All Work and No Play Won’t Save the Planet



The way we work is killing us. We spend about a quarter of our week at work and, with smartphones and constant accessibility, many of us never really “switch off”. The good news is that there is a growing movement advocating for less work and more free time. More and more research shows that reducing our hours is not just essential for our wellbeing but is also a vital step towards reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and tackling the climate crisis.

We have been toying with the idea of less working time for a while now. In the 1880s, Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son in law, proposed that technological advancements could and should be used to alleviate the burden from workers, reducing working time to 3-hour days. John Maynard Keynes echoed Lafargue’s 15-hour working week concept again in the 1930s.

The idea is that, as our industrial productivity started to increase, our leisure time should have done the same. According to a study by the New Economics Foundation, leisure time in the UK started to increase slowly after WWII but halted at around 1980. According to their calculations, had these continued, a full-time working week would be at least 4.2 hours shorter today. 

Less working time and more leisure, normally under the concept of a four-day working week, has become increasingly present in different policy manifestos including some Green New Deal proposals. Through gains in productivity or efficiency and worker-controlled automation, we can ensure work for everyone while actually reducing the amount of work we do on an individual basis.

By working less we are safeguarding our physical and mental wellbeing. We’ll have more time to exercise, prepare healthier food and we’ll be less stressed which means we can significantly reduce the burden on our healthcare systems. We will have more time to enjoy cultural activities, learn new skills and take on new hobbies which can, in turn, create a surge in careers in sectors such as the arts. We will also be more productive at work, have increased employee satisfaction and, thanks to our healthier lifestyles, we will need to take fewer days off work due to sickness. Research has also shown that less time at work would also help reduce gender inequalities improving work accessibility to women. 

Less Work Means Fewer Carbon Emissions

It’s easy to see how less work and more free time implies increased levels of overall wellbeing but more and more research is showing us that rethinking our work-life-balance is a vital step towards reducing GHG emissions and tackling the climate crisis.

The climate and ecological crises are forcing us to question and re-think the way we live and the way we measure progress. Up until now, we have been taught to measuring success in terms of productivity and limitless growth which would explain our approach to work, our carbon-intensive industries and all of the issues that come with them. As we look to decarbonise our economies and our lives and seek to design more socially and environmentally just futures, we need to understand that reducing the amount of work we do is not just a matter of improving our lifestyles but of necessity. 

Less work means we use up fewer precious resources needed to produce goods and services and we’re also consuming less in the process of doing our job. Practically every aspect of our working lives requires energy; our commute (a 4 day week in the UK could reduce car mileage to as much as 9%), our office spaces, computer systems and even the takeaway food many of us eat on our lunch breaks. As we mentioned earlier, working less means a lifestyle shift that could prioritise wellbeing over consumerism.

Lots of research is being done to calculate the exact impact less work can have on GHG emissions. The study Reducing growth to achieve environmental sustainability: the role of work hours found that a reduction of work hours by 10% can lead to a 12.1% reduction in ecological footprint, a 14.6% reduction of carbon footprint and a 4.2% decline in CO₂ emissions. Reducing our work hours by a day and a quarter every week would lead to a 36.6% decline in carbon footprint globally.

Another study (The Ecological Limits of Work: on carbon emissions, carbon budgets and working time) measured different economies across the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and the amount of labour done in each country in order to calculate what the sustainable levels of “labour utilisation” (in hours) should be. As you can see from the chart below, they found that “actual working hours vastly exceeded the levels that might be considered sustainable.



Calculations based on the total number of working hours per week gave similar results.


The current average full-time waged working week is around 40 hours while the target is as low as anywhere between 5 to 10 hours weekly.

Of course, simply reducing working hours alone is not enough to fight climate change and wouldn’t make any sense unless we re-think our economies and our lifestyles. If people use their newly gained free time to engage in carbon-intensive activities this would defeat the purpose. We need more investment into infrastructures like better public transport, more parks, libraries, sports facilities, community halls, cycling tracks and other public luxuries which are not environmentally damaging, but enrich our lives. 

Working less is not about luxury, it will protect our wellbeing, help tackle unemployment and inequalities. In order to triumph over the climate crisis and tackle the social and environmental injustices that define our current socio-economic system, we need to decrease our economic activities and consumer-based lifestyles that are so carbon-intensive. A shorter working week can help us achieve this.


Over the next few months, The Climate Herald will be publishing regular articles about the climate crisis based on scientific research and conversations with specialists in the field. We aim to shed light on how the climate crisis affects every aspect of our lives, what solutions are being proposed, and what needs to change in order for us to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.


Sources

1.     A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal

2.     The Ecological Limits of Work: on Carbon Emissions, Carbon Budgets and Working Time

3.     Making Up for Lost Time: Reducing Working Hours in Manufacturing: A Review of Evidence

4.     Work less to save the planet? How to make sure a four-day week actually cuts emissions

5.     Reducing Growth to Achieve Environmental Sustainability: The Role of Work Hours

6.     Paper Straws Won’t Save the Planet – We Need a Four-Day Week

7.     A shorter working week: A radical and pragmatic proposal


The Author: JD Farrugia

JD has been working in project and campaign management roles since 2010, mostly within civil society but also in the private sphere, as well as the arts and culture sector. Some of these roles include: directing a CSO focused on sustainable fisheries, setting up and coordinating civil society programmes, and coordinating the programme of a community theatre. JD has an M.Sc in Environmental Management & Planning and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, both from the University of Malta. He is currently involved in various projects related to environmental causes as well as artistic projects in Malta, North Macedonia and on a European level.

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