On April 19, 2016, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) hosted the final installment in its 2015-16 public symposium series. Current CASBS fellows Louis Hyman (history, Cornell Univ.) and Natasha Iskander (public policy, New York Univ.) co-presented a talk on "The History of Catastrophe and the Future of Work."
In advance of the talk, Hyman and Iskander previewed the underlying themes of the discussion.
Debates about the future of work have taken center stage in the political arena, and have focused on technology, productivity, globalization, and workers’ rights. Left out of these conversations is climate change. As we have already begun to see, the massive displacement of people that climate change is likely to cause will transform work in ways that are unanticipated and unprecedented. To understand the future course of the economy, we need to, at the same time, grapple with the future of the environment.
But in some respects, these are challenges we have seen before, and our experience coping with them offers lessons for the future. In the mid-1930s, the Midwestern United States was ravaged by the Dust Bowl, a man-made ecological catastrophe of severe drought and dust storm, and millions were forced to abandon their homes and their homesteads. Many went west to California and there, in the depths of the Great Depression, an alliance of the government and the private sector produced the most dynamic economy in global history, jumpstarted the aerospace industry, and absorbed millions of displaced Midwesterners. This new California economy not only created jobs, but jobs with a better standard of living than ever before.
During their presentation, Iskander and Hyman explored how this intervention was accomplished, and what its lessons could mean for solving these issues at a global scale in the decades to come. Their key questions: In the face of these dislocations, what are our obligations to one another? What kind of moral economy of work will the coming crises allow us to create?
While the two speakers broadly agreed on the critical challenges and their underlying causes, they did not always agree on the necessary approach and measures to address them. This made for a lively presentation as well as post-presentation Q&A session, moderated by CASBS director Margaret Levi.
Iskander and Hyman's slide presentation illustrated and amplified many of their discussion points to great effect. View a full-size version of their slide presentation here.
The symposium was related to the larger CASBS project on The Future of Work and Workers, of which Iskander and Hyman are integral members and Levi is principal convener. The project explores the implications of the ways in which work is changing globally. It considers the effects of transformations in technology, skill requirements, workers’ voice, and the moral economy of work. The project also involves a publishing partnership with Pacific Standard. Learn much more about the project here.