Americans are working harder than ever before. The dogged pursuit of the paycheck coupled with a 24/7 economy has thrust many of us onto a never-ending treadmill. But of workaholism’s growing wounded, its greatest casualty has been practically ignored — the planet.
“We now seem more determined than ever to work harder and produce more stuff, which creates a bizarre paradox: We are proudly breaking our backs to decrease the carrying capacity of the planet,” says Conrad Schmidt, an internationally known social activist and founder of the Work Less Party, a Vancouver-based initiative aimed at moving to a 32-hour work week — a radical departure from the in early, out late cycle we’ve grown accustomed to. “Choosing to work less is the biggest environmental issue no one’s talking about.”
A backlash against overwork fatigue, the Work Less Party is one of a growing number of initiatives aimed at cutting work hours while tackling unemployment, environmentally unfriendly behavior and boosting leisure time. According to Schmidt, author of “Workers of the World RELAX,” which examines the economics of reduced industrial work, working less would allow us to produce less, consume less, pollute less and — no complaints here — live more.
“As a society, we’re working exponentially hard to decrease sustainability and it’s making us miserable — just look at how antidepressants are on the rise,” he says. “In order to reduce our ecological footprint, we have to take working less very seriously.”
Americans work more hours than anyone else in the industrialized world. According to the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, we work 250 hours, or five weeks, more than the Brits, and a whopping 500 hours, or 12 and a half weeks, more than the Germans. So how does ecological damage figure in to the 40-plus workweek?
Do the math: Longer hours plus labor-saving technology equals ever-increasing productivity. Without high annual growth to match productivity, there’s unemployment. Maintaining growth means using more energy and resources, both in manpower and raw materials, which results in increased waste and pollution.
Unsurprisingly, the United States is the world’s largest polluter. Housing a mere 5 percent of the world’s population, it accounts for 22 percent of its fossil fuel consumption, 50 percent of its solid waste, and, on average, each citizen consumes 53 times more goods than a person in China, according to the environmental nonprofit, Sierra Club.
When people work longer hours, they rely increasingly on convenience items such as fast food, disposable diapers, or bottled water. Built-in obsolescence has become standard business practice — just throw it away and make more — leaving mountainous landfills in its wake. “Earning more often means spending money in ways that are environmentally detrimental. We’re finding that to compensate for lack of time, you actually need more money to work those extra hours,” says Monique Tilford, acting executive director of the Centre for a New American Dream, a Maryland group promoting environmentally and socially responsible consumption. “When people are time-starved they don’t have enough time to be conscious consumers. The overarching theme of our organization is to remind Americans that every single dollar they spend has a carbon impact, to make the connection.”
If the world started clocking American hours, then it would be detrimental to its environmental health. According to a paper issued by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., if Europe moved towards a U.S.-based economic model, it would consume 15-30 percent more energy by 2050. This would impact fuel prices worldwide and boost carbon emissions, resulting in additional global warming of 1-2 degrees Celsius. Any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions made through conservation, cleaner fuels or green technology would be overwhelmed by increased industrial output.
“Productivity normally increases every year, but we haven’t seen massive productivity gains reflected in our working hours,” says Mark Weisbrot, CEPR’s co-director, who also authored the study “Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment?” “Because there’s no limit to what we can consume, a change of values has to take place if the planet stands a chance of survival.”
The problem is, France has already begun following America’s lead by increasing the workload. In 2005, France effectively abolished its 35-hour workweek to counter high unemployment — the highest in the European Union, hovering at roughly 10 percent — though a subsequent International Monetary Fund paper examining the impact concluded there was no significant increase. And this May, the new French president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy, whose campaign to “work more, earn more” helped win him the presidential seat, promised to make overtime largely tax-exempt. His goal: strengthen consumer purchasing power and galvanize the economy.
Only if Weisbrot’s research is correct, France’s increased productivity would create even larger problems, especially considering France’s current productivity is greater than America’s, with a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) per hour of $37.01 versus $33.77. Today’s push towards a heavier workload is in many ways a historical precedent. In both the United States and Europe, work hours declined steadily from the beginning of the industrial revolution until World War II, when labor unions were key in fighting for shorter hours. After the war, the 40-hour workweek was legally in place, and governments promoted economic growth in order to match it.
But since the 1970s, with the advent of technological advances and increased automation, most European governments have continued shortening work hours whereas the United States has opted instead to let wages fall. In the late 1960s futurists predicted an Age of Leisure, hypothesizing that the largest issue facing the country at the end of the century would be too much leisure. “It was the kind of problem I thought I could deal with — in fact, I was looking forward to it,” says John de Graaf, producer of the groundbreaking 1997 PBS documentary “Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic” and a frequent speaker on issues of overwork and overconsumption. “Of course, I didn’t reason we’d put all our productivity gains into more stuff.”
Quoting data from his current campaign, “What’s the Economy for Anyway?” which examines America’s economic policies in light of quality of life issues, de Graaf says the evidence proves we’re not better off. “It’s staggering. The USA has declined relative to all other industrial countries in virtually every quality of life measured — health, equality, savings, sustainability — though that’s not so with the GDP and certainly not with the number of billionaires,” he says. “Yet we’re still constantly being told we’re better off.”
Yet suggest alternatives to the status quo of GDP worship, like shortening the work week, and resistance is great. “Here, the business community fiercely opposes any mandates relating to time,” says de Graaf, noting that by controlling or regulating time, they maintain the upper hand. “What’s happened in Europe is people have discovered it’s nice to have some time in their lives, and in getting some, they’ve wanted more. Whereas here, business has kept that door completely shut.”
But even many overburdened Americans fear change will signal further sacrifice — mostly to their paychecks. “But the fact is, we’re already sacrificing our time and our lives right now,” says de Graaf. De Graaf is also the national coordinator of “Take Back Your Time Day,” an annual event scheduled for Oct. 24, the date on which the 40-hour workweek was first inaugurated in the United States. A national organization with 10,000 members, Take Back Your Time has launched a campaign calling for national legislation guaranteeing a minimum of three weeks of paid vacation, an issue it hopes to make part of the 2008 presidential campaign.
As it stands, America is the only industrial nation that offers no legal protection for vacations. The average vacation in the United States is now only a long weekend, and 25 percent of American workers have no paid vacation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to Sweden, which mandates 32 vacation days per year. President Bush, however, does know the value of vacation time. In 2005, he took five weeks off to visit his Texas ranch, taking the longest presidential retreat in at least 36 years.
“We see overwork as a social, legal problem that needs political legislation,” says de Graaf. “We are utterly unique in our dismissal of the need for time and the environmental costs; not to mention, the costs to our health and our families have been enormous.”
But by shelving time, we continue to suffer from overload, debt, and anxiety, and are stuck in a fatalistic rat race generated by heightened consumerism. So what fuels this need to accumulate in the face of time deprivation? Devoting his career to what drives materialism, Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College and author of “The High Price of Materialism,” has sought scientific explanations, examining the relationship between materialism and psychological well-being.
“Materialism is driven by an underlying sense of insecurity,” says Kasser, who conducted a study where subjects were randomly assigned writing about death or writing about listening to music. The former experience an increased desire for consumption and were “greedier,” according to Kasser. “Death is the ultimate end of time; it’s interpreted as that feeling of not having enough time. In the last decade politicians have played off that insecurity. It keeps getting people elected, but it also drives us to think we need to work harder and harder,” he says, noting the signs of insecurity around us are numerous: We don’t know our neighbors and suffer from high divorce rates; our social safety nets have been dismantled; we have no mandatory overtime laws and minimal vacation. “All these work to create an underlying sense of insecurity, and we need to break out of that cycle,” he says.
Interestingly, Kasser conducted an empirical study comparing 200 adherents of Voluntary Simplicity to a control group of 200 mainstream Americans and found the Voluntary Simplicity group was “simultaneously happier while using fewer resources,” and that their happiness was derived from “less materialistic, intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, family and community.” While the Voluntary Simplicity group was “still awfully far from having a sustainable ecological footprint,” Kasser feels it’s a positive start. “The correlation between the VS group being happy was due to those no-consumeristic, intrinsic values, and the reason they’re living in a more ecologically sustainable fashion is also due to those values.”
It’s just those kind of values Schmidt has tried to encourage in his Work Less Party. Schmidt, a former computer programmer, started by getting rid of his car and cycling to work, then took advantage of the savings by reducing his workweek, which allowed him enough time to write his book, make two documentaries, and organize a community theater group — all in the last three years.
“People spend so many hours working they have no idea of how much creative potential they have, but you get a taste of mental freedom you want more of it. It’s an explosion of creativity.” says Schmidt, quickly adding, “I’m a workaholic, but it’s the type of work that’s the problem. Our society is focused on work that makes stuff that goes directly into landfills. Essential work such as art, music, creativity, community, the kind necessary to create a healthy society and planet, is being negated in favor of that.”
If there’s any solution to increasing our well-being, as well as the planet’s, Schmidt’s advice flies counter to our driven consumerism. “If you want to protect the environment, you have to consume less, which means you have to produce less, and you have to work less. We have to keep the message positive — our standard of living will improve hugely. I think people are starting to make the connection.”
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