Dropping the Bomb: The Perturbation of Refusal

This is the second post of a three-part series on refusal. 

Part I introduces the idea that there are projects that should not be built.

Part III clarifies that refusal is a tactical, and not necessarily a moral, decision.


This is a follow-up to my last post, which was rather high-level and conceptual. The task of actually walking up to a moral spectrium of work and deciding where you land on it is much more difficult than merely agreeing that a moral spectrum does in fact exist and it deserves a more concrete and specific treatment.

That specific treatment is going to have to wait until the next (or near future) post because there’s a little more conceptual ground I want to cover first.

Worldchanging and Uncertainty

From the perspective of a worker in the deep green design movement, it can be exceptionally disheartening to think about one’s actual ability to shape the industry or to change the world. You feel so small, and you feel like any sacrifice you make (like turning down work) would be a drop in the bucket that could neutralize you as a change agent (e.g. by getting fired or going out of business). Worse, perhaps you are wrong in your reasons for your sacrifice, and then you are the jackass tilting at a windmill. No one wants to be that guy.

When we talk about changing the world, or even an industry, we are talking about changing a complex social system. Complex systems have attributes that should be both heartening and challenging. Complex systems are nonlinear and highly unpredictable. You can push and push and push against a complex system for a long time before anything happens, and then everything happens at once. There is no set of hard and fast rules to follow, because tiny perturbations can cause a large range of changes in outcome.

This is a hard pill to swallow because it means we just don’t precisely know how to change the world, how to have maximum impact, how to fix resource depletion, how to fix the climate, how to end war, how to get everyone to build only super green buildings, or how to stop capitalism. We have ideas, notions, and principles, but there will never be a step-by-step blueprint for success.

The reason I think the complexity of what we’re trying to do is heartening is actually the same reason it is challenging. We don’t know exactly what to do. We do know that even if we are on the right path, the system might not give us immediate feedback and we won’t be able to tell. We might die before the fruits of our efforts work their way through the system and blossom. I think that we can take comfort in the uncertainty of this situation.

The uncertainty gives us massive freedom in approach. Because it is so difficult to say what will and will not work, points go to the creative persistent ones. We also know that small actors can have disproportionate effects on outcome, and it gives us the hope that our work is part of a now-unseen flap of a butterfly’s wings that causes a storm of change in the future. Small teams doing new things can in fact have a huge impact on the world, and the more teams we have doing more different things, the likelier we are to hit on success models.

Cultural Perturbation

I want to live in a world where things like McDonald’s and bomb factories don’t exist, and culturally that implies that the notion of being involved in the design and construction of a fast food joint or a bomb factory has to be odious to just about everyone. I want to live in a culture where no design professional will touch a fast food project with a ten foot stick. I want to live in a world where bomb factories go unbuilt for lack of professionals willing to take on the project.

The only way I see to get from here to there is via a culture shift. We don’t have the time or the ability to rely on regulation and mandate, and I doubt those methods would work anyways. I think success will only follow a massive perturbation in the complex system that governs the unspoken, non-formal, ever-changing rules of how to act and think in society.

As an individual, what action shifts the culture more – taking on the shit jobs you don’t really believe in to save some energy, or refusing the work outright, on principle?

You might be able to save 20% building energy of a vast corporation, thereby saving a certain chunk of carbon from entering the atmosphere. Yes it is an impact, but it’s still just doing the wrong thing less terribly. It’s still a Vaseline sandwich.

What impact will you have by calmly, respectfully, publicly, firmly, refusing to do business with socially toxic corporations? Maybe not much, particularly if you are just starting out or are in no position to have your action seen by anyone else–but maybe a lot.

Maybe you are taking the first step towards seismic culture shift. Maybe the fact that you are sticking to your principles will act as a beacon both to other professionals and also to potential clients who are looking for someone who isn’t anyone’s shill. People don’t buy what you do they buy why you do it.

The story of the professional turning down work because it went against her principles, even if she needed it badly, excites people. It motivates people. It changes how they think about the world, and their relationship to it. When one person does something no one has ever done before, that action gets put in the “things I could potentially do” list in everyone else’s head.

And maybe by refusing to compromise your principles, you actually do better for yourself financially speaking. Maybe the industry is ready for this kind of change and it actually won’t hammer you into the ground. Maybe turning down certain types of projects can be part of your business development plan, resulting in people with cool deep green projects beating a path to your door because they know that your values and beliefs are aligned with their own in a profound way.

Or, hey, maybe not. Maybe you turn down that job that could have floated you that year and your company or enterprise goes under due to your stubborn adherence to principles.

Maybe that’s the best reason there has ever been to fail.

Failure Shmailure

If why you do what you do is to make money, you shouldn’t read anything I write. If why you do what you do is to change the world, the “failure” of your enterprise from a business perspective might be a smashing success in terms of changing the world. I think a lot of leaders of “green” companies either A) don’t actually lead green companies or B) are afraid that if they fail financially, they’ll fail to change the world by neutralizing themselves as change agents.

The fear of failure is a debilitating mental block that no wildly successful organization or individual suffers from. The failure of one venture does not preclude future ventures – in fact, failure sometimes clears the way for new, better, smarter, clearer ventures. Refusal resulting in financial failure may cause a highly impactful perturbation in the culture and pave the way for a future, more successful venture.

I think it’s important for people who are invested in worldchanging work to not be too rigidly invested in the success and financial viability of every venture they start. We’re trying new and untested things. We’re going to fail at a lot of things. The quicker we work through all the ways not to quickly change the world, the quicker we’ll get to the good work of actually changing the world. The two activities are quite linked. Futhermore, the more time we waste building Vaseline sandwiches the further we distance ourselves from the goal of a socially just one-earth world.

This is all, of course, very easy for me to say, as I’ve never faced the choice between sticking to my principles on the one hand and probable financial ruin on the other. I’ve been exceptionally fortunate to have had a ton of cool, unambiguously awesome projects to work on. I also don’t have any financial dependants, and I’m a member of a priveleged class (white, male, North American) that tends to rebound rather painlessly. Not everyone is in a personal situation to be able to take the risks that I’m talking about here, and I don’t think the act of refusal is on the table in the same way for everyone across the board.


3 Responses to Dropping the Bomb: The Perturbation of Refusal


    Ah,yes. This is one of the eternal dilemmas. Do we condemn the person who caves in because he has mouths to feed? My head says yes; my heart says no.

    It’s all so complex, isn’t it?

    • tylerjd says:

      It certainly is MJ. Complexity is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in both engineering type work and activism. Nothing is simple; everything we think we understand is a mental model with assumptions and errors.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. JR Soffer says:

    This is what I want/need to read. Thanks, TD.

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