What we do does matter

A colleague at a renewables company once related the following story. He had successfully exited a high-tech defense startup company, and went to talk to a venture capitalist he knew about getting some funding to start another, similar company. The investor looked at him, scrunched up his eyebrows a bit (I’m making that part up), and replied, “Go watch Al Gore’s movie. Then come back and talk to me.” That admonishment, combined with the then-burgeoning cleantech investment bubble, was enough to get him into renewable energy, where I met him.

In addition to indicating the power of a well-timed piece of advice, the story points to a proposition that might seem obvious, or seen another way might edge toward controversy, but I’m going to argue forcefully: What we do really matters. I’m thinking now specifically of what we do to make a living, but I take it to be true in a lot of ways, for instance in diet, the subject of yesterday’s post, we can study the effect of our actions, and learn for instance that switching to a mostly vegetarian diet will save on the order of 10 kWh per day. 10 kWh a day is a lot of energy; a fit person could run on a treadmill or an exercise bike from dawn to dusk and not generate close to 10 kWh of energy. So, once we digest this piece of information, so to speak, we may properly feel at least some pressure to modify our diet.

To some people this sort of thinking will be common sense; to others it will raise all kinds of defensive hackles, and trigger the Freedom Alarm – gawddammit, this is America, and nobody is going to tell me what to eat. True enough, but circumstance and social norms make a big difference in how this sort of proposition is received. Sharon Astyk had an interesting post recently where she looked at wartime propaganda directed at the US homefront on the subject of conservation and food. When personal consumption habits acutely impact critical national interests, sacrifice and conservation become patriotic acts. When the crisis passes, they go back to being a matter of personal preference (as influenced by marketing), and it quickly becomes poor taste to discuss them as existing in a moral plane. Sharon’s proposition is that in reality, so long as food and lifestyle choices are tied to pollution, use of limited resources, and abusive labor practices, this sort of decision always exists on the moral plane – but only rarely does it suit the powers-that-be that people should think that way.

To my mind the same sort of thinking bears directly on how we chose to spend our working lives, especially for people whose lives are characterized by a lot of opportunity. For people who for whatever reason struggle to keep food on the table and a roof over their family’s heads, it’s not productive to go second-guessing their career choices – far better to figure out how to tweak the larger web of incentives to make better choices available. But the more resources and opportunities we enjoy, the more responsibility we bear for the impact of the choices we make. I have some successful relatives in the entertainment industry out in California, and at one point I made some flippant remark that earned a stern rebuke: “EVERYONE’S WORK IS WORTHY OF RESPECT.” Which I guess is true in a sort of To Kill a Mockingbird, everyone-deserves-an-effort-be-made-to-understand-them way, and I don’t actually have much of an ax to grind about Hollywood; not much patience for people who think that action movies and heavy metal music are corrupting the youth and rending the moral fiber of the nation. I think a lot of entertainment is frivolous and reinforces counterproductive priorities, and I think anybody who goes seriously gaga for some gaga lady is pretty silly, but it’s not a matter of high dudgeon for me. Mostly I just think it’s orthogonal and tune it out, and I’d hope that folks wouldn’t take themselves so seriously. I mean, I feel pretty strongly about what I do, but if somebody comes along saying ‘yeah, right, like you’re going to save the world with those silly solar cells; what we need is some serious nukeyelar power’, I’m not going to get all huffy about it.

But does anybody really care to defend his statement as an absolute? Art is a funny thing that I don’t pretend to know much about, and statistically speaking artists seem to need at least at least as much understanding as the average person. But as a practical matter, if some hypothetical hot modern artist gets a gig going where he flings cow manure at canvases and sells them for top dollar to trendy people with a lot more money and culture than me, I’m going to laugh at him – and especially at his customers. And at the extreme, is the work of the guys who ginned up the fake intelligence that got us into the Iraq mess worthy of respect? What about the guy who decides to send the trucks out to spray toxic waste on the side of the road, to shave a few bucks off the bottom line? No, some people’s work is not worthy of respect – understanding, maybe; sure, he’s under a lot of pressure to keep things profitable, but… no.

The modern notion that what we do for a living, along with how we eat, what we drive, and where we live are nothing more than a matter of whimsical consumer choice is fine, unless you happen to live in a world with objective physical reality and pressing needs, challenges, and conflicts. But we do live in that world, and I say it’s incumbent on those with the privilege of choosing how they occupy themselves to try to come to an understanding of these challenges, and how their own talents relate to them. Then, calculate the dot product of various career options with vectors that seem to point in the direction of progress. A lot of them are going to be mostly orthogonal, and some with negative dot products will be pretty attractive from a salary-and-benefits perspective. But I’m arguing that it’s not an arbitrary choice, and that people should make an effort to pick one with a significant positive result. I’m not saying that everybody should work on the same thing, or that everyone should care about the things I care about. Rather, following Allen Ginsberg:
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness – to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness – to seek the light.
So, to the extent that you have a choice in the matter, for goodness sake, seek some light. End of pep talk – America, go put your queer shoulder to the wheel!

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4 Responses to “What we do does matter”

  1. Jeff Says:

    thanks, ben. sure do love yr rants. Esp. nice touch with the Ginsberg at the end, though I’m not sure how you distinguish his honest labor from the artist slinging shit at the canvas.

  2. Carla Says:

    Not a bad pep talk. In my case you’re preaching to the choir; I act as if what I do matters because I prefer to live that way. What “matters” is utterly context-and scale-dependent; all of life on earth hardly matters on a cosmological scale, or even the time scale of the history of this planet. Yet to me, and you, it matters very much. On a personal level, the real reason I act as it what I do matters is because it makes me feel better about myself, not because I pretend to know the actual outcome of my actions. Sometimes, the effect is all out of proportion to the initial stimulus, like in the example of your friend who opted for alternative energy instead of a career in defense contracting. In other cases, my fanatical adherence to recycling, for instance, there’s a lot of continuous effort put in over the course of a lifetime that amounts to …what? Better sorted junk, or maybe the occasional actual re-use of the materials, if the recycling program is a good one. Acting as if what you do matters is, in many ways, its own reward.

  3. fiveislandsorchard Says:

    Interesting philosophical questions in the comments, easily worth another post – but I wasn’t really arguing about what does or doesn’t matter on some absolute moral scale, the theoretical underpinnings of which could be discussed ad nauseum. I think a big part of what actually steers people through their choices in life is set up by their social surroundings, and the approval or disapproval of their peers – that’s what changed my colleague’s career trajectory. It wasn’t obvious from the post, but the reason I wrote it was that I was in a similar situation and was trying to understand when it’s appropriate to exert that sort of pressure on somebody you know.

  4. Carla Says:

    So what happened? Did you try to influence your friend? Did it help? I find that often, in group situations, people hesitate to voice their qualms about a situation going wrong, but that when they do, there is a sense of relief and gratitude among the group toward the one who gave voice to a shared but unspoken sentiment. Tact is really important, though, because if you offend the person you’re trying to sway, the effort will backfire. My problem is that the snarky response always pops into my head before the constructive solution, and I’m not always successful at keeping my mouth shut at that point. The temptation to make a dramatic impression with a good comeback is hard (for me) to overcome.

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