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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.  

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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.  

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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.

The NEF argues that if we want to achieve truly happy lives, we need to challenge social norms and reset the industrial-age time clock that's ticking in our heads.   NEF sees the 21-hour week as integral to this for two reasons:   it will redistribute paid work, offering hope for achieving a more egalitarian society.   (Right now too many are overworked, while others must, because of that, remain underemployed or even unemployed.)   The redistribution of work would give all of us, men and women alike , the time (and the means) to enjoy the things we value but all too seldom have the time to do (at least not well) -- things such as care for our family, travel, walk, bike, play tennis (for example), read or continue learning -- as opposed to merely helping to speed up the hyperconsumption-hyperproduction treadmill that is ruining our environment, radically changing our climate, and forcing us into Mideast wars because of the petrol we so desperately need in order to keep the capitalist treadmill going full speed.   (All those goods must not only be manufactured, they must also be transported by petrol-burning trucks, ships, planes and trains.)   Finally, all this crapola must eventually be driven to the dump or the recycling plant.

As Coren points out, creating US/EU (EuropeanUnion)-level living standards for the entire world by 2050 would require a six-fold increase in the size of the global economy, with potentially devastating environmental consequences.   So instead of growing the world economy, the US and the EU must take the lead in recalibrating and/or reorganizing our societies to make everyone happier and successful with less.   China opens up a new coal-fueled electrical power plant every week!   But for how long can this continue without ever worsening environmental consequences?   And unless they are shown another way, isn't the rest of Asia going to follow in China's footsteps?   What will prevent that from eventually happening?   Then in South America as well?   What then of global climate craziness and extreme weather events?   And at what point does ever more violent and crazy weather (ever larger monster typhoons, tornadoes and hurricanes of absolutely unprecedented size and destructive force) wreak more destruction than the value of all the extra consumer goods we are producing with all this extra work (with which most people are now saddled)?

"The proposed shift towards 21 hours must be seen in terms of a broad, incremental transition to social, economic, and environmental sustainability," says the NEF in its report.

The challenges are great, none more so than figuring out how to make most of society be able to live on half of their current income.  

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No doubt, many will label this as "socialism' or worse.   Many will object to being told that 21 hours is the new normal, or that 40-50 hours is too much for most people to be forced into.  

Remember what John Maynard Keynes said in 1930 about the goal of future societies.   He wrote that by the start of the 21st century, we would work only 15 to 20 hours a week, and that we would be focusing on how to win freedom from pressing economic cares.   Could Keynes prediction come true this century?   Should it?   And if not, why not?

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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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