The world will be thy widow

I don’t usually write much about my work because I’m hyper-aware of the confidentiality issues that would arise (not to mention that I think most people would find it quite boring) but I think it is safe for me to say that I am currently working on a case for a company that manufactures a chemical used to treat water. In other words, they perform a necessary role in the process that provides all of us with safe drinking water. Which has highlighted some interesting issues for me in relation to the idea of “opting out” that I wrote about a few weeks ago.

My work often involves delving into the minutiae of other people’s working lives. I read their (work-related) (usually) emails, pore over their spreadsheets and powerpoints, and interrogate them about what they do and how and why. This can lead to what might be described as a fleeting moment of existential contemplation. The apparent futility of so much of what so many people do day in and day out is quite striking when you can catch a glimpse of it from a remove. Even if you could make the case that the labors of legions of paper-pushers are essential to the manufacture of their employer’s product, then what? Without them, for example, we wouldn’t have plastic bottles? Or missile launchers? Is that a bad thing?

But clean drinking water? You can’t argue with that. What it brings home to me is that opting out is a privilege. Where would we be if everyone decided to take a pass on the work required to make our lives possible? In a world without an affordable and convenient supply of clean drinking water.

Does that mean no one should opt out? Artists make a meaningful contribution. But can’t you make art and work? Surely stay at home moms are doing something worthwhile. But do they add any value that a working mom doesn’t have? This sort of thinking was part of what led me to leave my job in publishing to go to law school. It was not, I admit, very clearly thought out, but I did have a vague idea that I wanted to be making a more concrete contribution to the work of the world.

On an individual level, opting out seems like a perfectly valid choice to me. You forgo some things: some level of economic security and luxury (to the extent those are different), most likely. But you do it for the sake of quality of life. On a macro level though, can it be justified? Or is it, simply, selfish?

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