Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Does it Matter How I Pay the Bills?


Right now I work (indirectly) for a large multi-national corporation. One of the largest. You know their name, and you know the pet food that the plants I support produce. They are interchangeable with any number of other large corporations, producing goods that I largely avoid, so I'll keep their name to myself, it's not germane to this discussion. So why do I work for them? I don't care about their products. I don't care about their brand. In fact, I think the corporation represents a lot about what's wrong with the current situation in America.
The short answer is I needed to pay the bills.

The longer answer brings up my massive student loan debt, my need to prove (to myself) that the Computer Engineering degree wasn't a waste of money and time; and really, isn't germane.

I don't want to do it anymore. I don't want my brainpower to go to a large corporation. I don't want my entire life's work to boil down to "I kept 5 pet food plants running 24/7."  Because, let's face it, a lack of efficiently produced pet food is not one of the larger problems facing my generation and those that follow.

There are problems that I see clearly and feel strongly and passionately about solving.  Problems of food production, food access and food security.  Problems that I don't want to relegate to the 3 hours of free time I have every week. When I find myself doing research or reading, it's rarely tech related, or automation related. 9 out 10 times, I'm researching a farming or food question. Farming is suffering from the same population problem that the rest of the country is facing, aging quickly with not enough young working-age people to keep things going. It's one thing to have not enough automation professionals, it's a whole nother thing for a country to have it's food production experts age out without replacement. Demand is not going to wane for food, and without enough producers we'll end up with more and more of the hellish confinement feeding style operations as the few remaining farmers try to produce enough food for all of us. This country needs more young people to take up hoes and get on tractors. I think I can answer that call.  I think I can do it and make a living too. So I'm going to try.

I can see myself getting involved in the on-farm research that Iowa State University and Practical Farmers of Iowa help organize and fund. Mostly though I just want to grow vegetables. Wholesale is an option, farmers's markets are too, so is a CSA model if I can get people excited for my brand of organic food. Of course, this is all assuming I can grow the food. I manage to largely meet my family's vegetable needs with only the spare time I have between my other two jobs. I'm hoping that with more hours a week to dedicate to it, my output will scale up accordingly. I'll have new obstacles, and I'll need to learn a new skill set as I cross that boundary between gardener and farmer. I'm aware of that. I can't shake the feeling though that now's the time. Social safety nets are in place, I have a good chunk of my youth and health still, and I want to set my family on a path that will mesh better with our life goals and quality of life needs. It doesn't even mean that I have to leave my technical skills behind. Modern greenhouses use a bit of automation, as do most aquaculture setups. Both of which I could see myself getting into. Or tablet/phone applications to help farmers keep track of which field got planted when, with what, cross referenced with expected output vs actual production numbers. Anyway, the business plan has been started. Budgets for the next 3-5 years have been started. I have 3 acres of tillable land near Boone, IA that my best friend owns and wants to grow vegetables on. I have been accepted into the PFI Beginning Farmer Savings Incentive Plan, (more on that in another post.) So, now is the time to DO THIS THING!

But, yes, this will be a change in our lives. A large change. That's sorta the point.  There are aspects we don't like in our life right now. And change is not scary to me. Risk can be scary, and there is some risk here. But, I know what the risks are if I don't change anything. I have a pretty good idea of what the outcome will be if I choose cubicals and factories for the next 25 years. All I have to do is look around the office at the people who have been programming for 15+ years. I'll become adapted to the life of cubical fauna and gradually lose my health and fitness. It's not a hard stretch to see where that leads.

Metabolic disorders have become the #1 killer of adults.  High blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, these sorts of things now kill more people than all the communicable things like flu and pneumonia.

I'm so not interested in going down that path.

Can I try to live my life by a different metric? Instead of worrying about billable hours and corporate facetime? Can I work hard and measure success by happiness levels?  Because it's not the hard work that's the problem, it's the metric I'm currently using to define a successful week that's a problem. I'm one of those people that goes crazy if I'm not working, but it's also become apparent these past 5 years that I go a little crazy if I don't get enough outside time, and time with my hands dirty.

"There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.  These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.  Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.  Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free.  For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech." - Aldo Leopold 

It's also become clear to me that I go a little crazy if I feel my work doesn't have enough meaning.  I do care where my brainpower goes, it's not an insignificant thing to me. I place great value on this strong, logical, crazy, creative, never-still brain of mine and the problems I solve day in and day out need to be worthy of it, or I feel like I'm slacking off.

A lot of words since the title question, but the gist is: It matters to me.

Some of you might be wondering, am I doing all of this because I'm a doomer?
Yes and no. All of the reasons above would still be here even if I thought the bright modern world wasn't about to come crashing down on us. I do think that it's all going to come crashing down though.  A stable successful automation career depends on cheap reliable grid energy. None of the plants I've done work in could operate on spotty power, generator power, etc. And since our country has an electrical grid that's old and in desperate need of re-organizing, strengthening and 10 years worth of maintenance, that makes me nervous. Our Civil Engineers rank our grid and energy infrastructure at a D+ in 2013. (link) Why would I risk getting specialized in a field that our country seems unwilling to support? Why put my family's wellbeing on the line by staying in a career path with prerequisites that are a few points away from failing? The pendulum has swung a long ways towards automation; employing fewer people, using more energy and machines to do what hands used to. I think we've reached the zenith though, and the pendulum will be swinging back the other way. I really honestly think we're headed towards the point where human power will be much cheaper and much more reliable than grid power. Automation won't make sense in that environment, not like we see today. I'm not going to stick around to wait and see if my predictions are right though. I'll be specializing in a skill set that won't need as much grid power to make a product, and won't need as many rare earth minerals or travel by air for a successful career.  If I happen to be wrong, I may make less money, but I'll probably be healthier and happier. If I'm right, I've dodged a canonball that will destroy the careers of many a tech worker.
 One of the hard facts of our present predicament is that the steps that have to be taken to get ready for the future bearing down on us all require letting go of the privileges and perquisites that most Americans consider theirs by right. A few years ago, I coined the acronym LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—to summarize the changes that we’re all going to have to make as things proceed, and began pointing out that any response to our predicament that doesn’t start with using LESS simply isn’t serious.
I’m pleased to say that a certain fraction of my readers have taken that advice seriously, and tackled the uncomfortable job of downsizing their dependence on the absurd amounts of energy, stuff, and artificial stimulation that are involved in an ordinary American lifestyle these days. I’m equally pleased to say that an even larger number of people who don’t read The Archdruid Report and don’t know me from Hu Gadarn’s off ox have gotten to work doing the same thing. Those people are going to be in a much better position not merely to weather the crises ahead, but to help their loved ones, friends and neighbors do the same thing, and potentially also contribute to the preservation of the more useful achievements of the last few centuries. Still, it’s hard work, and it also requires a willingness to step outside the conventional wisdom of our society, which claims to be open to new and innovative ideas but in practice tolerates only endless rehashings of the same old notions.  -Archdruid

I, of course, have no proof that this is the right choice to make right now.  Nobody I know has a working crystal ball right now.  Maybe in 30 years time I'll be selling carrots to the next crop of tech millionaires and wishing I'd stayed at my computer. Right now, I'm betting not though.

Living boldly is also not being forever strong and fearless. You can live boldly and still have weak moments, emotional meltdowns, failures, self-doubts and plenty of 3:00 a.m. fears for the future. (Ask me how I know.) Living boldly is what you do in spite of all that.
Living boldly is creating your own life in your own way, even if you’re depressed, discouraged, defeated, and downtrodden. Even if you fear — or are downright dead-solid certain — that the whole damn world is doomed.    -Claire Wolfe

Is it really a good time to get into food production?
Stay tuned, I have a post that answers that question too.

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