Work Fewer Hours, Save the Planet

Work Fewer Hours, Save the Planet

What if, instead of telling people what not to do -- don't drive SUVs, don't live in big homes, don't buy too much stuff -- environmentalists pushed to empower people to choose to work fewer hours, enjoy more time with family or friends and -- maybe best of all, in these times -- help create jobs?

This appealing vision comes from Juliet Schor, an author and social critic whose best-selling books about work, consumption, culture and the environment include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don't Need (1998). In her latest, originally called Plenitude but re-branded for the paperback edition as True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, Schor offers a "strategy for living that gives people more time, more creativity, and more social connection, while also lowering ecological footprints and avoiding consumer debt."

Her core message: We can work fewer hours, buy fewer things, enjoy life more, help save the earth and even drive down today's stubbornly high unemployment rate.

juliet schorI heard Schor speak last week at the Garrison Institute, a renovated monastery on the Hudson River an hour north of Manhattan, during a conference called Climate, Mind and Behavior that brought environmentalists together with academics -- psychologists, sociologists, divinity school and law school profs -- to talk about how to talk about climate in ways that better connect with more people.

Schor began her talk by explaining how climate change differs from other environmental problems. Typically, pollution gets cleaned up as societies grow wealthy and decide to spend money on catalytic converters and pollution-prevention equipment. Affluence takes care of effluents, you might say.

Climate change doesn't work that way. Economic growth, which is good, tends to increase carbon dioxide emissions, which are not. Per capita CO2 emissions are much higher in the well-to-do US and Europe than they are in Asia or Africa. "The more you grow, the more you emit," Schor says. While efficiency and decarbonization (think iTunes instead of CDs) can slow emissions growth, they are more than offset by rising consumption. This puts supporters of climate controls in the uncomfortable position of asking for sacrifice. "It's very hard to talk about the idea of reducing people's consumption and slowing down the growth of the economy," Schor says. That's one reason activists who want to curb climate change are losing the political argument.

(And please spare me the claim that, by investing in clean energy, we'll create "green jobs," and there will be more of them than the "brown jobs" that will be lost and the jobs that will not be created because of the drag on economic growth resulting from higher energy prices that a clean-energy economy would require of businesses, consumers and taxpayers. I favor a price on carbon but let's admit that we will have to pay that price.)

And even we do suddenly begin a rapid transition to a low-carbon economy, consumption will remain a worry. Schor tells the story of clothing as a cautionary tale: Americans basically doubled the number of pieces of new clothing (from 34 to 67) they bought per year between 1991 and 2007. Experts of used apparel from the US have doubled as well, to 500 million kilograms a year; there's so much discarded clothing around that some thrift stores sell used clothes for $1.50 a pound. Making clothes, especially out of cotton, requires lots of material inputs and energy. "That is a system that's out of whack," Schor says, and the clothing story is repeated in categories like consumer electronics, housewares and furniture.

To address overconsumption and carbon pollution, Schor suggests that we talk about working hours — which were seen as a social problem 20 years ago when she wrote The Overworked American but no longer get much attention. "We could go a long way to reducing footprint if we made some changes in the way the labor market works," Schor says.

People who work long hours not only have more money to spend; they have less time. Their ecological footprint rises not just because they buy more stuff but because being in a hurry means they drive (instead of walking or riding a bike) or own stuff they could share (See my blog post: The sharing economy and me.) Imagine, instead, that people had the option to work 25, 30 or 35 hours a week instead of 40. They could walk more, cook more, maybe grow some of their own food, not to mention find time for family, friends, community, recreation, etc. Their footprints would shrink. Take those household effects to scale, and fewer aggregate hours worked will mean the economy grows more slowly and uses less energy.

None of this need be mandated. That approach is a nonstarter. "You can't take income away from people that they already have," Schor says. "They hate it." But some people, particularly high earners, would like to trade money for time. "Some people have more hours than they went," Schor says. "Others don't have enough."

Government could encourage what, in essence, is a market for hours. One possibility: Use money now reserved for unemployment insurance to encourage companies to reduce hours rather than lay people off. So, instead of a factory laying off 20 percent of its workforce, it could cut everyone's hours by 20 percent, with some of the pay differential made up with jobless benefits that are shared among those with reduced hours.

Another idea: Give companies tax breaks if they offer new hires four-day weeks. This could be an appealing option to young people who are eager to get into the workforce, or parents with young kids. "Unemployment is concentrated among young people," Schor notes. Employers could be encouraged to offer flextime or job sharing. If hours and salaries are lower, more jobs will be created.

This is not a free lunch -- people who worked less would have less money -- and so it won't come quickly or easily. Workers and companies will have to become more flexible. Employer-based health insurance is an obstacle to fewer hours. Hardest of all, attitudes will have to change, so that those who want to work fewer hours aren't seen as less committed to what they do.

And yet -- rising productivity enabled American to reduce working hours through most of the 20th century. And money isn't the only form of wealth, Schor reminds us: "We have multiple sources of wealth -- time wealth, community wealth, the wealth of nature." Not to mention a planet under stress.

Empty desk photo via Shutterstock.