Working Less Is
Better For The Globe
By Dara Colwell
are working harder than ever before. The dogged pursuit of the paycheck
coupled with a 24/7 economy has thrust many of us onto a never-ending
treadmill. But of workaholism's growing wounded, its greatest casualty
has been practically ignored -- the planet.
"We now seem more determined
than ever to work harder and produce more stuff, which creates a bizarre
paradox: We are proudly breaking our backs to decrease the carrying
capacity of the planet," says Conrad Schmidt, an internationally
known social activist and founder of the Work Less Party, a Vancouver-based
initiative aimed at moving to a 32-hour work week -- a radical departure
from the in early, out late cycle we've grown accustomed to. "Choosing
to work less is the biggest environmental issue no one's talking about."
A backlash against overwork
fatigue, the Work Less Party is one of a growing number of initiatives
aimed at cutting work hours while tackling unemployment, environmentally
unfriendly behavior and boosting leisure time. According to Schmidt,
author of "Workers of the World RELAX," which examines the
economics of reduced industrial work, working less would allow us to
produce less, consume less, pollute less and -- no complaints here --
"As a society, we're
working exponentially hard to decrease sustainability and it's making
us miserable -- just look at how antidepressants are on the rise,"
he says. "In order to reduce our ecological footprint, we have
to take working less very seriously."
Americans work more hours
than anyone else in the industrialized world. According to the United
Nations' International Labor Organization, we work 250 hours, or five
weeks, more than the Brits, and a whopping 500 hours, or 12 and a half
weeks, more than the Germans. So how does ecological damage figure in
to the 40-plus workweek?
Do the math: Longer hours
plus labor-saving technology equals ever-increasing productivity. Without
high annual growth to match productivity, there's unemployment. Maintaining
growth means using more energy and resources, both in manpower and raw
materials, which results in increased waste and pollution.
Unsurprisingly, the United
States is the world's largest polluter. Housing a mere 5 percent of
the world's population, it accounts for 22 percent of its fossil fuel
consumption, 50 percent of its solid waste, and, on average, each citizen
consumes 53 times more goods than a person in China, according to the
environmental nonprofit, Sierra Club.
When people work longer hours,
they rely increasingly on convenience items such as fast food, disposable
diapers, or bottled water. Built-in obsolescence has become standard
business practice -- just throw it away and make more -- leaving mountainous
landfills in its wake. "Earning more often means spending money
in ways that are environmentally detrimental. We're finding that to
compensate for lack of time, you actually need more money to work those
extra hours," says Monique Tilford, acting executive director of
the Centre for a New American Dream, a Maryland group promoting environmentally
and socially responsible consumption. "When people are time-starved
they don't have enough time to be conscious consumers. The overarching
theme of our organization is to remind Americans that every single dollar
they spend has a carbon impact, to make the connection."
If the world started clocking
American hours, then it would be detrimental to its environmental health.
According to a paper issued by the Center for Economic and Policy Research
(CEPR) in Washington, D.C., if Europe moved towards a U.S.-based economic
model, it would consume 15-30 percent more energy by 2050. This would
impact fuel prices worldwide and boost carbon emissions, resulting in
additional global warming of 1-2 degrees Celsius. Any reductions in
greenhouse gas emissions made through conservation, cleaner fuels or
green technology would be overwhelmed by increased industrial output.
increases every year, but we haven't seen massive productivity gains
reflected in our working hours," says Mark Weisbrot, CEPR's co-director,
who also authored the study "Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the
Environment?" "Because there's no limit to what we can consume,
a change of values has to take place if the planet stands a chance of
The problem is, France has
already begun following America's lead by increasing the workload. In
2005, France effectively abolished its 35-hour workweek to counter high
unemployment -- the highest in the European Union, hovering at roughly
10 percent -- though a subsequent International Monetary Fund paper
examining the impact concluded there was no significant increase. And
this May, the new French president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, whose campaign
to "work more, earn more" helped win him the presidential
seat, promised to make overtime largely tax-exempt. His goal: strengthen
consumer purchasing power and galvanize the economy.
Only if Weisbrot's research
is correct, France's increased productivity would create even larger
problems, especially considering France's current productivity is greater
than America's, with a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per hour of $37.01
versus $33.77. Today's push towards a heavier workload is in many ways
a historical precedent. In both the United States and Europe, work hours
declined steadily from the beginning of the industrial revolution until
World War II, when labor unions were key in fighting for shorter hours.
After the war, the 40-hour workweek was legally in place, and governments
promoted economic growth in order to match it.
But since the 1970s, with
the advent of technological advances and increased automation, most
European governments have continued shortening work hours whereas the
United States has opted instead to let wages fall. In the late 1960s
futurists predicted an Age of Leisure, hypothesizing that the largest
issue facing the country at the end of the century would be too much
leisure. "It was the kind of problem I thought I could deal with
-- in fact, I was looking forward to it," says John de Graaf, producer
of the groundbreaking 1997 PBS documentary "Affluenza: The All-Consuming
Epidemic" and a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and overconsumption.
"Of course, I didn't reason we'd put all our productivity gains
into more stuff."
Quoting data from his current
campaign, "What's the Economy for Anyway?" which examines
America's economic policies in light of quality of life issues, de Graaf
says the evidence proves we're not better off. "It's staggering.
The USA has declined relative to all other industrial countries in virtually
every quality of life measured -- health, equality, savings, sustainability
-- though that's not so with the GDP and certainly not with the number
of billionaires," he says. "Yet we're still constantly being
told we're better off."
Yet suggest alternatives
to the status quo of GDP worship, like shortening the work week, and
resistance is great. "Here, the business community fiercely opposes
any mandates relating to time," says de Graaf, noting that by controlling
or regulating time, they maintain the upper hand. "What's happened
in Europe is people have discovered it's nice to have some time in their
lives, and in getting some, they've wanted more. Whereas here, business
has kept that door completely shut."
But even many overburdened
Americans fear change will signal further sacrifice -- mostly to their
paychecks. "But the fact is, we're already sacrificing our time
and our lives right now," says de Graaf. De Graaf is also the national
coordinator of "Take Back Your Time Day," an annual event
scheduled for Oct. 24, the date on which the 40-hour workweek was first
inaugurated in the United States. A national organization with 10,000
members, Take Back Your Time has launched a campaign calling for national
legislation guaranteeing a minimum of three weeks of paid vacation,
an issue it hopes to make part of the 2008 presidential campaign.
As it stands, America is
the only industrial nation that offers no legal protection for vacations.
The average vacation in the United States is now only a long weekend,
and 25 percent of American workers have no paid vacation, according
to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to Sweden, which mandates
32 vacation days per year. President Bush, however, does know the value
of vacation time. In 2005, he took five weeks off to visit his Texas
ranch, taking the longest presidential retreat in at least 36 years.
"We see overwork as
a social, legal problem that needs political legislation," says
de Graaf. "We are utterly unique in our dismissal of the need for
time and the environmental costs; not to mention, the costs to our health
and our families have been enormous."
But by shelving time, we
continue to suffer from overload, debt, and anxiety, and are stuck in
a fatalistic rat race generated by heightened consumerism. So what fuels
this need to accumulate in the face of time deprivation? Devoting his
career to what drives materialism, Tim Kasser, associate professor of
psychology at Knox College and author of "The High Price of Materialism,"
has sought scientific explanations, examining the relationship between
materialism and psychological well-being.
"Materialism is driven
by an underlying sense of insecurity," says Kasser, who conducted
a study where subjects were randomly assigned writing about death or
writing about listening to music. The former experience an increased
desire for consumption and were "greedier," according to Kasser.
"Death is the ultimate end of time; it's interpreted as that feeling
of not having enough time. In the last decade politicians have played
off that insecurity. It keeps getting people elected, but it also drives
us to think we need to work harder and harder," he says, noting
the signs of insecurity around us are numerous: We don't know our neighbors
and suffer from high divorce rates; our social safety nets have been
dismantled; we have no mandatory overtime laws and minimal vacation.
"All these work to create an underlying sense of insecurity, and
we need to break out of that cycle," he says.
Interestingly, Kasser conducted
an empirical study comparing 200 adherents of Voluntary Simplicity to
a control group of 200 mainstream Americans and found the Voluntary
Simplicity group was "simultaneously happier while using fewer
resources," and that their happiness was derived from "less
materialistic, intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, family and
community." While the Voluntary Simplicity group was "still
awfully far from having a sustainable ecological footprint," Kasser
feels it's a positive start. "The correlation between the VS group
being happy was due to those no-consumeristic, intrinsic values, and
the reason they're living in a more ecologically sustainable fashion
is also due to those values."
It's just those kind of values
Schmidt has tried to encourage in his Work Less Party. Schmidt, a former
computer programmer, started by getting rid of his car and cycling to
work, then took advantage of the savings by reducing his workweek, which
allowed him enough time to write his book, make two documentaries, and
organize a community theater group -- all in the last three years.
"People spend so many
hours working they have no idea of how much creative potential they
have, but you get a taste of mental freedom you want more of it. It's
an explosion of creativity." says Schmidt, quickly adding, "I'm
a workaholic, but it's the type of work that's the problem. Our society
is focused on work that makes stuff that goes directly into landfills.
Essential work such as art, music, creativity, community, the kind necessary
to create a healthy society and planet, is being negated in favor of
If there's any solution to
increasing our well-being, as well as the planet's, Schmidt's advice
flies counter to our driven consumerism. "If you want to protect
the environment, you have to consume less, which means you have to produce
less, and you have to work less. We have to keep the message positive
-- our standard of living will improve hugely. I think people are starting
to make the connection."
© 2007 Independent Media
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