What does it mean to do good work?

From Alex's weekly letter. Sign up here!

To be human is to be born entangled in a net of duties. We have been social animals for at least as long as we’ve made tools and kept fire. Our minds, our very individualities emerge from the interplay with the minds of others, some living, some long dead and subsumed into “culture.” Our language is given to us by others. Our DNA is given to us by others. We have been given ourselves by others. 

At the same time, they are us. They are our family. It is one of the most profound facts about humans that we are all one family. Not just in some hand-waving feel good sense, but in the most direct sense of being much more tightly interrelated than any other large mammal species we know of. We are descended from a handful of people, and all of us are their children.

We are the kin and parents of all the people to come. It is easy to believe that people elsewhere, especially people elsewhere in time, are unrelated to us, that they have no claim on us, that their problems are, in the words of the old cowboy tune “their misfortune and none of my own.” This disconnection—this sense that the future is made up of people to whom you and I owe nothing—is, I believe, at the very core of the planetary problems we face. The reality, of course, is that the future is already here, and the people who will live in it are already our children, our children's children, our friend's children, our friends. The future is us and the people we love.

future generations

We owe a kinship duty to those future family members. Just as everything about us we got from others—even those things we most uniquely created in our own lives, we create out of pieces of the things that others gave us the opportunity to use—so too will the people who come after us, our kin, build their worlds from the options we leave them. 

The real wealth we leave to the future will be found in the number of available pathways we leave them. The more options people have, the more ways of doing things, the more durable their resources, the more resilient their systems, the greater the long-term wealth they possess. A large bank account is a kind of option, but it fails in a great many futures. Fortunes dissipate, currencies crash, nations fail. A salmon run on the other hand is also a kind of wealth. It's a kind of wealth that holds its value among a great many potential states of human being. A way of thinking is a kind of wealth that can hold its value in certain circumstances forever. We are made richer by natural capital. We are made richer by cultural capital, by the ability to think a wider variety of things. We are made richer, as well, by the problems we don't inherit. 

When we eradicated smallpox in the wild, we made the world wealthier for generations to come. Hundreds of millions of people who might have died, won’t; untold misery that would have been endured, won’t have to be; losses that would have left families and communities struggling to heal and rebuild will not be felt. We would be poorer if we lived in a world of epidemic smallpox. Similarly, the people of the future will be poorer if we leave them a ruined climate, will be poorer if we leave them a legacy of failed states, crisis zones and mass refugees. The best kinds of legacy wealth are not in fact riches, but are tools for possibility creation; the next best legacies are disasters avoided.

To my mind, much of the point of planetary thinking is to try and tease out what genuine options we might most wisely gift to the future. Planetary thinking is a tool for reclaiming our kinship with the future. It is also a tool, therefore, for doing work that is worth doing. Because any work that impoverishes the future is at best trivial, and most likely deeply immoral. Any work that increases options of the future by allowing it to rest upon a richer base of natural capital, by allowing the people in the future to respond to their problems with a wider, more colorful palette of mental solutions, by allowing the people of the future to confront their own struggles, not to struggle constantly with the problems we have left them: That is good work. 

We live at in inflection point today where the amount of bad work being done—work that is at best meaningless and at worst sociopathic—vastly overwhelms the amount of good work being done. Which means those of us who aspire to do some good work while we're here need to be smarter. We need to be clearer about what good work might be; that clarity itself represents no small task. We also need to become the people who can get good work done.

We are unfortunately obliged with a duty to not only think better but to do better. That duty can weigh heavily on us. It obliges us all to become people who can do more than most of us find comfortable to expect of ourselves. But that duty can also be, I have found, a source of real joy. It lets us connect to the real vitality of a life of the mind. It lets us connect to a way of being in our own experience, using our own particular gifts and skills and knowledge, to try and do something which is really hard, but which also gives life meaning—work engaging both in terms of the craft of action and the experience of purpose that only comes from making things that matter. It also (and I personally think this is no small thing) throws us into the company of remarkable people. 

I woke up this morning. I'd been dreaming. Big dreams. I can’t remember what about, other than that there were vistas and journeys and love and flying in those dreams. A feeling came to me as I lay in bed. It was a feeling of continuity and connection. It was a feeling that said within myself, “You are part of something that has been going on for a very long time, and you are part of something that is only just beginning. That thing is the same thing. What do you want to do with your day?”