Choices, Careers and Livelihoods

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My seventh semester is underway, and I feel this is a good time to write about this, as companies have just started visiting the campus for recruitment and most of my friends are eagerly writing the tests and facing the interviews amid fears that campus placements could be seriously down this year, due to the recession.

The fact that I’m not putting myself up as well, with a “FOR HIRE” board,  seems astonishing and hard to digest, for most. It has invoked countless enquiries as to what my future plans are. When I tell them that I have no real concrete plans, though I may do a post grad, they are perplexed and exclaim that I could have at least appeared for the placements just to be “secure”. Secure from what? The vacuum created by the loss of an address that defined your life for the past four years perhaps, as a job would give you a new one? And what kind of security? The promise that some company will buy your time and skills and give you lots of money in exchange?

I’ve been often reminded of the fact that I would need money to live (strangely, something which most people feel that I’m oblivious to). But there is a difference between making money to live, and living to make money. I have never been attracted by the prospect of making a lot of money. As Henry David Thoreau said, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone”. On the other hand, I think I know why people generally are obsessed with making money to such an extent that it is the central concern in their lives (of course, a small fraction of the people are lucky and get to work on things which they are really passionate about, but this is a minority).

The urge to earn more and more money, is ultimately down to a deep insecurity regarding one’s own survival (and other comforts to a lesser extent). Obviously, in today’s society and economy with specialized divisions of labour, none of us have any survival value. (That we take pride in this condition and consider it to be a sign of progress seems incredible to me, but that is the topic for another post). For example, a software engineer knows only how to code, and if his company goes bust, he doesn’t have the skills or resources to earn a living off the land. So his obvious concern would be to earn as much money as possible, so that he is “safe”. The more specialized the division of labour, the deeper is this insecurity.

Like Christopher McCandless says in Into the Wild, “Careers are twentieth century inventions”. For the most of us, doing this work or that doesn’t make much difference if we get the money we need to support our families and lead a good life. Indeed, this makes a lot of sense. In fact, what people want is a livelihood and not a career. It is unfortunate that in our times, you invariably need to take up a career offered by an institution to earn a livelihood, and the difference between them has become almost imperceptible. I can’t imagine the Kalahari bushmen leading careers in picking berries. It’s just something they do for their livelihood.

Now I’ll tell you why I don’t like modern “careers”. It is a rat race out there to earn as much money as possible to “secure” oneself. In fact, people struggle too much just to stay alive. Some of the things you put into your work in exchange for wages, are simply invaluable and irreplacable. Each one of us might be aware that every decision and choice we make, is a tradeoff. When we choose something, we inevitably have to forego something else. And for me, taking up a career is a huge tradeoff, one that is almost unacceptable.

First, the amount of Time, Energy and Health that one has to put into a career. Any anthropologist would tell you that ours is the most laborious lifestyle ever developed on this planet. No other creature has to work so much just to stay alive. Nor did humans for a few million years, nor do the few tribal people who have survived. I accept that I cannot just jump off our culture at will, but what I can do is to reassess my actual needs, (as opposed to imagined needs and fear of future needs) and work only so much as to fulfil them, instead of sacrificing myself for earning money and then wondering what to do with it.

Another thing that is compromised, I feel, is Freedom. It is a word that is often used in misleading ways. For example, you often hear that when you get a job, you get economic freedom and independence. What the speaker probably means is that you no longer have to depend on your parents for your livelihood. But as I see it, a job just transfers your dependence(at least in modern economies with specialized division of labour) from your parents to the company and the wider economic structure without which your job wouldn’t exist. So that’s why I feel that taking up a career means compromising one’s freedom to a large extent. Again I realize that I can perhaps never be completely independent of the global economy, but I can experiment with alternative ways of living that would minimize the dependence.

To quote Thoreau once again, “The price of anything is the amount of what I call life, that you exchange for it”. So taking up a career is indeed a costly affair. If I reject a particular career, it is because I roughly realize the terms of the trade off and find them unacceptable. It is actually because I feel there is something to be gained by searching for alternative ways of living, and not down to frustration or indifference or prejudice. Of course, this is another trade off, where I’m compromising social “security” for other things which, obviously, I personally consider dearer.

It is one thing to know all this, and quite another to actually experiment with one’s life. That’s why I admire people like Gandhiji and Thoreau so much. I don’t really know what I’ll end up doing, but I am damn sure that what I’d like to do is to find my own path, however dense and unforgiving the undergrowth seems, and not to follow the beaten road, “secure” and “promising”. It doesn’t really matter how long the path runs or where it leads, as ultimately it is the journey itself that is important and fulfilling.

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Interesting Times

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“May you live in interesting times”– an ancient Chinese curse.

Undoubtedly, we are living in interesting times. Of course, you may say. After all, we live in an age in which we can communicate with a person on the other side of the globe at the speed of light, travel around the world in a day, we have machines to do all the “dirty” work for us, tourists are venturing into space, we carry gadgets around in our pockets, that people a century ago would have considered magic, we are splitting atoms to produce the energy equivalent to burning thousands of tons of coal- in short- an age in which anything is possible.

Sorry to disappoint you, but that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. Perhaps, half a decade ago, I would have revelled in such thoughts- when I still hadn’t begun to see through the general belief that the only relevant world view is that held by the mainstream society. Yes, there was a time when I used to be excited by technology(As a student of technology currently, I’m definitely interested in it, but excited is perhaps far too intense a word). When I used to eagerly observe new models of cars on the roads, when I was fascinated by the things you could do with a computer, when I used to read about astronauts while holding my breath and wonder whether one day I would like to travel into outer space as well.

This popular fascination with technology is not because people truly appreciate technology-in fact, very few people understand it- but is a testimony to the ways in which technical gadgets and increased means of mass production which technology made possible, have supposedly “improved” our lives and rescued us from the alleged misery and filth which our predecessors endured in centuries past.

To come back to my original point, that is not the sense in which I said “interesting times”. I’m referring to the fact that exhaust fumes from our vehicles are heating up the earth and disturbing the climate system, the fact that more than a hundred species are becoming extinct everyday- more than any other time since the dinosaurs, the fact that we are six billion today and our population is still exploding, the fact that a significant portion of us go to bed hungry, the fact that water is becoming undrinkable and air unbreathable. I’m referring to the ecological, cultural and social crisis that we are facing today.

What is there about it that is so “interesting”? Fair question. After all, the crisis I mentioned is not something new to us. In fact, some of these problems have been with us for centuries. Only it has almost never been perceived as a crisis. There has always been an explanation for why these problems persisted in our society. It is the price of civilization and technological advancement. True, we face serious problems, but we have come so far, haven’t we? Surely, we are smart enough to conjure solutions to all of them, sooner rather than later. Surely, technology will help us solve our problems. We can clean up the atmosphere of excess greenhouse gases, and that will be the end of global warming, using genetic engineering and biotechnology we can grow a ton of wheat in a square foot, we can desalinate sea water and use it for drinking… the list is virtually endless.

In fact, this cheerful and blind optimism has brought us to the edge of peril, almost to a point of no return. The biosphere is a web interconnected in unimaginably myriad and complex ways, and not a pyramid with humans at the very top. We have been alienated from the natural world ever since the beginning of large scale agriculture. But driven by the unprecedented power and control which the industrial revolution made possible, we have been meddling with and tweaking the delicate web of life, tuning it to our advantage, in a massive scale that was previously impossible. And we have been unbelievably successful for a while. But the biosphere is not designed for domination by a single species. It thrives on diversity and competition, the very things we are wiping out so successfully, undermining its very ability to support life. No wonder it is starting to show signs of distress, threatening our existence, and that of other higher plants and animals. Hence the use of the word, “crisis”.

“But you still haven’t answered my question!”, I can almost hear you grumbling.”Why is it interesting? All you have succeeded is to paint a picture of gloom and doom in my mind.”

True. I still haven’t come to the interesting part. I’m taking you through the journey that I reluctantly set out on as a sixteen year old, when I first began to feel that there was something wrong with the world. Doom and gloom were the feelings that came to my mind when I used to think about the state of the world and where it was heading. Throw in helplessness, when I realized that this was the world which I was about to step into, and you have the complete set!

Now I come to the interesting part- it doesn’t have to be this way. I mean, there is nothing about human nature which dictates that we live this way, that we alienate ourselves from the natural world. We are brought up to believe that agriculture, civilization, division of labour and advanced technology are inevitable expressions of the human urge to evolve, and represent progress. There is very little evidence to support this claim. On the contrary, advances in anthropology and paleontology in the last few decades positively refute this claim. Science has played an important role in changing the way we think about the world. This, I think, is the true significance of science, and not the utilitarian pseudo-blessing as it is usually perceived.

Human beings have been roaming the earth for a few million years now. According to our beliefs, it was a long, dark, uneventful and stagnant chapter in human history. We were “just another animal”, until we had the brainwave to take matters into our own hands. It was a “difficult”, “savage”, “brutal” life. Having been brought up with this myth, I’m not surprised that until half a century ago, it was unthinkable that technology was anything but beneficial.

But now we know that most of what we generally believe about the lives of our ancient predecessors is nothing more than a myth, we have to embark on the difficult and seemingly impossible task of educating and convincing as many people as we can. For people who are thoughtful, free and flexible enough to accept and acknowledge such a radical change in perspective, are a tiny minority, though encouragingly a growing one(that an ordinary boy like me, brought up in reasonable comfort and good care, can perceive that something is wrong and mostly work it out for himself gives me hope!). A vast majority are blindfolded and trapped in the exploitative global economy of today, dependent on it for their livelihood. Its seeming infallibility is reason for despair, but we know that “seemingly infallible” need not mean infallible(look at communist Russia).

What we are doing today, continuing with buisiness as usual, doesn’t offer much room for hope. But a collapse of this mega-structure in the near future, is definitely a possibility, given its stark dependence on non-renewable resources like fossil fuels. In fact, there is enough reason to believe that we are approaching, and maybe even past, peak oil. Who knows, the current global financial crisis could be something more than just another recession. Such a collapse would be painful, yes- there will be increase in mortality. But it would be just a transition to a better and more sustainable future. I don’t believe even for a second that our planet can sustain billions of us indefinitely. The number has to decrease drastically, it’s got to happen and it will happen when we’ve reached the tipping point. But it’s not for us to decide what would be the ideal number. Natural processes will see to that. Perhaps it need not be a mass die-off as in a calamity. Perhaps it would happen through a lower life expectancy, and we might hardly notice it. We don’t know, really.

Meanwhile, we need to find out as much as we can about how our lives were, before agriculture, before the Great Forgetting, so that we can intelligently choose a sustainable way of living and begin the transition instead of waiting with folded hands for catastrophe to strike. Some people say that there is no “going back to nature” for us. We can’t go “back to being a hunter-gatherer”. This is probably true. We know a lot, and we have developed wonderful disciplines like literature, art, science which have probably become an important part of who we are, but how much of it survives the millenia will be probably decided by how much of it is sustainable and in accord with the laws of the biosphere.

Probably, there is no “going back to nature”. But I firmly believe that we will go “forward to nature”, because that is where we came from, and where we ultimately belong. We will find another way of living, unimaginably more beautiful, and in harmony with nature. This dream is what drives me on, and dispels my despair. This is why I feel that we live in “interesting times”. There is no going back to the drudgery of the inhuman machinery that is the global economy. I have to find my path in the undergrowth. A path that leads me back to the glorious road which our ancient ancestors followed for millions of years, until we lost our way and ended up at a dead end- on the edge of a cliff.