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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 1/21/12

Will Saving the Environment Require a Shorter Work Week?

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A shorter workweek would create more jobs and could help stop the unsustainable cycle of rampant consumption and resource wastage.  


Pollution mounts.   It's time for us to collectively climb off the hyperconsumption-hyperproduction treadmill.   Our environment and biosphere -- some see it as "Mother Nature'; the ancient Greeks called her Gaia -- can no longer accommodate unrestrained consumption and production.   By continuing to ignore this increasingly obvious truth, we permit the murder of the very thing that keeps us all healthy and alive:   our "Mother' Gaia.   Therefore, somehow, we must collectively find a way to focus our production on the goods and services we most need, and somehow begin to pare back most all the rest.   This means gradually bringing to an end much of, if not most all of, the production of the most superfluous.   But how many people would lose their jobs in this transition?   Obviously millions would, -- unless . . unless we somehow succeed in making the transition to the 21-hour workweek, so that the work that remains can be shared, and so that the burden on Gaia can be greatly reduced.  


As Michael Coren at FAST Company recently said, "To save the world -- or even just make our personal lives better -- we will need to work less."


As Coren points out, a 40-hour week in factories once was necessary, but is no longer.   Most of us have more "stuff' than we know what to do with.   Hence storage lockers costing anywhere from $50 to $150 or more per month have sprouted up everywhere.   Most garages are stuffed to the gills, even as garage sales proliferate.   But so does pollution and global climate change proliferate.   This means that our workaholic behavior and madcap rates of consumption are totally out of step with what should be our most fundamental human priorities and the kind of steady-state economy we need.  


To lay the foundations for a "steady-state" economy -- one that can continue running sustainably forever, this recent paper argues that it's time for advanced developed countries to transition to a new normal:   the 21-hour work week.


This does not mean a mandatory work week or some kind of leisure-time police, says Coren.   People could choose to work as long, or short, as they please.   What we're talking about is resetting social and political norms re: the freedom to work fewer hours per week, if you want -- without having to be subjected to the penalties (such as no benefits) that today accompany such a choice.  


This is to say that the day when 1,050 hours of paid work per year becomes the "new standard that is generally expected by government, employers, trade unions, employees, and everyone else" (50 weeks a year times 21 hrs./week equals 1050 hours) . . is not far off -- nor should it be.


Gaia is telling us that three days a week, for 7 hours each, or four 5-hr. days, is plenty.   And let's face it, with all of today's computerized technology and automation, there's no longer nearly enough work to keep the large majority of us busy 40 or 50 hours a week, which is the amount of work-time most employers try to squeeze out of us, to generate the profits they crave.   But the only way to keep that many people that busy is to somehow con most of them into buying and consuming a whole lot of crapola that they don't really need.   And think of the cost, in terms of pollution, resource wastage and global warming, that results from that!   Not to mention the heart attacks and strokes from overwork, lack of exercise, and compensatory greasy-food-&-alcohol indulgence.


The New Economics Foundation (NEF) argues that there is nothing natural or inevitable about what's considered a "normal" 40-hour work week today.   Because of that traditionally imposed normality, many people remain caught in a vicious cycle of work and consumption.   They live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume.   Missing from that equation is an important fact that researchers have discovered about most material consumption in wealthy societies:   so much of the pleasure and satisfaction we gain from buying is temporary, ephemeral, and mostly just relative to those around us (who, when they see what we buy, and have, they also strive to consume still more, which leads to a kind of self-perpetuating spiral).   What we see on TV and in the movies also compels many of us to buy, want and consume much more than we would otherwise want.   And when American movies and TV programs are shown in the poorer countries, it has the same poisonous effect there.

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Several years after receiving my M.A. in social science (interdisciplinary studies) I was an instructor at S.F. State University for a year, but then went back to designing automated machinery, and then tech writing, in Silicon Valley. I've (more...)

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