The Limits of Compassion - a Sustainable Economy Needs Fair Wages

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Image credit: moyerphotos, used under Creative Commons license.

I was having a beer with a friend yesterday and we got talking about his experiences working with environmental non-profits. (This was the same friend who prompted musings on Saul Alinsky and the environmental movement, and offered cautionary warnings about the unintended consequences of zero waste.) The discussion eventually turned to the fact that so many people in the non-profit sector, and even the good-for-the-world for-profit sector, work for little or nothing, and eventually burn out and look for work elsewhere to support themselves and their families. The term "compassion mining" came to mind. Don't get me wrong, just as volunteerism can be a legitimate element of sustainable farming, so too making use of people's passions and drive to change the world is a legitimate strategy for green- or socially-minded entities to keep themselves going. I happily work for less money knowing that what I do is of benefit to the greater good. Peace of mind matters.

But the green movement, and any movement for that matter, must be careful to look after its own. If we get to a position where college graduates work for a few years for their chosen non-profit, burn out, and then move on to take whatever job they can, then the situation is untenable. Similarly, if environmental groups or companies start relying solely on volunteers (or employees for that matter) who first make their money in the mainstream economy, establish their financial security, and then take time to indulge their passions once they retire, then we will never get to where we need to be.

This situation isn't just relevant to volunteers or employees either, it also speaks to how good-for-the-world organizations deal with each other. As someone who works in my day job with many non-profits—and only with organizations and companies who contribute somehow to a better world—I am often asked for pro-bono work or "non-profit rates". While this may make sense for the bottom line of the client, when it becomes too commonplace it makes it hard to build a viable, sustainable business. As my aforementioned friend (who faces similar requests all the time) argued, the only way that most agencies or vendors can have a non-profit rate is by working their tails off for, as he put it, planet-raping sons-of-b****es. (OK, he actually used stronger terms than that, but you get the point.)

I am in no way knocking the idea of altruism, volunteering or charity, but these things can only go so far. As people operating in a fledgling sustainable economy (or at least a would-be sustainable economy), we owe it to ourselves, our clients, our vendors, our employees, and our society, to make sure that economy is itself sustainable. And that sometimes means we need to look after number one first.

More on Sustainability, Employment and Economics
Volunteerism as Backbone of Farming: The Return of the Barn Raising
Is Volunteerism the Cheap Oil of Permaculture?
The End of Cheap Materialism and the Value of Enough

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