The following is excerpted from Change Here Now: Permaculture Solutions for Personal and Community Transformation by Adam Brock, published by North Atlantic Books.
Paying the bills while maintaining your ethical integrity can be challenging, but finding the balance between the two is both possible and rewarding.
You have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others.
—Thich Nhat Hanh
How shall I spend my time? What is my highest and best calling? For most of history, questions like these were idle speculation that only the wealthiest could afford to contemplate. As historian Yuval Noah Harari puts it, what we tend to think of as “history” consists of “something that very few people have been doing while everyone else was ploughing fields and carrying water buckets.”118 For most humans, their greater contributions to the world were less a matter of choice and more about staying fed and keeping warm. Even the slow and steady rise of skilled trades created livelihoods that were not chosen, but handed down from generation to generation.
Today, for the first time in history, many of us are given the opportunity to choose what we want to become. But like many choices in consumer society, the options we’re given are suspiciously proscribed. If we’re interested in maintaining a stable, middle-class lifestyle, our choices are limited to those opportunities that generate sufficient financial capital to support that life. And these alternatives seem to be getting ever narrower, funneling us into industries or tasks that we have no taste for.
Meanwhile, the work that desperately needs doing never seems to pay enough to sustain us, no matter how talented we are at doing it. This is not a coincidence: as long as we remain tied to growth-based currencies like dollars, most of the profitable careers will be ones that maximize returns of that currency at the expense of other forms of capital. The rules of the game intentionally disincentivize acts of COMMONING, which redirect capital away from antimarkets and central banks and back toward the local communities that need it.
And so the SACRED ACTIVIST must negotiate the paradox of finding the right livelihood in a wrong world. For the time being, we’re compelled to walk a seemingly impossible line, with one foot planted in the present exploitative reality and another in the regenerative future. But while there are few perfect solutions to this paradox, plenty of committed and thoughtful changemakers have found clever strategies of handling it. Through her series of interviews with “regenepreneurs,” permaculture teacher and designer Karryn Olson-Ramanujan has profiled a series of SACRED ACTIVISTS who have managed to develop a path of right livelihood amid the crosscurrents of capitalism. While their stories are unique and varied, there’s a thread that connects them all: each one has found his or her calling by seeking opportunities at the intersection of what’s fulfilling, what’s necessary, and what’s lucrative.
RIGHT LIVELIHOODS ARE FULFILLING
None of us wants to spend eight hours a day engaging in work that’s not aligned with our personal values. Not only is it erosive to our sense of self, but our indifference leads to mediocrity—a losing proposition for employee and employer alike. But unless we’re able to articulate exactly the kind of work we want to perform, we’ll be stuck choosing among the less-than-perfect options offered to us. Many of us, conditioned our whole lives to think inside the career box, have hardly even dared ask the question of what we’d most like to be doing. But by exploring what makes us happy, we can begin to develop a more three-dimensional story of who we are and who we want to become, guiding us toward moments of professional fulfillment that we didn’t even know were possible.
What causes do you feel most passionate about? What classes, jobs, or volunteer opportunities have you been most excited to participate in? How would you spend your time if earning money wasn’t an issue? Through answering questions like these, as well as design tools like the PERSONAL VISION, you can start to hone in on what kind of work feels most fulfilling to you.
RIGHT LIVELIHOODS ARE NEEDED
There are plenty of activities that make us happy that hardly qualify as a RIGHT LIVELIHOOD. While we might choose to pass our free time watching the sunset or playing video games, we also have to consider what our community needs. In the same way that every species has a niche in its ecosystem, each one of us must find our niche in our community’s path toward independence and abundance. Some of us are healers, born with a nurturing impulse that can be honed to solve physical, emotional, spiritual, or interpersonal ailments. Some of us are creators, pouring our love into manufacturing useful and beautiful objects. And still others are communicators and translators, inspiring others with the gift of the spoken and written word.
Sometimes it takes time to figure out exactly what your community needs from you. Bonita Ford, a successful permaculture designer, organizer, and author based in Ontario—and one of Olson-Ramanujan’s regenepreneurs—admits that finding her niche was as much her community’s decision as her own. “This whole process,” she explains, “has been about also being willing to be curious, to be flexible, to really work with and be receptive to what people were interested in, what services people were interested in, what people were willing to pay for, what opportunities existed within our community and what needs there were.”119
RIGHT LIVELIHOODS ARE LUCRATIVE
As rewarding as it may be to find a match between our passions and our community’s needs, it’s not sustainable if it can’t meet our financial obligations. Monetizing our work for a better world requires persistence, creativity, and sometimes painful compromises—but it’s entirely possible. For one thing, it’s important to REDUCE THE NEED TO EARN: the less money you need to meet your needs, the more flexible you’ll be to take on opportunities that are meaningful and necessary. A farmer, for instance, might offer to take care of a property in exchange for room and board, while a chiropractor could accept payment in an HEIRLOOM CURRENCY.
But strategies like these will only go so far—especially if you have student loan payments to make, children to support, or a mortgage to pay. That’s why it’s just as important to practice increasing our monetary yield for our work. One key component of maximizing our yield is diversification: cultivating a set of interrelated skills that can be put to use at different times, depending on what’s most necessary and profitable. The permaculture practitioners profiled by Olson-Ramanujan, for instance, often rely on a polyculture of teaching, designing, and gardening to make ends meet, while healers might offer a combination of acupuncture services, homemade tinctures, and educational workshops.
Regardless of which skills we’re using in our polyculture, we ought to make sure we’re getting the payment we deserve. Many of us have a hard time negotiating payment on our own behalf—especially women, people of color, and others who have been told they’re less valuable by society. While you may have to undercharge or even perform your services for free while you’re getting started, there’s no shame in asking for a living wage as you begin to perfect your expertise. Becoming familiar with marketing and self-promotion are also critical, as are basic bookkeeping skills, for when the money does start flowing.
All told, these factors point toward a conception of RIGHT LIVELIHOOD that looks quite different than the steady career that remains the default goal for most Americans. For starters, it demands a much more self-directed path. It might be possible for some to find a full-time, salaried position at an existing organization that checks the boxes of fulfilling, needed, and lucrative. But more often than not, following the path of RIGHT LIVELIHOOD takes the courage to step outside existing institutional structures. Ultimately, RIGHT LIVELIHOOD is less a destination than a journey. The livelihood path of Bonita Ford and others wasn’t something they arrived at and stuck with, but instead a constantly shifting balance. By developing a polyculture of related skills that can wax and wane as the situation demands, the regenerpreneurs profiled by Olson-Ramanujan were able to embrace change and uncertainty with less fear.
Olson-Ramanujan, Karryn. Regenepreneurs. http://regenepreneurs.com.
APPLYING THE PATTERN
What are your marketable skills? What is your niche? What do you love doing?
Can you make a living doing it eventually? Can you do something else in the meantime? What are the gaps you see in the capital in your community and your niche? How can you gain the necessary skills?
118 Yuval Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper-Collins, 2015).
119 Bonita Ford, “Thrivelihood Interview with Bonita Ford,” by Karryn Olson-Ramanujan, http://seedsustainabilityconsulting.com/interview-bonita-members.