Working fewer hours is good for the planet

Juliet Schor

What if, instead of telling people what not to do–don’t drive SUVs, don’t live in big homes, don’t buy too much stuff–environmentalists pushed to empower people to choose to work  fewer hours, enjoy more time with family or friends and–maybe best of all, in these times– help create jobs?

This appealing vision comes from Juliet Schor, an author and social critic whose best-selling books about work, consumption, culture and the environment include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (1992) and The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (1998). In her latest, originally called Plenitude but re-branded for the paperback edition as True Wealth: How and Why Millions of Americans Are Creating a Time-Rich, Ecologically Light, Small-Scale, High-Satisfaction Economy, Schor offers a “strategy for living that gives people more time, more creativity, and more social connection, while also lowering ecological footprints and avoiding consumer debt.”

Her core message: We can work fewer hours, buy fewer things, enjoy life more, help save the earth and even drive down today’s stubbornly high unemployment rate.

I heard Schor speak last week at the Garrison Institute, a renovated monastery on the Hudson River an hour north of Manhattan, during a conference called Climate, Mind and Behavior that brought environmentalists together with academics–psychologists, sociologists, divinity school and law school profs–to talk about how to talk about climate in ways that better connect with more people. [click to continue...]

What’s wrong with economic growth?

Dave Gardner is a gutsy guy.  Gardner, who is 56, a former corporate filmmaker, set his career aside a few years ago to run for office in his hometown of Colorado Springs, CO, and make a documentary film called Growthbusters: Hooked on Growth that puts forth an unpopular idea–that economic growth is bad for the environment and bad for human happiness.

“I want to make it OK for people to be against growth,” Dave says, when asked why he ran for office and made the movie.

Dave and I fundamentally disagree. I think economic growth is vital, not just to lift billions of people out of poverty–global per capita income is currently about $10,700, if Wikipedia is to be believed–but because societies that are more prosperous are better able to deal with the issues of environmental and social justice that matter most to me.

Nevertheless, I would urge you to see Dave’s film (screenings are listed here, or you can buy the DVD) both because he raises a number of important questions and and because, to his credit, has managed to capture on film some of the world’s most provocative thinkers on the topic of growth–Paul Ehrlich, the Stanford professor and author of the controversial 1968 book The Population Bomb, sociologist Juliet Schor, whose books include The Overworked American, the heretical economist Herman Daly, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and the charismatic political economist and author Raj Patel. [click to continue...]

Wanted: A cultural revolution

pogoplaque“It’s no longer enough to change our light bulbs. We need to change our culture.”

So says Erik Assadourian, senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute and project director of a provocative and timely new book called 2010 State of the World: Transforming Cultures from Consumerism to Sustainability. Its argument is simple: The most important driver of the world’s ecological crises, including climate change, is not venal oil or coal companies or indifferent politicians but western consumer culture–that is, us.

Global consumption has grown dramatically since World War II, reaching $30.5 trillion in 2006, up sixfold since 1960. This is, in part, a very good thing–billions of people have emerged from poverty–but today’s prevailing consumption patterns are, quite simply, unsustainable. The rich (meaning you and me) are the worst offenders but ecologists say that even at income levels that we think of as substandard–say, $5,000 or $6,000 per person per year–people are consuming at rates that will deplete the earth’s resources, cause catastrophic climate change, wipe our species and generally trash the only planet we have.  About a third of the world’s people live above this standard, and the others, presumably, aspire to do the same.

This is not a message that either business or mainstream environmental groups want you to hear, which is why you don’t hear it often. Most businesses, though not all of then, are in the business of persuading people to consume more. They shaped the consumer culture. And enviros have found that telling their members and donors to buy less stuff is a downer, and not an effective fund-raising message, especially among the well-to-do.

But, as Assadourian said during a conference call with reporters, consumer culture is not only causing environmental havoc, it’s often failing to deliver the well-being that it promises.

Most people understand–and psychological studies of happiness confirm–that after we have achieved basic economic security (itself a cultural norm), what really makes us happy are close relationships, meaningful work, connections to community and good health.

You can’t buy those things at the mall.

“Two centuries of intentional cultivation of consumerism  has led to us seeing it as perfectly natural to define ourselves primarily by what and how much we  consume,” he said. Consumerism is so embedded in our culture today that, most of the time, it’s as invisible as the air we breathe. [click to continue...]