Going Green by Working Less?

Illustration by Andre Metzger

from Fast Company

by David Roberts

The United States leads the world in two categories: work and waste. American employees put in more hours and take fewer vacations than just about anyone else in the industrialized world, and our individual ecological “footprints” are much larger.

Coincidence? I think not. The way we work drives our habits of consumption and waste. The more we work, the more we drive, the more energy we burn, the more styrofoam to-go containers we use. At the end of the day, we’re so tired, we devour more takeout and TV, often falling asleep in front of the latter. If we want to accelerate the recent trend of reducing waste, it may be time to consider the radical step of, well, relaxing more, consuming less, and living fuller lives. May the Wall Street Journal editorial board strike me down.

Working less is a radical notion today, but it hasn’t always been. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, work hours declined steadily in the industrialized world. In 1956, then-vice president Richard Nixon said that a four-day workweek was “not too far distant.” But men today report working 100 more hours a year than in 1976. For women, it’s 200-plus hours. All these extra hours have helped more than double the productivity of the American worker in the past half-century — but they have also increased our energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.

Naturally, most businesses blanch at the notion of giving up any competitive edge in a globalized economy. But it’s not as if moving to a four-day (or 32-hour) workweek would simply lop 20% off the economy. Cutting hours may actually raise per-hour productivity. France, home of the 35-hour week, creates more GDP per work hour than the United States ($37 versus $34, as of 2003). Norway spanks us too ($39), and Norwegians work 26% fewer hours a year than Americans. It’s a myth of modern hypercapitalism that an overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed-out workforce is a necessity. Studies have consistently shown that longer workweeks increase productivity only in the very short term. In a recent survey by Salary.com, workers copped to wasting about 20% of the average day Web surfing and gossiping. Sound familiar?

For many years, some lonely crusaders have argued that working less improves the health and well-being of workers, reducing sick days and social alienation. Alas, seemingly none of the newly minted “green” businesses have experimented with fewer hours yet. Some companies are fiddling around the margins with telecommuting and flextime. After many hours searching, the only outfit I could find that is trying a shorter workweek is a nonprofit called the Center for a New American Dream, which advocates for conscious consumerism and work-life balance. “We don’t consider our work part time,” says executive director Lisa Wise. “We pay a full-time wage and do full-time work within a 32-hour week.”

Admittedly, exchanging some of our wealth for downtime is an idea that tacks hard against our Protestant work ethic. But the alternative is bleak: If everyone adopted the U.S. work- and-waste model, global temperatures could go up 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. The resulting floods, droughts, and diseases would generate an economic hit far worse than any extra vacation time.

read more at fastcompany.com

This entry was posted in Climate Change, Culture, Livability, Rants, Sustainability, What if? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Going Green by Working Less?

  1. faslanyc says:

    Really nice find, Josh!

    It reminds me of this article by espn writer (yes, espn. i know it’s weird) gregg easterbrook. In it he says “The Progress Paradox” first argues that nearly every aspect of Western life is improving, then speculates about why “life gets better but people feel worse.” A recent study by researchers including Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, and Alan Kruger, one of the leading names in behavioral economics, adds new detail on that question. The study found that the well-off are no happier than others; that as income rises, so does tension and anger; that “people exaggerate the contribution of income to happiness.”

    Kahneman, Krueger and their collaborators also offer a vital insight — that happiness comes from choosing time over money, but most Americans choose money over time. “Leisure is better for happiness than increased income,” they argue, supposing that time spent in travel, having new experiences, relaxing, hiking, reading, or simply looking up at the stars is more important to our sense of well-being than a new car or impressive house. Unless you are in a bad financial situation, Kahneman and Krueger recommend you spend less time working, accept somewhat lower income, and use your freed hours to experience life. Barbara Bush memorably said that no one on his or her deathbed has ever regretted not staying later at the office, while many regret failing to spend more time with family and friends.

    I’ll add another suggestion on why time is more important to happiness than money: Because time is far more precious. Money that has been used up can be replaced; you can always get at least some additional money, and in principle can get huge amounts of additional money. Your time on Earth, on the other hand, is limited and irreplaceable. You might add somewhat to your time on Earth by taking care of your health — and that’s an excellent idea, but there are no guarantees you won’t be hit by a bus anyway. We all must surrender some of our time for work to acquire income. But those who obsessively chase maximum material possessions give up something precious and fleeting, namely time, in order to acquire something that cannot make them happy, namely money.

    a similar argument, one i agree with totally, but couched in contemporary “green/eco” rhetoric! Nice work.

    There’s a reason all of those happiness surveys have latin and european countries living more contented lives than ourselves. Work isn’t the only one, but it’s a factor…

    • Josh Grigsby says:

      Great quote. Every study on happiness/wealth that I’ve read reiterates Kahneman and Krueger’s findings. Increased wealth makes people happier up to perhaps 10% above their expenses. If they can pay their bills and still have a little room to breathe, they’re happy. Beyond that, what’s the point? Like you point out, the goal of wealth is to allow a little leisure. Once you alleviate the anxiety of the basics and increase the time you spend with friends, family, or on your own adventures, what more do you need? The American Dream was originally a very middle class dream at a time when the middle class was burgeoning. The goal wasn’t world domination or to become a tycoon. It was happiness, liberty, health. As a wise man once said, the stuff you own ends up owning you. Excess is rarely something to aspire to.

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