Can a person truly be green if their day job destroys the planet or is part of the war machine? And what should they do about it?
The ethics of working in the mining industry
I used to work for a mining consultancy firm back in the 1990s.
I was in charge of their library, cataloguing all the mining documents, and did some administrative work too. It was a good place to work, the people were lovely, they treated me well, and I was paid reasonably. I have good memories of the place.
This was when I lived in Australia. The mining sector is at the heart of Australia's economy. The mining sector represents almost 20% of the Australian stock exchange, with almost one third of the companies listed. To say that it is important to Australia's economy is an understatement.
Yet mining is also devastating to the environment.
At the time, I was in my 20s, and only a fledgling "greenie". I was making the connection between the coal mines my company was profiting from and the environmental issues I was starting to vocalise about politically, but I was still quite happy to work for the company. After all, I wasn't the one doing the mining!
I remember my supervisor having a notepad on her desk that bore the logo "Everything starts with mining." She had little time for activists.
As she said, quite truly, the activists turn up to protests on their metal bikes and ring each other on their mobiles and our whole society (Australia) is all supported by coal-fired electricity. Nothing they do would be possible without mining.
Babies or bombs?
Fast-forward five years. I was working for a software company as a technical writer.
Much of the work this company did was related to the military, developing the software for such things as UAVs. UAVs are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, which have various military applications such as bomb delivery systems.
My ethics were becoming more and more uncomfortable. Finally, in the middle of 2006, I made the hard emotional connection between the software I was working on and the clever weaponry killing babies in Iraq. I looked at my own baby son, and knew something was very wrong with how I was earning a living.
I quit my job. I moved into the education sector, into a position at a University. I vowed to myself that I would never again take a position where my ethics were compromised. And I never have.
Some people would say I was wrong to quit my job at that software company. After all, I was just a technical writer - I wasn't the one buying the weapons, or selling them! I was just doing the writing. How innocuous is that?
But I was a contributor. In a very real sense, I was part of the massive military machine that is responsible for millions of deaths around the world.
Can we be green or peaceful if our money comes from polluting businesses or the war machine?
Are we green if our income is from the mining industry?
Do all our efforts to live simply and ethically count for nothing if we have a big dirty secret in every check we receive each fortnight?
And how can we hope to be peace-loving people if we march in protest on the weekend, but design intelligent weaponry 9 to 5 on weekdays? Does it matter where our money comes from?
Should our living be in accordance with our values?
"If I didn't do it, someone else would"
There's this incredibly true line in Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, when The Onceler says, talking to himself, "The things that you do are completely UN-good!
Yeah, but if I didn't do them, then someone else would!"
This is the excuse that we've all used at some stage. If we didn't do it, someone else would. It's also allowing the rule of the lowest common denominator to guide our actions.
By following this rule, we're saying that we'll do anything that someone else will do, simply because some other mythical person, somewhere else, will do it. We're shuffling ourselves down to the absolute lowest level of ethical behaviour.
In the end, I wasn't happy being part of the problem. I didn't want to earn my living supporting a company that profited from finding better ways to kill people.
At least part of the reason we become environmentally aware in the first place is because we want to make things better in the world. We want to leave the world in better shape for our descendants.
Ethics are a full time job
I can't have part-time ethics. I can't try to be green at home, but turn a blind eye to my day job. Being green has to be part of everything I do, or I'm a hypocrite.
At the moment I'm a stay-at-home Mum. There are heaps of areas of my life that are works in progress regarding environmentalism. My whole life is a "work in progress!" Isn't everyone's?
But if we don't look at where our income is coming from, we're missing perhaps the biggest area of all.
There is almost always a choice!
We're lucky to live in wealthy countries, where people have a huge choice of occupations and earning possibilities.
Sometimes we have to change careers altogether, and that can be a frightening prospect. I've changed career path three times already in my life, and worked in half a dozen companies already - and I'm only in my thirties! But if we are not willing to change in order to make our world a better place, we may as well give up the fight for our planet here and now.
If you're in a career field that is truly unsustainable, now is the time to move paths. Quit while you're ahead, and explore options for sustainability and happiness. Only you know what you'd love to do, and what you are capable of. But times are changing fast, and industries that pollute and foul our world are on borrowed time.
When I left that software company all those years ago, I was afraid. I didn't know what lay ahead of me, and didn't know what a new job would entail. But I'm glad I made the move.
Since then I have moved homes, cities, and countries. And changing jobs seems like such a little thing now. But such a positive move!
A positive future
I'll close this post with a dream and a hope for the future.
Just imagine, for a moment, if everyone in the world said no.
If we all of us said that we will no longer work in companies that pollute the world, and make bombs that kill babies. That we won't mine coal and export water. That we won't design GM terminator seeds or chemical weapons. That we won't build that next nuclear reactor. And that we won't chop down that virgin rainforest.
Every transformation starts with one person. We can transform our world - we really can - but to do so we need to be honest about every part of our lives, including the part where our money comes from.
Cluttercut - Green simplicity