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.