by Lowell Bliss
The president addresses the nation. The Speaker of the House rebuts. The Super Committee convenes. The primary candidates debate. But in all this important discourse (I don't intend to belittle it), the message seems consistent: "Jobs, jobs, jobs." Job creation is the trump card. It certainly is so for creation care. If you want to emasculate the EPA, if you want to scale back the Clean Air Act, if you want to build the Keystone XL Pipeline. . . jobs, jobs, jobs.
Often the argument of job creation is misleading and self-serving. Take for instance, the issue of mountain removal coal mining (MTR). Mary Anne Hitt, executive director of Appalachian Voices, explains:
It's much more profitable to just blow up the mountain than to hire a bunch of people to go underground and pull the coal the up. They have these huge machines that are called draglines, and they are 22 stories tall and the bucket is big enough to pick up a small house. It just takes a couple people to run it whereas it's doing the work that literally hundreds of people would have done otherwise.
Around 1950 there were 150,000 coal miners in West Virginia and now there are less than 15000. They're producing relatively the same amount of coal. So you can imagine, if your labor costs go from 150,000 people to 15,000 people, you're making quite a bit more money. (from documentary Blind Spot, 2008).
When a coal company wants the deregulated proliferation of MTR, they offer the handful of jobs which will spring up around a new dragline. Those few jobs are admittedly important to the beleaguered men and women who might be fortunate enough to land an opening, but the job creation is vastly disproportional to the private profit which is pocketed. If our investment is in labor-saving mechanizations, aren't we, by definition, NOT investing in job creation? But then society turns around and says that record earnings and CEO benefit-packages are the just reward for what?. . . the function of job creation in society.
I listened to the president's jobs speech and thought, "We've got to de-mechanize." This was a revelation for me. I mean, I've thought about de-mechanization in relation to Peak Oil. I've thought about it terms of climate change. I've thought about it in terms of healthy living and of Wendell Berry's concept of "doing good work." But it's the first time I've thought about it in terms of job creation. Of course, de-mechanization of our job-creating industries must begin with the de-mechanization of our minds. We complain about the Chinese manufacturer who "steals our jobs", but not about the piece of job-displacing factory equipment that we willingly buy off of him. We complain about illegal immigrants stealing our jobs, but refuse to re-invest dignity into those jobs they do, nor pay a liveable wage for those jobs. At what point did the word skill in the term skilled labor (as compared to un-skilled) become mechanized? It seems the more "skill" in skilled labor, the less "labor" for which someone might be hired.
I'm no anarchistic Luddite, but I refuse to credit a corporation or a Congress for job creation which doesn't give labor-intensity a nod.
Lowell Bliss is the director of Eden Vigil, an environmental missions agency. One of his happiest memories from this fall was the 2012 Prairie Festival at the Land Institute in Salina, KS.