One Life Living – Are You A Modern Day Slaver?

One Life Living

I have been thinking a lot lately, about a lot of related issues – life purpose, legacy, success, good/bad, the future, children, responsibility, opportunity, global problems and solutions etc.

One idea keeps coming up, from many angles : my ‘One Life Living’ concept.

Based on the ‘One Planet Living’ concept, where the Earth’s renewable resources are quantified and equally divided between all the people (note, only humans – and same for each, not according to need), One Life Living aims to quantify our use of resources in terms of how much human tine is needed to support our lifestyles. How many unthanked slaves do I have? Could everyone on Earth live like me, or does my lifestyle DEPEND on the income differential? EG, if I am paid 10x more per hour than someone else, I can live a great life by paying 10 people for working to support me. The lady who stitches my shirt in 17 seconds, for example. The Grandma who takes care of my kids one day a week when I work a late shift (we could assume one child per person, for simplicity). 

I’m a fairly ordinary Westerner. I use electrical appliances to save time. I have a fair amount of stuff. I like to travel. I have two children. I try to recycle, reduce my carbon footprint and support charities. I like technology.

When you read “X people live on less than one dollar a day”, do you ever wonder, what does that mean? To me, to them? Maybe one dollar a day is plenty where they live, I have no idea. Why is a US Dollar an appropriate measure? It’s subjective, it’s a colonial attitude.

Or when you choose a ‘Fairtrade’ banana, do you wonder how fair it can be, if I pay for it my earnings from 23 seconds of work, but it requires several people to supply it to me, whose work totals 46 minutes per banana? If I am paid 20 times the hourly rate of the person picking the fruit I eat?  How about, if we factor in all the time invested towards the research and development of the ship that brought it here from the coast of Panama, the infinitesimally small proportion of the total time spent developing all the associated technologies? Including running all the Universities where the people were trained and theoretical research done? All the waste, all the external impacts, the occasional oil spill or a ship lost in a stormy sea? 

Complicated?  I don’t think it is actually. We know approximately how many people have existed on Earth.  We know roughly what they worked on and how productive they were.  We know how long people lived, what they died of, how many children they had etc.  Children still need roughly the same number of hours of attention, although Childcare can be managed more or less efficiently.  In England, since the Domesday Book – I could be wrong but I doubt we would be out by a massive factor by making an informed extrapolation. Were they more productive than now? Unlikely.  How much productive power came from horses, oxen etc?  How much was left over after subsistence?  How much was available to create cities, trade, research etc?    We know a lot of things. Of course let’s not get carried away, we are bloody stupid too, and the more we know, the worse it seems:  “Universal clean water would save 4000 lives daily and we already have the technology!” “Sod that, let’s send people to the moon and invent 152 types of lash-boosting mascara instead.”   

One thing we all have in common. We all have 24 hours in our day. We have very varied lifespans, we have very varied opportunity for what I term ‘Agency’ within that –  power/knowledge/opportunity. But we all live days an nights, and we all need to rest. In terms of hours, we could say, I would like to work X hours a week, Y weeks a year, I assume Z years. There probably won’t be more than a factor of 10 between the majority of humans (who have reached productive adulthood / lived beyond age 5 or something … hmm, how long is a human life? I digress.)  So then we say “I cannot expect someone else to work more than I would want to myself, what is fair for me is fair for s/he”.  Eg, for an example based on Western late C20th model: 40 years of productive work @ 40 hours a week @ 45weeks/year = 72000 hours of productive work.

Then we assume that all productive work is equally valid, in terms of time – this includes ‘reproductive work’ ie childbearing and childcare, necessary for the continuation (replication at same numbers) of the species. And ‘invisible work’ like housework/water collection/cooking which may often be overlooked in traditional (predominantly male) models of ‘work’. 

Immediately we have some new questions – what is ‘work’ etc.

We can add in, likely proportion of sick people needing to be cared for, and other variables to contextualise and refine the system.

From this very simple and easily programmable model, we can immediately start to tweak the variables and see the effect. We live longer? Add a few years of productive work. We want more education, or become infirm earlier – reduce the years.  More people die of disease – factor in more children to sustain the population.  Does the population need to be sustained at current level? Good question.

From this it becomes very quickly obvious how all forms of technology impact on human life, productivity, resources etc. From the sewer system (less death, less caring for the unnecessarily sick, less time spent gestating and raising children who die young), through machine production and the conversion of fossil fuels to usable energy, to modern computers.  This other side of the question – how much impact does human ingenuity have on the model? – is enormously significant. I would posit it being exponentially more important than the other variables.  Here, as opposed to the maximum factor of ten I posited above for the ‘longevity/health’ variables’, we are already talking factors of giga, tera etc proportions, and increasing exponentially, with digital technology having only recently begun. A doubling of capacity every decade is the current norm – of course we expect this to continue accelerating. We may even be able to define how far computers could help us to increase production. We are more aware of the availability of natural resources, and starting to look at whole life value and costs, internalising externalities. The One Planet Living figures can be used – as a subset of this broader model, which combines natural resources with human resources and equity/justice.

Many people will balk at the idea of quantifying human lives so grotesquely. I myself feel a little uncomfortable. However, I feel there is a simple beauty, honest and fair, to my ‘One Life Living’ system. It is merely a view on the world. It can be questioned, tested, used to model possible futures, to take decisions. It is NOT tied to the US dollar – so it is less distasteful than the ‘One Dollar a day’ model adopted by many charities.

To a certain extent, I dislike defining human beings as ‘quantities of production’.  It could lead to all sorts of nastiness.  However, it seems to me preferable to defining ourselves as ‘quantities of consumption’, as our current economic and political systems, and even ‘One Planet Living’, seem to do.

I am an artist, an architect, an activist.  I naturally gravitate towards the qualitative, and am suspicious of the quantitative (lies, damned lies and statistics).  I do not aspire to know ‘the cost of everything and the value of nothing’.  And yet, something in me keeps drawing me back to this question, this very simple formula.

I just want to know, how many people around the world are working to keep me in the lifestyle I’m accustomed to?  Because I think it could be quite a number, and I’m pretty sure it’s not working both ways, and that ain’t fair.

This could be very powerful visually – each Western person backed in shadow by X number of slaves, invisible to us yet essential to our lives.  Graphic timelines of ‘One Life Production’ Throughout history, across continents.  Each woman’s work valued equally alongside each man’s.  Each life valued the same, each person entitled to the same consideration as myself.  I’m not saying everyone should do the same, be the same, obtain the same.  Not at all.  That’s another debate, for after.  When the ways we organise, reward, conceive of and relate to work, could be laid out, recognised, analysed, questioned, discussed … changed.  We could relate more honestly to each other, globally.  We could recognised which technologies have had most impact on our lives, in ways which are meaningful to us, in order to focus on developing technologies that improve our lives, globally, fast.  We could understand and assess future scenarios and options in a better-informed way.  We could see through political and cultural scams that keep some few living at the expense of many others – all would see the Emperor’s clothes.   

One Life Living.  Are YOU doing it?  Or are you a modern-day slaver?

(cc) Pascale Scheurer Jan 8th 2011


This entry was posted in Business, democracy, Entrepreneurship, ethics, Globalisation, kindness, Parenting, Philosophy, Social Entrepreneurship, Society, sustainability, Working 24/7. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to One Life Living – Are You A Modern Day Slaver?

  1. Monex says:

    Sometimes I have to mentally slap myself when I realize I m unduly depressed over inconsequential business problems a stain on my tie bad service at a store or a new door ding on my car. I have to remind myself that I m healthy and successful with a beautiful wife and family and every possible option in front of me. It s an extremely common human condition to miss the moment. How many of us have looked back fondly at younger days perhaps childhood high school or college when things seemed so much simpler and life so much more enjoyable?

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