if these forms of economic thought are mainstreamed? How might policy discussions shift as GDP is de-centered from considerations of welfare?
Decentralized Climate Activism
For a lot of people, government responses to climate change (think: COP26) are a sore subject. Looking past the lip service, it’s clear that not enough is being done, and, without governments, it seems hopeless. But some groups are taking matters into their own hands, forming small working groups, collectives, and squads fuelled by emerging shifts in technology, especially blockchain.
For example, decentralized impact organizations (DIO’s) are a new form of organization created for the sole purpose of taking action on specific climate projects. Using a tool called bounties, DIO’s use the blockchain to reward people after they’ve completed a task. The concept is a play on DAO’s, or decentralized autonomous organizations, that have recently made headlines for raising crazy amounts of money for outlandish projects. Notably, raising $43 million to buy a rare printing of the U.S Constitution.
In general, these projects are fuelled by thinking about the power of close-knit groups in an increasingly decentralized, freelance/creator-driven economy. Squad wealth, for example, refers to the way distributed groups of coworkers/friends/collaborators band together to increase the well-being of the collective. Likewise, Gumroad has pioneered a form of group collaboration that requires “no meetings, no deadlines, no full-time employees.”
As small, intentional groups develop more credibility, resources, and savvy (blurring the lines between work, entertainment, and social lives even further) how else could they decide to exert influence? Could a distributed climate response become a reality?
High Road Employment
Recently, labor researchers have been trying to prove the business case for retraining; convincing employers to stop the perpetual search for already-skilled employees. A 2008 study, for example, showed that the cost of replacing a worker can be as high as 60% of an employee’s annual salary. As climate change disrupts the job market, large corporations are likely to react, too, developing programs for training and retraining employees over time.
This might appear in a few ways. Peerism, for example, is a blockchain-based protocol that uses “skill tokens” to incentivize workers to continue learning throughout their careers. MOOCs, or massive open online courses, too, have become commonplace. Other companies have integrated coaching into their business model, embedding coach/employee relationships into workflows instead of relying solely on managers. Some, like Avalow, a DIY gardening tool, have even built coaching into product design and distribution.
According to a recent Accenture report, 37% of vulnerable workers worry that their skills will become obsolete. And as climate change accelerates, this might become true. But, as the incentives of corporations align with that of workers, it will also create a market for novel forms of learning, mental model development, and play.
From Shareholder to Stakeholder Capitalism
As the Great Resignation is proving in real-time, people don’t want to spend their time on meaningless work, or what the late David Graeber called “bullshit jobs.” Everyone knows that work, for the average person, makes up the vast majority of their waking attention, and, importantly, their social life. As the health of the planet is increasingly at risk, people want their work to reflect their values. Ownership is one way they can do it.
While codetermination, a process that involves workers in a company’s decision-making, has a long history in Germany, the concept is beginning to become popular here, too. Some teams are looking for ways to build these systems from the ground up.
For example, DisCOs (Distributed Co-operative Organizations) are creating frameworks for community building that use feminist accounting and technology practices to reframe the way labor is tracked and products are built. Likewise, Cambiatus is an open online platform that helps social impact organizations create their own crypto-currencies.
Another example is the growth of crypto-raves—IRL events that provide ownership stake to attendees based on the frequency of their visits to artistic venues. Every rave increases one’s stake in collective ownership.
On a more macro-level is the vision of ‘exit-to-community’ (E2C), which challenges the traditional venture capital model of positioning acquisitions, or IPOs, as the proper end-state of a company’s growth. An exit-to-community, as the name suggests, enables shareholders to slowly divest stake (and shares) and transfer it to a product’s community or user base. Users, or stakeholders, it turns out, are often much better stewards than shareholders.
As more people become involved in projects like these, how will ideas of ownership and product design change? If the goal of creating something—whether it’s a company or a work of art—is rooted in its communal value, how could this alter what’s created? Will it change what people choose to work on?
Healing & Rejuvenation
The psychological impact of climate change is already showing, and it’ll probably become more common as time goes on. For some, this comes as anxiety, with 1 in 3 people in Gen Z reporting climate anxiety symptoms, and for others, it’s guilt. In 2019, for example, at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, students gathered around an arrangement of house plants to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness. The point was to make a statement about the role that theology has played in the degradation of the environment.
In the workplace, the reality of climate risk will force employers to think seriously about how their people slow down, heal, and find balance in their lives. Evidence of this shift is beginning to appear. Climate grief therapies, for example, range from counsel, support groups, to multi-sensory experiences, like raves for ecological grief. Likewise, data healing helps clients respond to the traumas of digital addiction and surveillance capitalism by observing their online activity and learning to build a healthier relationship with their devices. Could these, and other forms of spiritual care, become commonplace parts of workplace routines?
The concept of climate weirding was popularized in a New York Times article in 2007, where Thomas Friedman argued that “climate change”, as a term, didn’t properly capture the quirks and randomness of how the planet will begin to change. “I prefer the term “global weirding,” he wrote, “because the rise in average global temperature is going to lead to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places to colder cold spells and more violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in other places.”
When it comes to the social impact of climate change, the same principle holds: the future is going to be weirder than we think.
The point of these shifts wasn’t to show exactly how the future will be. The point was to challenge our assumptions by noticing emerging evidence of uncertain change. Climate change will impact many of the behaviors we take for granted, including the way we work. But the opposite is also true: how we work will change the way that climate change unfolds.
As automation researcher Aaron Benanav has said, “reaching towards a post-scarcity world—in which all individuals are guaranteed access to whatever they need to make a life, without exception—can become the basis on which humanity mounts a battle against climate change.”