The ecological footprint of work

| 8th August 2018
A man looking stressed at his desk

Hard at work

Jobs are being lost worldwide due to automation. But a reduced working week could have far-reaching positive effects - from improving personal wellbeing to cutting down on emissions and pollution. JULIAN VIGO investigates

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, it is estimated that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs worldwide could be lost to automation.

In the summer of 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes gave a lecture in Madrid entitled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” in which he predicted that humans, a century later, would undertake a fifteen-hour work week.  

Today, the reality of work sharing is far from a reality, as is the  shorter work week. But there are many reasons we should set our sights on working fewer hours, not least of which is the environment. 

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, it is estimated that by 2030, as many as 800 million jobs worldwide could be lost to automation. The fallout from this will have a drastic effect on humans, comparable to the shift away from agricultural societies during the Industrial Revolution.

Environmental impact

In the US it is estimated that between 39 and 73 million jobs will  be automated. Computers and robots would comprise one-third of the total workforce. As other jobs stand to be created from AI, it's likely that only five percent of current occupations stand to be eliminated. 

If you are part of the one percent, the owner of these machines, you are in a great position economically. But if you are not, there could be a crisis looming that reaches far beyond the economy, and permeates the communal, the psychological, and the physical. 

The ecological impacts of labour are part of the larger equation here that must be taken into account. For instance, the commute of Americans to and from work is on average 52 minutes each day with over 80 percent of Americans commuting by automobile.

David Rosnick from the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC has devoted much of his career to the relationship between the work week and its ecological impact.

In 2006, along with Mark Weisbrot, Rosnick studied the effects of a shorter work week on the environment and the myths surrounding the economic potential for the American work week as opposed to the European work week. Their conclusion was that climate change can be mitigated through reduced work hours. 

Slowing change

In 2013, Rosnick published “Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change”, in which he modeled a reduction in work hours based on the European work week scale. He concluded that if Americans were to turn towards a shortened work week and take longer vacations the benefits would be that:

Employed workers would find themselves with seven additional weeks of time off. 

The United States would consume some 20 percent less energy. 

If a 20 percent energy saving had been directly translated into lower carbon emissions, then the US would have emitted three percent less carbon dioxide in 2002 than it did in 1990. This level of emissions is only four percent above the negotiated target of the Kyoto Protocol. 

Overall, a cut to greenhouse emissions by only 0.5 percent per year achieved through a shorter workweek would decrease “one-quarter to one-half, if not more, of any warming which is not yet locked-in.”  

Fewer labour hours translates to fewer emissions and less pollution, fewer lights turned on in factories and office buildings, fewer days to commute to work, and so forth.

Productivity and leisure

Reductions in the work week is not a new idea. Between 1870 and 1970, hours of work fell roughly by half. Many countries have had to re-balance the labour market by re-distributing work to make the allocation of labor (and wages) fairer.

Meanwhile, other companies have experimented with this model. In 1930 the Kellogg Corporation instituted a 6 hour work day (30 hour work week).  This practice was in place until the 1980s and resulted in the highest worker productivity in the sector. When this practice ended, productivity dropped and worker satisfaction went down with it.

And for those  concerned with the prospect of a plummeting Gross Domestic Product (GDP), fret not—it’s already plummeting! Countries that work more pollute more, but their scale of production is larger because in societies where time is a luxury people do not consume as much than in societies where people are working longer hours and living fast-paced lives.

In fact, leisure is essential for democratic society to keep people from becoming mentally unwell and to give their minds and bodies a break from producing “stuff.”

Leisure in the US and UK has become increasingly more focussed upon 'buying the stuff' that others produce. One study shows us that psychological wellbeing does not necessitate the collection of commodities, but merely the bare-essentials for living.

Invaluable returns

What the Kellog experiment demonstrated is that workers  prefer the shorter work day, have more time to bond with their children, their health increases with fewer on-site accidents, and production increases.  

As of this year, Germany is experimenting with the shorter work week. As of 2019, just over 2.3 million Germans will be eligible for a 28-hour work after the industrial union IG Metall won concessions from major employers throughout the country.

It is suspected that such a change is just one step in a multi-phased operation to create similar systems for workers around the country in which labour and wealth are shared. 

There have been various proposals on the table intended to reduce the work week from its current form to, for instance, the three-day weekend or the 21-hour work week.

Aside from measured benefits to the economy and the environment, these models promise invaluable returns on the physical and mental health of the individual and community.  

In fact, these models not only address high carbon emissions but it also offer immediate solutions to overwork, unemployment, and over-consumption.The shorter work-week has immense benefits to our planet that can no longer be ignored.

This Author

Julian Vigo is an independent scholar, filmmaker and activist who specialises in anthropology, technology, and political philosophy. Her latest book is Earthquake in Haiti: The Pornography of Poverty and the Politics of Development (2015). You can follow her on Twitter at @lubelluledotcom

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