Want to Stall Climate Change and be Happier? Just Work Less
Shorter works hours could lead to significant cuts in carbon emissions, says new study
Saving our environment need not mean sacrifice. Rather, it could mean substantial improvements in our quality of life. A new study says that significant reductions in carbon emissions are possible if we all worked a little less.
Photo by Johanna Loock
The study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), titled “Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change,” finds that 8 to 22 percent of every degree of warming through 2100 would be cut by an annual 0.5 percent reduction in work hours. Assuming 40-60 percent of potential global warming is effectively locked-in, about one-quarter to half of the warming that is not already locked in could be cut through this reduction of work hours.
“As productivity increases, especially in high-income countries, there is a social choice between taking some of these gains in the form of reduced hours, or entirely as increased production,” says economist David Rosnick, the paper’s author. “For many years, European countries have been reducing work hours — including by taking more holidays, vacation, and leave — while the United States has gone the route of increased production,” he says.
Rosnick acknowledges that the pursuit of reduced work hours as a policy alternative would be much more difficult in an economy like the US where inequality is high and/or growing. He writes: “In the United States, for example, just under two-thirds of all income gains from 1973–2007 went to the top 1 percent of households. In this type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order work less.”
But he argues that cutting back on the number of hours we work may increase our productivity in the time we are working. Rosnick’s analysis assumes that the gains from productivity growth will be more broadly shared in the future.
“Increased productivity need not fuel carbon emissions and climate change," CEPR co-director Mark Weisbrot said in a statement when the paper was released earlier this month. "Increased productivity should allow workers to have more time off to spend with their families, friends, and communities. This is positive for society, and is quantifiably better for the planet as well."
Indeed, cutting back our work hours would not only help the environment, it would also make us happier.
John de Graaf is a major proponent of the virtues of working less. “Long work hours are the source of enormous stress,” says the executive director of Take Back Your Time, an initiative to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time-famine. Graaf, who’s also co-author of What's the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It's Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness, talks about how Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not a measure of Gross National Happiness. Statistics, after all, show that happiness in the US leveled off in the 1950s as GDP continued to grow. He draws connections between human wellbeing and the wellbeing of the environment, saying that a way to be ecological stewards is in fact to take time to make social connections. “We need to slow down” and “spend time together,” he told the Journal (Full disclosure: De Graaf is also a member of the Earth Island board of directors).
Ultimately, a robust economy, our pursuit of happiness, and environmental well-being can all be achieved “by trading gains in productivity for time, by reducing the hours of labor and sharing them equitably,” De Graaf writes in his book. He notes that on average, West Europeans are only a little more than half as likely to suffer from such chronic illnesses as heart disease, hypertension, and Type 2 diabetes after the age of 50. “The United States now lags behind Western Europe in virtually every health outcome, despite spending about twice as much per capita for health care. Moreover, Americans, with their more stressful and hurried lives, are nearly twice as likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and other abnormalities of mental health.”
Shorter working hours allow personal and spiritual growth and appreciation of the natural world. In a chapter his book titled “Rushing Through the Environment,” De Graaf notes that prominent environmentalists – John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and David Brower among others – “have written of the impact of their experiences in natural settings and their later commitment to the earth. A love of nature often results in less desire for material things.” De Graaf wrote that Muir, who was aware of this, called for the “law of rest,” which mandated vacation time. From the book:
“In 1876, on the one hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Muir argued for ‘Centennial Freedom’ that would allow everyone, rich or poor, of whatever race or origin, time to get out into nature. ‘We work too much and rest too little,’ Muir declared. ‘Compulsory education may be good; compulsory recreation may be better.’
De Graaf says that Americans particularly suffer from “time poverty,” which leads to all sorts of negative emotions and actions, like road rage and chronic illnesses. “There’s this sense that we are always in hurry.” And this sense of hurry, he says, prevents us from making social connections and that can lead to depression and a sense of alienation from society. Time poverty has also made us dependent on convenience items like fast food and disposable products like bottled water. De Graaf argues that slowing down and making those social connections can help to remedy our fast-paced, disposable culture, and set us on a path towards sustainability. “We need to spend time together growing food locally,” he says.
Some of this slowing down is already happening. Take, for instance, the flourishing slow food movement and the numerous urban farms sprouting up in cities across the US. And it appears people are already aware of how they lose out on life by working more. A palliative nurse who has recorded the most common regrets of the dying found that among the top ones is “I wish I hadn't worked so hard.”