On a recent trip stateside, a mindless interlude in a hotel room led to some channel flipping, and I lazily settled for a reality show called Undercover Boss or something. It turned out to be somewhat interesting, enough so to be captivating for a couple episodes anyway.
Each episode has a corporate CEO going “undercover” to perform some of the crappier jobs in their own company, unbeknownst to the day’s coworkers (who oddly enough never seem to have any idea who their CEO is, which I suppose wouldn’t make much of a show if they did, but still). The juxtaposition of the omnipotent descending temporarily to the front lines with the peons usually leads to a few executive revelations (naturally).
In one episode, the secret agent simply discovered that the checkout process was wildly inefficient, but the second was much juicier. A CEO of a healthy taco chain showed up for duty at some random franchise, all wise and enterprise-aware and master of the universe. Eight hours later, he was sitting on the curb hunch-shouldered and sobbing, broken after a gruelling shift at the till which included botching taco orders left right and center, and generally providing a customer interface he’d have been apoplectic to experience had he showed up just to eat.
During his shift, his deer-in-the-headlights look relentlessly kept reappearing like a boy’s cowlick on picture day, refusing to be buried no matter how many times a corporate-standard smile was re-pasted on; and the constant tension of this inner struggle eventually wore him down. The saltiness of impatient customers finally sent the comprehensively overwhelmed titan to the curb in a hunched ball of tears while his Filipino co-worker, who look after an extended family of 5 and bailed out his sorry ass all day long tried to console him.
The point of the show, which was pleasantly un-idiotic for a reality show, was to portray in a sort of flamboyant way the age-old maxim that one needs to walk a mile in another’s shoes to understand their point of view. The show also affords the masses the chance to see a high-powered executive unable to adequately perform basic minimum-wage jobs that high-school dropouts have mastered, which adds a sort of feel-good element for the masses. It’s the realization of countless mini-daydreams that working class stiffs the world over have every day.
That feeling then is sort of universal, that those that actually do things feel unappreciated by not just those up the ladder, but those they are serving as well. It may make a small person feel powerful to rake a fast-food employee over the coals for lukewarm French fries, and the poor server may not know it, but the jerk doing the complaining lives in exactly the same world – he just feels the stress from someone else higher up and takes it out on whoever he can.
There are two occupations, in a broad strokes definition of occupations, that feel a similar groin-kicking but on a whole other metaphysical level. Those would be farmers and energy workers.
What do they have in common? Think back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At the bottom are two heavy hitters – physiological needs including food, and safety needs including shelter. Maslow left out some key adjectives and that’s OK, he was keeping it simple, but it’s fair enough to flesh out that latter one a bit – people have a need for heated shelter.
Farmers and energy workers provide those two, and quite a few others, but those are the big broad-strokes ones. Furthermore, they provide them so well and so efficiently that we don’t even think about them anymore.
Are you ecstatic when you get home on a cold winter evening and your home is warm? You should be, but you aren’t. You don’t even notice. You sure as hell would if it was unheated.
Are you ecstatic when you get to the supermarket and it’s full of food? You should be, but you aren’t. You don’t even notice, but heaven help the poor shelf-stocking kid if there are no bananas.
That’s a function of how well things work and what we take for granted.
This may seem to have nothing to do with energy or climate discussions, but that’s not the case at all. Climate debates are predominantly related to the environment, and we all are impacted by the environment. We all appreciate the beauty of nature, or the peacefulness of a hike or walk in the woods.
We can all see that a healthy environment is important. Every single person out there cares about the environment. People enjoy it in different ways and for different reasons, but we all appreciate it and value it. Farmers do and energy workers do, just like everyone. If, then, we are forced to choose sides in climate wars, it is fair to say that one side appreciates what the other is fighting for, but not vice versa. And that’s not just too bad, it’s illogical, because we can all live with an environment that is impacted by energy infrastructure, but we can’t live without the product of that energy infrastructure. None of us can, not the energy workers, the farmers, the protesters, or the CEO botching taco orders.
While it’s a great and noble thing to show respect for the environment, it’s also great to remember the broken CEO. If you were handed the responsibility of feeding a thousand families (as a farmer does) or heating a thousand homes in winter (as even a small energy company does) to one of the critics, how would they fare? Or would you end the day sobbing on the curb too?
And maybe the next time you went to a grocery store it would be a bit more enjoyable, and the next time you stepped into a heated building you’d appreciate the energy world a bit more. It’s not perfect, and it will change, but right now there is no substitute.