Image: Lily Lambie-Kiernan
“What are you doing for occupation?” is a tiresome question. Who wants to be reminded of their inbox, the sad sandwiches they brought with them, or the latest incomprehensible jargon your manager poured out on you? But for some people who work in controversial – and perhaps unethical – industries may suffer Fossil fuels, tobacco and Atomic weaponsthis question is not only exhausting but downright uncomfortable.
Ben has worked in the oil and gas industry for over ten years and is keen to get out of the industry. “I try not to go into detail about where I work,” he says. “I used to tell my niece that I worked in a chocolate factory because I came home covered in oil. I am ashamed of what I do.”
After a short break to look for work in another sector, he started a new job as a technical salesman – back in the oil and gas industry. Like all interviewees for this piece, he wished to remain anonymous because he fears repercussions from his employer.
“I have a lot of experience, but outside of the oil and gas world, it doesn’t help me at all,” he says. “During my absence, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I hate what I’m doing. , I thought, and it made me depressed. It doesn’t seem very worthwhile.
Millennials and Gen Z generally would politically committed and progressive when it comes to climate and social justice. 62 percent of them find a career in the oil and gas industry unappealing. But in fact, none of these industries could survive without a fresh infusion of talent, or at least young people willing to temporarily put their morals aside for a paycheck. On average, that salary—at least in Ben’s area—is $52,000 a year, so it pays less than advertising, funding, and research.
George, 27, works with tobacco – a straight rotten industry causing more than eight million deaths per year, not to mention massive deforestation and pollution on a global scale. After graduating, George joined one of the world’s largest tobacco companies, and he “seized the opportunity” that his high starting salary in sales presented, even though he knew that tobacco would never be his dream job.
The subject of ethics never really came up, but “I remember my friends often teasing me about being a cigarette salesman,” he says. “I was introduced as a cigarette seller to everyone who came to our parties, like, ‘We’ll keep him close in case we need cigarettes’.”
When George eventually got a management position, he found the question of his workplace more difficult to answer. “I’ve been on dates with people who didn’t like it. They wondered how I can do that kind of work and still have a conscience. So I don’t really talk about what I do anymore.” And finally, the nagging thought that tobacco was just a stopover in his career became too hard to suppress – so it was time for the next chapter.
Like Ben, George is now trying to quit but worries about his employability. “I know I can’t work in certain sectors – such as healthcare – but what about sports and technology? When I worked in tobacco, the fear of judgment from future employers was always something that held me back when I thought about quitting.”
The low point in Ben’s career came when he was told to lay off more than 60 people in 2020, a year in which his company had record profits. “Oil and gas companies are making more money than ever,” he says, “but when people have more fuel and oil needs, the companies hold back because if they oversaturate the market, prices fall and they lose profits.” Ultimately, he explains, it’s ordinary people who pay the bill – and he doesn’t want to be part of that system anymore.
Do people like Ben and George deserve our sympathy? That’s debatable, but their desire to quit may well be a good thing, as they represent a wave of younger workers turning to these industries. But others choose to continue working in these controversial sectors, such as Katie, who works in the nuclear weapons industry, leading a program to design and maintain nuclear submarines.
“I grew up towards the end of the Cold War, so since childhood I’ve been morbidly fascinated by how these things work,” she says. How does Katie juggle her nine-to-five job in a world increasingly focused on war, the kind that can destroy millions of people and send the planet into nuclear winter?
“I don’t build the warheads, I work on the submarines that carry them — I don’t design what kills people,” she says. “Anyway, it’s all funded by the government. Does it matter if I take money to do it?”
Katie was only recently forced to think more deeply about her role in the industry. “With news currently out of Russia comes, I catch myself thinking, am I somehow contributing to these problems? Also, if something went horribly wrong, my workplace would be bombed. If I’m in office the day Putin decides to start the bombing campaign, I’ll be there.’
Industries like the one Ben, George and Katie work in have understandably seen fierce public protests and increasing scrutiny over the years. Take, for example, the plethora of lawsuits against oil and gas companies over their greenwashing. The European Parliament is currently under fire from campaigners following the approval of the plans nuclear energy as ‘green’to classify.
But these are hopeless attempts against industries that enormous power, influence and financial participation. Even Ben, who works in oil and gas every day, “can’t think of anything that I, or even 10,000 versions of me, could do to change the way things are going at the moment.”
And there’s another reason these insiders are so pessimistic about their industries. They create so many jobs, Katie says sadly, that “losing them all is a hell of a job.” In her view, all of us—from the warhead designer to the truck driver who transports the weapons to the taxpayers who fund these projects—contribute to the survival of the nuclear industry.
But if you’re stuck in a nuclear showdown between Russia and the West, if you… lost your home to floods or a loved one from lung cancer, this is very cold comfort.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
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