How reducing hours in the workplace could help avert a climate catastrophe

Work less and save the planet from climate catastrophe—what’s not to like? Credit: Shutterstock

Working and producing less to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint is part of a growing movement towards a “degrowth” economy.

The Great Resignation and four-day working week trials around the world have shown that many people are ready to change their work-life balance towards life. Although this is a movement ostensibly about health and well-being, it could also help with the most pressing problem of our time – climate change.

According to a sustainability expert at UNSW Sydney, focusing on well-being rather than wealth could actually be the best chance of avoiding the most devastating effects of climate change.

“The pandemic has shown us that it is possible for many people who work in offices to do so from home while having little, if any, impact on the quality or quantity of their work,” says Professor Tommy Wiedmann, who works on UNSW Engineering. .

“Besides the obvious reduction in greenhouse gases from commuting, there are many other changes we can make to the way we work that can significantly reduce our carbon footprint.”

The sensible ideas, some of which have already been adopted by progressive companies and institutions such as UNSW, include workplaces that move entirely towards sustainable energy while reducing energy consumption, reducing waste, saving water and implementing sustainable procurement policies that they take ownership of the carbon footprint created by manufacturing products that workplaces need—even if those products were produced in another country.

But according to Professor Wiedmann and a growing number of climate change and sustainability experts, these measures alone will barely affect the rise in temperatures without rethinking what work is and how much of it is required for a comfortable , but sustainable lifestyle.

Redesigning work in this way is part of a broader move to transform a society dependent on fossil fuels to one of zero carbon emissions. To get there, they argue, we need to embrace the idea of ​​”managed degrowth.”

What is managed degrowth and how can it help?

Most of us have become accustomed to thinking that “growth is good” after years of watching and reading the daily news. We learned that it is associated with abundant jobs, many products produced and consumed, and intense engagement in globalized trade.

The problem with endless growth, sustainability experts argue, is that it presupposes a bottomless pit of resources, an infinite landfill, and an endless supply of wealth and prosperity.

But this is clearly not the case – the world and its riches are finite, and safe levels of vital functions of the earth system – the so-called planetary limits – have been exceeded for some time. Nor does endless growth make us infinitely happier. Conversely, growing inequality burdens social and individual well-being.

Managed degrowth, on the other hand, is a deliberate, controlled contraction of developed economies…but without the panic usually associated with negative gross domestic product (GDP).

Professor Wiedmann says the failure to see how the relentless pursuit of growth is hindering sustainability is a blind spot among economists, politicians and companies that have yet to convert to the idea that simply adding renewables without changing business practices will not solve the temperature rise problem.

“The neoclassical economic model knows no boundaries,” says Professor Wiedmann. “It’s a very simple model that says the bigger the economy, the more there is for everyone. But it doesn’t notice that there is a biophysical limit that is a finite Earth and that human population and consumption cannot increase forever.”

He says the idea of ​​degrowth is like kryptonite for most politicians who are wedded to the idea that economic growth means creating jobs and prosperity.

“And that’s true when you start at a low level. For most developing countries, a growing economy increases social welfare and the well-being of a society.

“But for developed countries, that’s leveled off over decades. We’re still growing, but we’re not happier, or we may even be falling in terms of personal well-being. When you get past that point, which is in the US$20,000 range per year per person, you don’t create more wealth.”

Down with the job

Could it be that if we overconsume, then it must be overproduced? And if we overproduce, are we overworking?

The Great Resignation trend—caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, stagnant wages, high cost of living, and low job satisfaction—may be an early confirmation of this question. It asks another: what would a streamlined workweek look like that allows workers to work less and increase their well-being?

Many since Marx have tried to answer this question. Austrian philosopher André Gorz suggested in a 1988 paper that work could be reduced to a four-day, six-hour week. A 2010 paper by the New Economics Foundation suggested a 21-hour work week, while economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s predicted we’d work just 15 hours a week.

Recently companies such as Unilever trialled a four-day working week in Australia and New Zealand, while a movement called 4 Day Week Global led to a six-month trial of the model in the UK across 70 companies. It was deemed successful, but there was a sustainability problem: these tests were done without a reduced fee. Reducing overconsumption also requires some fair reduction in the income scale.

“Otherwise nothing will change,” says Professor Wiedmann.

Changes must come from all levels of society

This is why Professor Wiedmann believes that ideally we should not rely on individual companies to take the lead in reducing labor output and tackling overconsumption. Targeted policies at different levels of government and community initiatives could be a more effective way to get there sooner.

Sustainability expert and UNSW fellow Emeritus Associate Professor Mark Diesendorf researches in ecological economics and says there are a number of ways to achieve this, including:

  • Reducing working hours or shortening the working week.
  • Task sharing by allowing multiple people to share a task, with each person working fewer hours.
  • A job guarantee, for everyone who wants to work, funded by the federal government.
  • Universal Basic Services, where the government provides more resources for public health, education, transport and housing.
  • Improving work-life balance by offering more flexible working hours, allowing remote work and providing paid parental leave.
  • Reducing consumerism by promoting a culture of sharing and collaboration, emphasizing community values ​​and prioritizing social connections over material goods.
  • Legislation that encourages the design of products for reuse, recycling and remanufacturing.
  • Estate and inheritance taxes to reduce consumption by the rich, who have by far the biggest environmental impact.
  • Non-coercive policies to end population growth, especially in high-income, high-consumption countries.

“Why do the vast majority of people support these policies?” Asst. Professor Diesendorf asks.

“Because they will benefit from significant increases in government spending on poverty reduction, green infrastructure, health care, public education and public transport as part of the transition to Universal Basic Services.

“They would also have a shorter working week to share their work, as well as a basic wage job guarantee for all adults who want to work and who cannot find work in the formal economy. And when they are older, a substantial increase in pensions.”

Professor Wiedmann agrees.

“Some of these policies are being tested in countries promoting a ‘Welfare Economy.'” A universal basic income would remove the pressure on people to have to work to generate income just to keep their heads above water,” Prof. Wiedmann says.

But managed degrowth does not necessarily mean a return to an era of greater hardship, he adds.

“The way I think about it is how were we living in the 1960s? The houses were smaller, there was one television per household, one toilet, one car.

“And if you compare it to today, everything is two or three times bigger. Now many of us have two or three cars, two or three houses, two or three bathrooms, televisions in many rooms. But we are certainly not at a higher level of happiness.

“The transition to a degrowth need not be painful. But the alternative – to continue on our current path where we let individuals and companies make work and lifestyle changes to limit temperature increases – will be disastrous. ”

Provided by the University of New South Wales

Reference: Down to Work: How Reducing Workplace Hours Could Help Avoid a Climate Disaster (2023, March 2) Retrieved March 2, 2023, from workplace-avert-climate- disaster.html

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