Over the last few weeks I’ve been wrestling with what job satisfaction means to me when it comes to working on climate change. I’ve narrowed it down to some key criteria which may also apply to non-climate related roles.

I want a job where I can enjoy my day-to-day efforts, see the results of my work easily, prevent climate change as a first order effect, and maximize my individual impact. This job certainly does not exist, but serves as the prototype. The first two criteria are straightforward. If I dread the actual work I do each day or there’s no indication of progress then sustained effort will be impossible. It’s the third and fourth criteria that deserve more attention.

To me, first order effect means fewer, ideally one, mental step(s) to understand how my work relates to preventing climate change. On one end is direct air capture technology. Literally pulling carbon dioxide out of the sky. There’s no confusion as to how jobs in the sector help towards the goal. On the other end is general machine learning. There’s no doubt that better predictive capabilities will be crucial for numerous solutions that reduce emissions. But the field and work itself has nothing to do with those solutions. And in the middle is food waste reduction. Having households throw away less food is not pulling carbon dioxide out of the air, but does lead to lower emissions as food supply can retract to meet actual demand. I can’t bring myself to recite a convoluted multi-step process every time I need inspiration for why my work matters.

Impact defined as the magnitude of lowered emissions seems simple at first, but is complicated by how I associate it with the other criteria. My current assumption is work that meets my first three requirements has less impact than work where some of them are relaxed. Having enjoyed various home improvement projects over the years, working in construction on net-zero buildings sounds compelling. It’s fulfilling to work with my hands, seeing I-beams rise from the Earth is easy, and by definition a net-zero building prevents emissions. However, there are only so many buildings I can help create if directly involved in the act of construction. Working at a real estate firm to push for more net-zero buildings at every opportunity could greatly increase my impact. But crafting investment memos feels so detached. There are numerous steps between the act of writing the memo and the I-beam rising up. Not to mention that progress is an anti-climatic “Let’s move ahead” in an email reply. And lurking underneath is something more sinister. The dominant worldview places more value on planning, designing, and investing than the actual act of doing. Hence the disparity in executive and employee compensation and the absurdity of paying “essential” workers less than a livable wage. Something is amiss here, but I’d be lying if I said I feel I can act beyond this method of evaluation right now.

Even though the perfect job does not exist and my current value system needs scrutiny, decisions must still be made. Doing so might mean purposefully lowering the bar for one or more of my criteria. In economics, this is defining my own indifference curve. Am I willing to trade 20% of my day-to-day enjoyment for 5% more impact? What about progress that is 50% easier to see but means work with 3 more mental hoops to relate to lowering emissions? Which of those exchanges leave me feeling truly indifferent? Obviously there is no way to quantify the scenarios, but a relative prioritization is still possible. Currently my ordering is impact, steps removed from lowering emissions, day-to-day enjoyment, and then ease of seeing progress. And that’s primarily because I’ve built up a healthy tolerance for lackluster day-to-day work and ambiguous definitions of success from previous jobs. In the end, the chance to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions and a clear method for doing so is what I really want. To everything else, I’m fairly indifferent.

Image Source