How shorter work-weeks could save Earth
Tim Smedley/ BBC
Right now, the human race faces two major challenges: overwork and climate change. Is the solution to ‘degrow’ the economy?
If everyone in the world consumed the same levels of fuel, food, clothes and building materials as Europeans, we would require 2.8 planet Earths. If everyone led a US lifestyle, it would require five planet Earths. Somewhere in between commuting, making money and spending money, we are undeniably living unsustainably. And just last month, 29 July became the earliest ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ on record: the day on which humanity’s demand for ecological resources exceeds what Earth can regenerate in a year, according to Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation. 1972 was the last time we made it into December. But there’s a novel idea that could turn this around: we work less, thus slowing down the global economy and curbing our seemingly endless appetite to consume more stuff. Is that feasible – and would it really save the world?
Nothing can grow indefinitely
Changing our work habits on a global scale is a monumental task. The average American works 44 hours a week and receives just 10 days of holiday. In China, the 72-hour, 6-day week is common. Japan works such long hours there’s even a word for “death by overwork”: karōshi. However, one analysis from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst argues “working less is good for the environment”: that if we spent 10% less time working, our carbon footprint would be reduced by 14.6%, largely due to less commuting or grabbing high-carbon convenience foods on our breaks. A full day off a week would therefore reduce our carbon footprint by almost 30%. We like to blame climate change on industry and big business. But the way we live, work and consume is actually the primary source of emissions. A multi-national study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology of the environmental impact of consumers found that the stuff we buy is responsible for more than 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80% of global water use. And yet, growing that consumption still further is what economies are built upon. According to University of Surrey professor Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, the global economy has expanded on average by 3.65% each year since 1950. In a ‘business as usual’ world, that would lead to a global economy 200 times bigger than 1950 levels by 2100, or 326 times bigger if developing countries continue to develop. “The non-growing economy is anathema to an economist,” writes Jackson. “But the idea of a continually growing economy is anathema to an ecologist. No subsystem of a finite system can grow indefinitely.” However, there are two conflicting schools of thought about how to save the world by working less: the ‘green growthers’, who believe our salaries can remain the same and economies can continue to grow with a modest cut in working hours and improvements in technology and energy efficiency. And the ‘de-growthers’ – who believe that only by cutting our pay, our working days and our economies can we reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The green growthers
The idea of shorter working weeks and green growth is starting to gain traction. Last year, almost a million German metal workers won the right to a 28-hour working week (down from an already modest 35 hours), while the UK Labour Party (parliament’s second largest party) has flirted with the idea of a national four-day week. Will Stronge, co-founder and director of Autonomy, a future of work think tank, is a green growther. He cites the recent example of UK postal workers who have successfully argued for a scale-down in hours from 39 to 35 hours, while keeping the same salary. “In many companies, if you said we will cut your pay… but you get an extra day off, most staff wouldn’t be able to afford it.” From an environmental perspective, he says that “electricity consumption [nationally] goes down fairly significantly on weekends and bank holidays”, suggesting that there are energy efficiency gains from going to work less. Another green growther, Alice Martin, head of work and pay at the New Economics Foundation, believes that “if you reduce working hours while keeping pay constant, then the evidence suggests that does have positive effects on reducing carbon emissions”. Having people in work 20% less of the time translates to a similar drop in carbon emissions, she says, because of changes in behaviour, including reduced commuter travel, eating home-cooked food rather than convenience foods, and spending more time locally, even volunteering. “Having more time in life to do things you actually enjoy could result in a change in behavioural patterns so that you actually stop consuming as many high-carbon products,” she says. However, the reverse could also be true. With a four-day job on a five-day salary, isn’t there a danger that instead of staying at home cooking organic food on our new day off, that we actually increase consumption: more shopping, eating out and short-haul holidays?