Do your employer’s policies leave you morally wanting? Ever been asked to do something professionally that gave you pause? How do you reconcile having a conscious employee’s compulsion to act with “just getting paid”? A friend of mine posed these questions, juxtaposing the modern workplace with agrarian U.S. society—in the context of ethical environmental business practices—presuming that then it might have been more difficult to separate morals for the sake of business.
First, I absolutely agreed, thought, Sure, because if your livelihood depended on, say, selling eggs on a small farm, you’d keep your chickens happy. You wouldn’t stuff them with hormones making it difficult to walk, cut off their beaks, and stock them in cages with no sunlight. By M. Thomas Inge’s tenets of agrarianism, you’d have a “sense of identity, of historical and religious tradition,” that would make you and those around you look down on such techniques.
But as I considered compromising professional situations and personal ideals in the context of the environmental crisis—a major issue of our time—my mind placed agrarians within two major issues of their time: slavery and American Indian sovereignty. Through these lenses, the “professional / personal convictions” conflict appears to be a burden agrarians also bore.
For example, Thomas Jefferson, abolitionist and champion of agrarian principles incorporating the independence of the farmer, owned slaves and initiated the Indian Removal plan (to make American Indians dependent on white Americans so they would sell their land—and if not, be forcefully removed). Andrew Jackson, operating from an office upholding our Constitution, ran the relay after Jefferson, implementing the Indian Removal plan. Of course, too, there is Abraham Lincoln, affirming slavery as an evil, but willing to ship black Americans to Liberia as their avenue to freedom.
Not to dismiss the inner conflicts these men may have undergone (well, maybe not Jackson…), but the faulty behavior outlined above was not reconciled with their professional accomplishments. We are not the first to war with the ideal and what seems practical, be complicit in societal evils.
That makes it no easier to cope. Because our world is wider and more connected, we can possibly exert more pressure on our employers to be socially responsible. Simple enough when nudging toward office recycling. If your organization profits from stripping nutrients from soil in rural China, though, what then? Do we collect our paychecks, heads down, or speak and risk losing our jobs, possibly our reputations?
Some have found clarity in asking, “Where are you best positioned to serve?” and realizing the “tension of being inside the system and having our values push us to the edge of it” (Marcie Lazzari). If we move outside, we lose an angle of impact; we stay and risk drowning or being neutralized, vulnerable to co-option.
For those 18th- and 19th-century agrarians, their issues culminated in civil war and a legacy of hypocrisy. What will the height be for us—environmentally, education-wise, and politically? I’d like to say without question that we must relentlessly press on small and large scales. But I also know we have mouths to feed, ladders to climb, ceilings to break, and concessions will be made. I offer no assurance that we can always be brave and righteous or should be. We pray for courage in the right places, deft judgment, vision—or healthy amounts of self-deception, forgiveness, along with sympathetic views of history.