The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future
for ourselves and for the planet

* Now available in paperback!*
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The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected them into a book. I am currently releasing the book on this web page - one essay at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. If you are impatient, you may purchase the whole thing from Amazon as either a paperback or a Kindle e-book by clicking the image at left. Then you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Otherwise....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.

Enjoy! And please let me know what you think. You can enter your comments at the bottom of this page.


63. Labor saved by machinery should not come in the form of unemployment.

The effects of automation should be measured in increased freedom, not in desperation. Laying off some employees and increasing the responsibilities of those who remain helps neither group.

The computer revolution - like the industrial revolution before it - has given us machines capable of doing many jobs previously done by humans. From simple tasks like directing traffic, up through sophisticated and complex operations such as aircraft navigation, bookkeeping, and typesetting, electronic devices can now be made that do better and more reliable work than human minds and hands. Billing clerks, telephone operators, and music copyists are among the many jobs that technology has now rendered obsolete. The corner mechanic is going the way of the buggy-whip manufacturer: the hybrid gas-electric car that I drive today requires much less maintenance and repair than the far less complicated 1955 Plymouth I began car-ownership with back in the early 1960s, and when it does require these things, they must be provided by specialists.

New occupations have also arisen: but the process has not proved particularly helpful to those whose careers are being phased out. Computer programming and electronic circuit design require a much different set of skills than auto mechanics and claims billing, and even if retraining could be done - which it often cannot - meaningful retraining programs do not exist. The much-vaunted service economy has proved neither service-oriented nor economical: even at below-poverty-level wages, not enough income can be generated to hire enough workers to provide the levels of service we demand at the prices we are willing to pay. And even with new service jobs and new occupations factored in, there is less work to go around. The point of labor-saving machines, after all, is not to do less labor but to do the same amount with less effort. If they work - and they do - the result is necessarily less effort per person.

There are only two possible ways to handle this situation. Either everyone does less work; or fewer people do the same amount of work they always have, while the rest don't do any. So far, our society has opted for the latter. This has meant unemployment for many and no reduction in work load for the rest. Stress has increased, not only for the unemployed but for those who have kept their jobs. This is due to the fact that, while machines can take over labor, they cannot take over responsibility. With fewer humans working, each one must shoulder more responsibility - and more stress.

It is time to try the other alternative. Let us spread the labor reduction our machines have given us throughout the workforce, rather than packaging it up in pink slips for some and more stress for others. Reducing the length of the work week is one sensible alternative; another is job-sharing. What is chosen doesn't really matter, as long as it allows all of us to benefit from our reduced need for labor instead of making us all pay.

The economy will have to adjust. With more people doing less work, either wages will have to go down or labor costs per unit of production will go up. Most people assume the latter. I am going to make the extremely radical suggestion that we try for the former. Not by reducing income, but by partially decoupling income from work. Machines are doing this to us whether we like it or not, simply by the fact that they are doing the work humans used to get paid for. It is time to adapt. We need a guaranteed minimum income - enough to cover food, shelter and basic medical expenses. This should be paid to all, regardless of other income sources. It would not substitute for work income, but would provide a floor for it. Hard work would still be rewarded, as before. The money for the minimum income would have to come from somewhere, so the rich would be less rich and the middle of the middle class would be a bit lower. But there would still be rich people and middle-class people. The only thing that would really suffer would be greed, and I think we could do with a lot less of that than we currently have.

Does this sound too radical? Consider the alternative. With machines taking over more and more of the work, fewer and fewer people find full-time jobs. Fewer people working full-time means more poverty. This is not a political statement, it is inescapable a-follows-b reality. We will either have more poor, or we will find a different way to distribute work and income. There are no other choices. Labor is being saved. We can take advantage of that - or we can allow it to tear us apart.

Next week: Section 64, "Centralization is not a sustainable choice."


CLICK ON THE LINK ABOVE to obtain a free copy of the first ten chapters of this book. The 57 sections comprising the remaining ten chapters will continue to be released on this website at the rate of one section per week, but they will no longer be accumulated here; each will be available for only one week. To obtain a complete copy of the book for a modest price, please click on the image at upper left.


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(Older Comments)

I think you mentioned 3 or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I forget what the 4th is. (Yes, I know, "Google it.")

This may be my favorite section. Death has a bad name that it doesn't deserve. While it is human to want what we like to go on forever, what we like wouldn't even be here if death weren't an integral component of the incredible miracle of life.

My dad was warning about overpopulation back in the 60's and 70's. I remember seeing 'The Population Bomb' in his small library and he, my mom and myself having conversations at the dinner table on the topic. He was adamant about the profound effect it would have on the planet if there was no intervention, either through individuals choosing to limit the number of children in their families or through governmental attempts to control the situation. Of course, the latter is severely problematic due to individual rights and freedom. However, education does not seem to have made any difference whatsoever. It's a topic that has been a struggle for me. I chose to not have children, although I did miscarry in my early 20's. I find one of my less appealing traits about myself is to judge those who have more than about 2 or 3 children. I wonder if they are blind to the condition of the world and what kind of a world those children and their children are going to inherit. I find myself haunted by these and related questions even in my life today. My wish, which has remained secret until now, is that people will choose to have one child of their own and adopt as many more children as they can support and allow to thrive.

Diane, you will see my views on that question developed in this space over the next few weeks - William Ashworth

Dave Forman, in his book, Take Back Conservation, (I have an autographed free copy thanking me for all of my work), says that we need to retain the idea that we value natural places and preserve them for their own sake, not for human-related reasons. I agree with that, while still recognizing that we need to maintain sustainability.We need both views.
Diane Newell Meyer

Looking forward to the next installment.