We know we need to consume less for the good of the planet, but what if those sacrifices were balanced against the incentive of shorter working hours? The pandemic could hold lessons for how we think about work.
Philipp Frey of the German Center for Emancipatory Technology Studies says there are lessons to be learned from all this, for the good of both people and planet. Last year, he authored a headline-grabbing study suggesting that to prevent climate collapse, Europeans should go down to a nine-hour working week. “There exists a positive correlation between carbon emissions and working hours,” Frey said. “Most of us produce less carbon emissions on the weekends than on a normal workday.”
This isn’t only true of workers in carbon-heavy sectors like manufacturing and energy production. Emissions from commuting and running offices are also a factor. And how we work impacts how we consume. Research suggests longer working hours are linked to increased consumption, and this effect isn’t just to do with income. Workers with less free time are more likely to use private vehicles instead of public transport, buy energy-intensive, time-saving products, choose convenience foods over sourcing local produce, and in the words of one study, “favour conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles.”
“Everyone knows you have to consume less,” Frey said. We know that the throughput of energy and resources inherent in Western lifestyles is unsustainable. But focusing on consumption puts the onus on individual choice instead of asking why we are producing so much stuff that is harmful to the planet in the first place.
“We don’t have a debate on how we actually spend our work time because that would imply, rather than giving ethical, moral lectures to individuals on how to behave correctly, actually talking about how we organise our economy, and what are socially useful products,” Frey said. If nothing else, coronavirus lockdown time has given us pause to consider what kinds of jobs actually fulfill society’s essential needs. These are often in the public sector, low-paid, or in fact, aren’t paid at all.
According to the UN, 41% of all the work done worldwide is unpaid: Caring for children and the elderly, domestic work and collecting water, for example. Amaia Perez Orozco, an economist with the feminist XXK Collective in Bilbao, says this figure doesn’t include activities like subsistence farming that would bring the share of work happening outside the market economy to more like 50%. These activities are essential to sustain society — and keep the economy running — but they don’t generate profit and are largely left to women.
“We value jobs that are more profitable for capital accumulation more than we value jobs that are profitable for the sustainability of life,” Orozco said, adding “so we have a completely distorted way about thinking about the value of jobs.” In a system gearing toward profit and growth, we reward work that turns resources into products and waste, and neglect the human and ecological “nutritious base,” as Margarita Mediavilla, professor of systems engineering at the University of Valladolid in Spain, calls it. “Collapse happens when the base weakens and the system tries to keep growing,” Mediavilla said.
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle