Sunday, November 3, 2013

Less work = sustainability

If Basic Income is beyond the pale, can we at least agree to take advantage of our productivity:
Noticeable differences already exist among wealthy nations in terms of average hours worked per employee, which, in combination with hourly labor productivity and the percentage of the population that is employed, determine a nation’s level of production. Since the 1970s, a gap has emerged between long-hours nations, such as the United States, and several shorter-hours nations in Europe, including the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries. This gap in work hours had become, by the mid-1990s, the main factor behind the United States’ greater output per capita than Europe.

In effect, in recent decades, American society opted almost exclusively for higher output, while Europeans chose to use at least part of their increase in hourly productivity for greater leisure. They have done so through a range of measures, including standard workweeks of less than 40 hours (e.g., France, Netherlands, Denmark); paid vacations of five or six weeks per year (several countries); generous parental leaves (e.g., Scandinavia); educational and sabbatical leave options (e.g., Denmark, Belgium); and rights for employees to choose shorter work hours while keeping the same hourly pay and prorated benefits (e.g., Netherlands).

While advocates of work-time reduction have highlighted the potential ecological benefits for many years, empirical evidence has emerged recently to support these claims. A study by two American economists found a significant association between work hours and energy consumption.2 Their economic model showed that if European nations adopted American work hours, they would consume some 25 percent more energy (putting their Kyoto Protocol targets out of reach); meanwhile the United States would consume roughly 20 percent less energy if it moved to Europe’s work/leisure balance (putting it within close striking distance of its original Kyoto target).

In comparing member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with some non-OECD nations, John Shandra and I found statistical support for the idea that longer work hours are associated with larger ecological footprints.3 The main factor is the contribution of longer work hours to higher gross domestic product, which, in turn, is associated with larger environmental impacts. We also found some evidence of a time-scarcity effect, in which long work hours led to a more environmentally damaging mix of consumption and lifestyle practices, although more research is needed on this specific issue.

One of the best outcomes of less work is the possibility for a better life. Fewer hours worked can open up time for a range of freely chosen and self-directed activities outside of the work-and-spend cycle: more time for friends and family, community involvement, political participation, learning, self-improvement, personal projects, and so on. For many people facing high levels of time pressure and stress, the opportunity to do less and relax more could bring significant physical and mental-health benefits. When France introduced a 35-hour workweek, despite the considerable political controversy and some loss of income growth, the vast majority of employees who gained shorter hours said their overall quality of life improved.5 Meanwhile, studies from Germany show that individuals who work fewer hours have higher levels of life satisfaction; similar evidence at the country level shows that European nations with shorter work hours also have higher levels of life satisfaction.
Working Less for a Sustainable Future (Solutions)


  1. I'm sympathetic to the ideas of less work, more leisure, along with a basic income.
    However, neither idea addresses a huge and fatal flaw in capitalism and industrial: man's innate need to do meaningful work. And for work to be meaningful, man must feel that he is creating something useful.

    Those who produce what they consume by definition have meaning. Peasants and farmers additionally have rich myths and natural cycles to abide by, and celebrate.

    Craftmen produce works of utility and beauty.

    The modern white-collar worker produces nothing of meaning, and in fact produces disutility: he contributes to giant, impersonal robots (corporations) that are destroying the ability of the environment to support humans and other species.

    Neither more leisure nor a basic income will help that.
    In fact, most leisure is now really just consuming debased media. I know many on Salon and other utopian fantasy outlets contributed to by the techie-creative-yippie class would disagree, but most leisure time in America and the West is spent passively consuming. That will not be be helped by either proposal.

    Furthermore, neither proposal will in the least help to dismantle the industrial civilization that is quickly making the earth socially and biologically uninhabitable.

    Non-participation in the crime of industrial ecocide would be helpful.

    More mandated "leisure" and a basic income are transparent bandaids which will prevent the reforms necessary to restore man's humanity, and the earth's habitability.

    1. Marx was one of the first, if not the first to regonize this, and he wrote a lot of good stuff about the alienation of man from his labor. Too bad labor in the Marxist regimes were just as bad as under capitalism. But the idea that the factors of production were defined by power relations is important - it's hard to see any 'reform' in the system.
      As David Graeber noted, most jobs today are "bullshit jobs" just to earn tokens to survive rather than produce anything meaningful and important, and as you noted, many are actually socially harmful. But at least more time off from our bullshit jobs would give us more time to pursue meaning outside of work, which most of us do anyway, be it art, music, family, building, growing things, tinkering or writing

  2. I'd like to add a link from a PhD researcher who backs up my conclusions.
    George Mobus.

    One of his recent essays (linkable excerpt):

    Do You Want to Avoid the Bottleneck?
    That the Bottleneck is Unavoidable

    Allow me an indulgence. After more than a decade of searching for answers, and attending to the major trends in our world, I have come to certain conclusions about the future of humanity. I haven't made a secret of my now fairly firm belief that in the not-too-distant future humanity will suffer an evolutionary bottleneck event concurrent with a sixth major extinction. Ironically this extinction event is being brought on by humanity itself. Freed from the ordinary biological constraints that keep other species in check in normal ecological feedback loops, and bolstered by the discovery of incredible power stored in fossil fuels and nuclear fission, humans have used their cleverness to grow far beyond the natural carrying capacity afforded by real-time solar influx. And the problems caused by this fact have grown obvious to most. We are altering our climate. We are polluting our environment. We are diminishing the quality of soils and water. And we are behaving badly toward one another, as well as the rest of the biosphere.

    His conclusion: there is almost no chance humanity will make the immediate choices needed to avoid a huge die-off and possible extinction. Limiting working hours and a basic income are not even in the ball park of what is necessary.

    1. I consider it civilizational pallative care. At least we'll have more time to enjoy ourselves before the shit hits the fan.

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