“Right Livelihood”: a pattern for shifting towards life-honoring work
I want to acknowledge that It takes a lot of effort nowadays to live and work in ways that aren’t contributing to the present great unravelling of the web of life. That’s heartbreaking.
And it’s because our current global economy is based on a paradigm that is degenerative—meaning it erodes the health of ecosystems, communities, and the beings who live within them.
Like me, you probably often wonder: “How can it be different?”
Today, I’ll share some insights about how the simple but profound concept of “right livelihoods” can help shift society towards a more life-honoring economy.
And in this next article, I share the criteria that I believe can make our right livelihoods themselves more regenerative.
“The idea of ‘right livelihood’ is an ancient one. It embodies the principle that each person should follow an honest occupation, which fully respects other people and the natural world. It means being responsible for the consequences of our actions and taking only a fair share of the earth’s resources.”
from the Right Livelihood Award: The ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’
The term …was popularized in the 1970s by EF Schumacher’s essay “Buddhist Economics,” and was also included in the book “Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.”
In this essay, Schumacher shares that the function of work is threefold:
- “to utilise and develop one’s faculties;
- to enable one to overcome ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task;
- and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.”
And he states that “…the consequences that flow from this view are endless.”
I’ve been re-reading and reflecting on this essay for around 20 years, so I want to share some of my thinking that builds on Schumacher’s, and sees “right livelihood” as a basic pattern that gives rise to regenerative economies.
- The need to participate in meaningless work in order to earn money to survive is painful for the individual who is woke to their impact, but it is NOT the fault of the individual who is forced to do a meaningless job… it is a glaring indicator of a flawed design of our economy. We can do better, and we must in order to defend life on our planet.
- Every person should be nurtured to develop to our fullest potential, and to fulfill the human desire to contribute to society. Therefore, meaningful work within a meaningful economy should be held as a universal human right, and systems that enable people to cultivate one’s right livelihood must be co-created.
- Our current dominant economy feeds on and amplifies consumerist addictions. Instead, the concept of right livelihood helps us detach from materialism and cultivate simplicity in our lives. This completely compatible with (and in today’s frenetic world perhaps necessary for) a high quality of life.
- Right livelihoods view good, hard work not as something to avoid, but as character-building and community-building contributions to society. Instead of zoning out to seek escape from unfulfilling tasks, working hard makes our time off feel richer because we enter it fulfilled.
- Right livelihoods are based on nonviolence, and therefore value and make visible the feedback loops that enable us to know if our work or lifestyles are harming our ecosystems and other beings.
- Many right livelihoods can be woven into local living economies that provide for all beings in the region, and also steward resources for future generations.
What if, instead of letting young people figure it out on their own, or asking them “What do you want to be when you grow up?” our communities had many deep conversations and rituals that help them discern and follow their right livelihood path based on the concepts above?
It would change everything.
For all of these reasons, I believe that the concept of “right livelihoods” is an elegant pattern that can help us self-organize into regenerative economies.
HAVE YOU HAD ANYONE IN YOUR LIFE who has talked with you in-depth about the profound implications of “right livelihoods” and your role in them? Did this help you, and how?
If not, HOW WOULD YOUR LIFE HAVE BEEN DIFFERENT if you had a community mentoring you to integrate this concept into your life and work?
Please share your insights in the comments at the bottom of this page, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll look forward to hearing from you!
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