Making time- working less to save the planet

In this essay, an abridged chapter from their forthcoming book Overtime: why we need shorter working weeks, Kyle Lewis and Will Stronge engage with a number of ‘green strategies’ with the aim of showing that whichever way you look at it, working time reduction has to be central to any sustainable path ahead for our societies.

It emphasises environmental justice must be paired with social and economic justice and argues that working time reduction speaks to all of these concerns. 

It’s a simple formulation. Working less is both necessary and desirable from an environmental perspective.

Metrics

With climate breakdown already at our doorstep, the pressing need to change course from capitalist models of growth has spawned new disciplines and approaches within the field of economics. 

One such approach is referred to as degrowth – a genre of research and activism that has been active for many decades, originally inspired by the political ecology of the French-Austrian  philosopher André Gorz. 

Those who advocate for degrowth define its approach as being- first and foremost- a critique of growth. Economic growth is unsustainable per se, because it is inseparable and cannot be ‘absolutely decoupled’ from greenhouse gas emissions and other negative environmental impacts.

In contrast to accounts that stress the need for ‘green growth’ or ‘socialist growth’, degrowth advocates demand the dethroning of growth as a goal in general and in its place want a political economy focused on using fewer natural resources in order to organise life and work. 

Rather than advancing an economic model destined for austerity, scarcity and recession – which are the socio-economic consequences usually associated with ‘flat’ or ‘non-growing economies’, degrowth and postgrowth advocates argue in favour of economic metrics and objectives that advance alternative modes of living, based on principles of sharing, conviviality, care and the common good. 

Degrowth

As leading ecological economist Giorgos Kallis and his colleagues summarised in a 2010 article for the Journal of Cleaner Production – ‘Sustainable degrowth may be defined as an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the local and global level, in the short and long term. 

The adjective sustainable does not mean that degrowth should be sustained indefinitely but rather that the process of transition/transformation and the end-state should be sustainable in the sense of being environmentally and socially beneficial.

The paradigmatic proposal of degrowth is therefore that human progress without economic growth is possible.’ 

A transition to degrowth must involve abandoning Gross Domestic Product as a measure of success for an economy, and fundamentally recalibrating what we value.

In short: we need to change the metrics. 

Capture

Rather than viewing perpetual growth as an end in itself, a sustainable degrowth approach would implement measurements that are geared towards, and that capture, societal well-being, ecological sustainability and social equality.

For advocates of degrowth, the transition to a new economy will be undergirded by a range of policy measures that actively encourage economic activity based on resource circulation rather than resource extraction

These tend to include a universal basic income – creating an income floor irrespective of an individual’s earnings or employment status- a wide range of universal services -free public transport, housing, healthcare and education- and a high rate of tax and regulation on private assets -encouraging less consumerism and more environmentally sustainable uses of energy and resources. 

One of the key components of a degrowth programme relates to working time and its reduction. Working less not only reduces the sheer amount of resources being used as part of the labour process, but it also reduces the amount of carbon-intensive consumption that comes with what economist Juliet Schor had called the ‘work and spend’ cycle.

In a study that assessed the environmental impacts of twenty seven OECD countries, Schor and her colleagues estimated that reducing our working hours by a quarter could reduce our carbon footprint by as much as thirty percent.

Unsustainable

For the average British worker, this would mean cutting our weekly forty-two hours of work to just over thirty-one hours – or, a four-day week.

In the U.S., a 2019 degrowth-inspired study entitled ‘‘Work Hours and CO 2 Emissions: Evidence from U.S. Households’,  the carbon footprint held by individual items consumed by households with shorter or longer working hours was evaluated.

In short, each item of expenditure, reported via surveys, per household was ranked according to how carbon-intensive its production was – from packaged meals to pieces of clothing and so on. 

Their conclusion? ‘Households with longer work hours have significantly larger carbon footprints’, demonstrating a worrying correlation between increasingly unsustainable consumption and high workload lifestyles. 

This study is consonant with anecdotal everyday experience, where early starts mean plastic wrapped breakfasts and late finishes bequeath takeaway meals delivered by moped or ready meals thrown into the microwave because we’re too tired to cook.

Viable

In the UK context, a recent study by the four day week campaign showed that a four day working week implemented nationally could shrink the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025, which represents more than the entire carbon footprint of Switzerland, and is also equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road – effectively the entire UK private car fleet.

The advocates of degrowth have made valuable contributions, not least in highlighting the problematic aspects of the pursuit of economic growth. 

Yet, an ardent commitment to degrowth often fails to account for the ways in which certain areas of the economy will need to grow very quickly in order to cut carbon emissions at the rates required. 

As economist Robert Pollin has argued, the key objective for governments around the world should be to decouple consumption from fossil fuels at both the macro and micro levels- in consonance with degrowth arguments- whilst also investing massively in green energy infrastructure as its replacement- that is, growth. The net result of this could well be that  economies – GDP- grow rapidly while still advancing a viable climate-stabilisation project.

This adds nuance to green strategy: the problem isn’t necessarily growth per se, but specifically which areas of the economy grow, and to what extent.

Questions.

Other critics of degrowth point to the strategy’s lack of political nous. It is hard to find within degrowth an implementable or politically-viable strategy that acknowledges issues of political governance, power relations and consent building.

Whilst degrowth modelling shows that work could be redistributed on a macro level to all workers in the form of work sharing, it tends to lack any detailed plans for how this could be actually implemented, even at the national scale – leaving global degrowth aside for a moment.

Questions also remain, for example, around the situation of workers currently in industries that would need to be abolished under a sustained degrowth strategy, or around the safeguards if they are at all possible that will need to be in place to protect wages as the economy shrinks.

If degrowth economics often remains at the – still undoubtedly useful – level of economic calculation and critique, then a green political strategy that might succeed in implementing the reforms necessary remains lacking. 

One of the most exciting and tangible political paths in this regard is the idea of a ‘Green New Deal’ -GND. While the GND is very much a concept under construction – as evidenced by the multitude of iterations in the world – its origins can be traced back to New York Times journalist Thomas L. Friedman. 

Considerations

In an article entitled ‘A Warning from the Garden’, Friedman argued that in order to reverse climate change, an industrial and fiscal strategy that matched the ambition of the Roosevelt administration was required: “like the New Deal, if we undertake the green version, it has the potential to create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century”.

Ann Pettifor,  in her book The Case for the Green New Deal, shows how Colin Hines, a Greenpeace staffer and campaigner, then took up the challenge outlined by Friedman by commissioning a report that proposed in detail what a GND would consist of.

In the report, a GND would be a framework of joined up policy proposals that aimed at addressing the “triple crunch of the credit crisis, climate change and high oil prices”. 

Whilst the GND demands economic and ecological system change at national and international levels – reforms that would fundamentally revolutionise approaches to finance, the global economy and planetary ecosystems – its ambitions for the day to day world of work leave much to be desired.

Comparing the current proposals for a GND to Roosevelt’s original New Deal of the 1930s is revealing in this regard. There, we find precedents for the kind of considerations for the wellbeing of workers in the midst of a crisis contained within its path-breaking labour market reforms that would be required today. 

Equality

The Fair Labour Standards Act 1938, for example, established a normal working week of forty hours and a minimum wage. 

Behind these reforms was Frances Perkins, the first woman ever appointed to the U.S. cabinet and an ardent campaigner for workers’ rights and for gender equality.

A few years prior to this legislation, in the heart of the Great Depression, came the ‘President’s Reemployment Agreement’ effectively a seal of approval from the very top that encouraged firms to reduce the average workweek and to raise hourly wage rates.

These reforms and others like it offered American workers a new collective sense of freedom and prosperity, changing their world of work for the better.

In so doing, the New Deal managed to articulate a new vision of the future by turning the crisis of the Wall Street crash into an opportunity for lasting change. 

Guarantee

Today, our own visions must, at the very least, match the ambition of Roosevelt and his team. With this in mind, what do today’s GND proposals offer in terms of radical transitions and inspiring plans, more than eighty years down the line from the original New Deal? 

What are the aspirations for workers under a Green New Deal? Or, in other words, what is the new deal aspect of the GND and what ambitions do GND advocates harbour for working time reduction?

The answers we can find to these questions are thin on the ground. 

One of the central pillars of the US version of a GND consists of a jobs guarantee – a policy proposal aimed at providing a universal solution to the dual problems of unemployment and low wages.

A job guarantee is a policy framework whereby the government is obliged to provide a job to whoever wants one.

Workfare

Premised on a commitment to leave nobody behind during radical reshaping and transformation of the economy over such a short period of time, it has thus become a central pillar of many versions of the GND. 

In doing so, it attempts to provide both a mechanism for addressing those whose livelihoods would be adversely affected by a GND- for example, people working in carbon intensive industries- whilst also strengthening worker power -the jobs created under a GND would be unionised and permit collective bargaining. 

Whilst a jobs guarantee addresses some of the fundamental issues affecting workers today- precarious, low skill and poorly paid work- it doesn’t speak to a range of well-established work-related issues including overwork, the prevalence of degrading or monotonous work and our toxic cultural obsession with jobs as a source of dignity. Critics also point to the fact that the majority of job guarantee proposals presume these jobs to be low paid, and that they would either integrate with, or replace welfare services. 

This is eerily close to a ‘workfare’ system that is rightly condemned by activists and policy experts alike: what happens if someone refuses their low-paid green job? Are they refused social security benefits? Without careful consideration, job guarantees can become job prescriptions. 

Productivist

Similar ‘productivist’ tendencies often infects the interpretation of the GND within UK politics.

In the 2019 general election, the Labour Party decided to recontextualise the GND under the banner of ‘A Green Industrial Revolution’. 

One example we can draw on here is Ann Pettifor’s The Case for the Green New Deal, in which she argues that the GND economy will ‘be labour-intensive’, due to the shortfall created by switching from the highly efficient fossil fuel energy to less efficient renewable energy. 

She also goes on to detail how “activities that cannot be powered by the sun’s energy will be undertaken by human energy: labour”.

The British GND, she says, will “mobilise a ‘carbon army’ of workers to undertake and maintain the transformation”.

Inheritance

With such proclamations, the GND strays close to what political theorist Kathi Weeks calls ‘socialist modernization’: the inheritance, from capitalism, of an industrial mindset and practice.

Does the promise of a military-scale, labouring society not lose sight of jobs as means to ends, as necessary -but not necessarily desired- instruments which afford people the capacity to pursue their interests off the job? 

As with the early Soviet dreams of mass Taylorised production, a labour-intensive GND risks adopting many of the central tenets of the capitalist production system – not least its irrational worth ethic.

Pettifor has aspirations that the work created by a GND will be meaningful due to the work being underpinned with ‘skills, training and higher education’. 

As she says “The promise of the GND is that the workforce will be rewarded with meaningful tasks; resourced with skills, training and higher education”.

Hollow

Whilst no one can argue with the aim of the creation of ‘meaningful jobs’ or ‘gaining skills’, such terms sound hollow to the ears of those who have heard the promises of ‘employability’ and ‘upskilling’ since at least the New Labour years. 

Can we really expect the millions of newly created GND jobs to be meaningful and fulfilling, somehow turning around centuries of standardisation, routinisation and managerial discipline that are the hallmarks of modern labour markets? 

Will work under a GND – whether it is rewilding landscapes, retrofitting homes, maintaining energy infrastructure and so on – not involve arduous, repetitive, standardised and managed work too?

Following Smith, Keynes, Marx, Russell and the everyday experience of countless millions of workers over the past few centuries, we remain sceptical about plans that claim to be able to eliminate the pains of work simply by changing one’s profession and by having greater job security. 

In short, the Green New Deal, in our view, must take its historic opportunity to buck some of the most pernicious aspects of industrial culture, and bake working time reduction into its vision of the new society.

Risk

We agree with critics such as Sharachandra Lele, who emphasise that without considerations of ‘multi-dimensional wellbeing’, Green New Deal positions are at risk of becoming single-minded programmes that maintain the spirit and practices of industrialism by prioritising merely mass job creation at best, and – at worst – GDP growth.

Lest we forget, neither environmental sustainability nor job creation in and of themselves are sufficient for a good society. 

The key is to couple these with individual wellbeing -including freedom, collective equality and the ongoing sustainability of these things across generations.

From our point of view, degrowth, postgrowth and Green New Deal strategies all demonstrate the need to place working time reduction at the centre of any post-carbon political economy. 

Not only does such a reduction offer a relatively simple and effective way of reducing carbon emissions in the short term, it also provides a clear purpose and vision to the new economy we so badly need – one built on both environmental and social justice.

Coalition

Whilst the content of a Green New Deal is still under construction, in both its international and national contexts, it offers the most promising political and economic means for achieving a post-carbon political economy beyond neoliberalism and perhaps beyond capitalism itself.

This, however, does not mean abandoning strategies of degrowth or post-growth economics, but instead incorporating them into the development of GND political programmes.

In this sense we must avoid simply understanding degrowth and GND approaches as a binary choice that renders their synthesis impossible.

Coalition building across environmental economics and progressive political movements could help in articulating how transitioning to a post-carbon economy appeals to both the ways in which capitalism perpetuates environmental and social forms of injustice on a planetary or universal scale. 

Although still in their infancy and minority, some GND proposals are cottoning on to why working time reduction is both an environmental and social justice policy.

Mass

The Green New Deal for Europe initiative proposes a green Public Works programme -in the same vein as the original New Deal- involving mass retrofitting of homes, investment in worker cooperatives and in repair and reuse facilities. 

The millions of jobs required by such a transformation will, in the context of the plan, involve shorter working weeks, acting as a pioneer for the rest of Europe’s labour markets to follow. 

This chimes with the arguments with various degrowth and postgrowth economists: reducing working time could be a key strategy for redistributing wealth and avoiding mass unemployment. 

Equally, it is inspiring to see prominent GND advocates Kate Aronoff and Thea Riofrancos pushing for reduced working time as part of their core set of GND demands.

While these authors still maintain the need for a job guarantee, they are well aware of the woes of the contemporary workplace- ‘the domination of the workplace still keeps most of us unfree’  and see the obvious benefits of working time reduction being part of green political strategy: ‘Under a radical Green New Deal, with efficiency gains and automation controlled by people rather than bosses, we could meet everyone’s needs working far less than we currently do — and we should. Study after study shows that shorter workweeks lower carbon footprints — the shorter the better. To cut carbon, we need to work less and share the remaining work more evenly.’

Necessary

Instead of reducing the number of hours some people work in order to maintain jobs and wages -the conventional economic approach seen in times of capitalist recessions or depressions, work would be shared by reducing the working time of all workers, thereby expanding free time for all while avoiding unemployment or underemployment for some.

Such a strategy would also help the necessary transition workers will need to make, from resource-intensive industries that will require winding down to more sustainable forms of work.

If we are to offer a new political economy– one that aims to deliver both social and environmental justice – a green new deal should not only promote job security and higher wages, but also reduce the amount of time we spend on the job: ‘Redefining work is crucial—but so is reducing it’. That is to say, a Green New Deal is an opportunity to recast the economy in a way that treats workers as full, rounded human beings, with capacities far exceeding the drudgery and monotony of working life. Perhaps above all, a shorter working week gives the GND that key ingredient of any political project: hope and desire for a better life. 

There is a huge opportunity here that green movements have yet to properly exploit. As Aronoff and others argue: ’Carbon-free leisure doesn’t just mean wholesome hobbies like hiking and gardening — we’re firm believers in eco-friendly hedonism. 

Give us time for long dinners with friends and plenty of organic wine; outdoor adventures enhanced by legal weed grown and harvested by well-paid agricultural workers; skinny-dipping in lakes that reflect moon and starlight.’

Post-carbon

Reducing the working week must be one of the key components of this post-carbon economy for the two reasons we have argued for: it is a low-cost, high-impact instrument for reducing carbon emissions and would demonstrably improve working and social life. 

In that sense, a Green New Deal with less work is both necessary and desirable.

These Authors

Kyle Lewis is a PhD candidate at the University of West London and a working time consultant at the think tank Autonomy

Will Stronge is co-director of the Autonomy think tank. He holds a PhD in politics and philosophy from the University of Brighton.

Their book Overtime: why we need shorter working weeks published on Verso will be released in September 2021

 

 

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