The Road to Sustainability: Individual Specialization is a Two-Edged Sword


Specialization and collaboration are the hallmarks of human success as a species. We may have started as generalists like members of most other species, but specialization has gotten us where we are today.  While all non-microscopic life forms are made up of specialized parts and symbiotic relationships, specialization in conjunction with cooperation between members of the same species has been raised to a high art by the human species.  Since long before recorded history humans have been collaborating as families and communities, and much success has been achieved, largely through increased efficiencies realized through individual specialization. For example, when a mother can care for the children the father can gather food, when a sentry is watching over the village everyone else can carry on their daily business without wasting energy on being vigilant, and when a farmer is raising large quantities of food, other community members such as the person making cloth for the farmer’s clothes are freed to optimize their efficiency and quality. The farmer is not only well fed, but also has better clothes. Like most things, however, specialization has a down side.

One cost of specialization is a decreased ability to adapt as a group. While specialization has helped us achieve a world in which a farmer can grow enough food for a small town, and we can travel relatively safely and affordably over distances of thousands of miles in a day, by definition specialization makes the individual focus on one specific area of expertise to the exclusion of others. As a result, when the economy changes and a given specialty is less needed, many who specialized in that area may have trouble finding gainful employment, and many may need a lot of retraining. While the human ability to learn and adapt is also a part of our success, there is extra cost and time involved in adaptation. As a result, as things change (energy sources, ecological problems, climate, etc.) there will be many painful adjustments on the glide path to sustainability.

Protecting specialties that are outdated or do not add to group productivity is working against the progress we need. Not infrequently today I hear or read where someone is making the case that the welfare of a particular group of specialists is dependent on not changing systems that may actually be hurting society as a whole. For instance, I heard a radio interview on prisons broadcast by the local NPR station in which the case was made that, if we changed the laws to put less drug offenders in prison (now roughly half of our enormous prison population) it would put prison guards and administrators out of work, and would hurt the economies of remote areas where some prisons are located. The reality, however, is that the prison guards should be training for new careers instead of worrying about (or lobbying against) reducing prison populations. The developed world, in particular, has great educational institutions which are ever more available through various distance learning programs. When change needs to be made for the good of all, no interest group should be sub-optimizing the situation to serve themselves.

Changes are coming, and the specialties we need will have to change as well. As we move through the coming few decades energy shortages, translated to high prices, appear to be inevitable. Ecological problems will continue to be identified, and the pressure humanity is putting on the natural environment will increase. Each of these problem areas will cause changes in the way we live and work. At the same time, social changes, some based in the population explosion, will continue. The net result is that some professions (specialties) will be less useful, other will see increased demand, and new professions will be created. The changes will be needed for us to progress and cope with the problems we and nature cause, and as a result some people will be put out of work while other jobs will be crying for workers. The best any of us can do is try to anticipate the changes and constantly pursue educational avenues that will help us adapt, request improved education options at all levels from our government representatives, and be prepared to support those improvements at every opportunity.

As always, I appreciate your comments.  – Tim

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