Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sustainability Gets Personal: Feminist Economics, Happiness, Climate Change, Ben Affleck--and My Son Zack

The last few weeks, I've seen a bunch of colleagues and friends who I hadn't seen in a while, and they have all asked me the same two questions: "How's work coming along? And how are you enjoying working for yourself?" If you follow this blog regularly, you probably know that last August, I left my job at The Field Museum and started working on my own, as a Sustainability and Diversity Consultant. I have told all of them the same thing: Work is great. I'm very busy, with enough paid work to fill a full-time work week, and more. And I'm loving working for myself, because every day is different; I have many sets of colleagues from different fields, all over the city and the country; I get to work only on projects that I really care about; I don't have to deal with institutional politics; and, I get to spend a lot more time with my 9-year-old son Zack.

"THAT'S sustainability!" said my friend Debbie Hillman, while we were having lunch at Noyes Street Cafe in Evanston two Fridays ago, in between the two classes I am teaching now at my old stomping grounds, Northwestern. "Sustainability is all about balance. Write about spending time with Zack for your next blog post." And since I tend to do what Debbie advises, here's that post.

In fact, I had been thinking about my new work situation and sustainability, but from a financial perspective. Earlier this winter, I watched a (not very great) movie called "The Company Men," starring Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones, in which Affleck is laid off from a lucrative job in the shipping industry and struggles to find a new job. In the meantime, his family loses their home, and Affleck goes through an identity crisis and, of course, discovers that there is more to life than working and money. The movie's message is predictable and trite. But it made me realize that my work is all about diversity as a key component of sustainability; and this diversity is just as crucial from a financial perspective as from a cultural and biological one. To put it simply, I felt good that my income now is more diverse, coming from multiple sources. This felt more sustainable for the long-term, because if one job falls through, I have others. It also felt more freeing: like I am more in charge of my life and my destiny, rather than being dependent on an institution or a particular supervisor/boss.

My mind always wanders back up to the bigger picture issues--so I have been trying also to think about my work, Zack, and Ben Affleck as they relate to the question of happiness. This link has been partly a personal question. How much work can I take on, as an independent contractor, without going out of my mind? As more work comes in, should I pay someone to help me with it--even though I'm not yet at the income level I aspire to be at? Will I be happier if I get help and have more free time, or if I work more and can start contributing again to Zack's college fund?

In thinking through these personal questions--and continuing to work with my partners and clients, including UIC, ICA, and now the US Green Business Council-Illinois Chapter, to define what a sustainable community looks like--I have found a few thought-provoking articles and presentations exploring connections between personal happiness, sustainability, and climate change, largely focused on consumption. Check some of them out:

Surprising Facts About the World's Happiest People (Chicago Defender)

I especially encourage you to take the time to watch Juliet Schor's presentation from The Garrison Institute's Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium that I attended last year. She makes the important point that the type of question I am grappling with about how much to work is not just a personal question about happiness, but key to addressing climate change as well--because research has proven that reducing work hours (and increasing them for people who are un- or under-employed) is a
key variable for achieving sustainability, not to mention getting the labor market back in balance.

And then please share your thoughts:
What does sustainability look like in your life?
How do you aspire to achieve more balance--and more happiness?



  1. A comment from my friend Brian Fabes. He tried posting a comment but was asked for a profile and then the comment didn't show up. Anyone know what's happening? This is the 2nd person having trouble posting comments and I'd like to figure out what to tell them!

    Here's his comment:
    Great piece. Thanks for sharing. As for my personal balance, I got off airplanes as a way of life 12 years ago this month, and it's made all the difference: I'm home for dinner with my family every night. And who knew it was also the biggest thing I could have done to reduce GHGs, as well!

  2. Busy people seem constantly to talk about needing more balance in their lives, and the push usually is to spend more time with the family and less time working. At any given moment we all have a myriad of responsibilities laying claim to our lives. My experience is, which ever one I'm responding to at the moment, all the others are screaming for attention, so no matter where I am or what I'm doing, there will always be someplace else that I "ought" to be. It's an impossible situation and I appear guilty of neglect in the midst of my most noble efforts. Even if I were to achieve perfect balance, and spend 50% with family and 50% with work (ignoring all the other demands), I'm still divided. So what if a sustainable life were less about "balance" and more about "integration?" What if I were to believe the wisdom of Curly in the movie "City Slickers," that the secret to life really is "one thing," and that my one thing is my life's calling, my all-consuming mission, what I'm always about in the midst of all the daily activities in which I engage. Then, where ever I am, who ever I'm with, what ever I'm doing, I'm always about my "one thing." This may not lead to more time with my family or more balanced attention to my other responsibilities. But in the midst of all the "t"hings I do, my life will be integrated around the "T"hing my life is ultimately about. I'll still want to spend more time with my family, but at least, when I can't, I'm not as stressed out about it. Randy

  3. Thanks for your comment, Randy. It's interesting to think about integration together with balance. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether integration leads to more stress--because work is constant. Lots of food for thought...

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