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If everyone in the world consumed the same levels of fuel, food, clothes and building materials as Europeans, we would require 2.8 planet Earths. If everyone led a US lifestyle, it would require five planet Earths. Somewhere in between commuting, making money and spending money, we are undeniably living unsustainably.

And just last month, 29 July became the earliest ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ on record: the day on which humanity’s demand for ecological resources exceeds what Earth can regenerate in a year, according to Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation. 1972 was the last time we made it into December.

But there’s a novel idea that could turn this around: we work less, thus slowing down the global economy and curbing our seemingly endless appetite to consume more stuff. Is that feasible – and would it really save the world?

Nothing can grow indefinitely

Changing our work habits on a global scale is a monumental task. The average American works 44 hours a week and receives just 10 days of holiday. In China, the 72-hour, 6-day week is common. Japan works such long hours there’s even a word for "death by overwork": karōshi. 

However, one analysis from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst argues “working less is good for the environment”: that if we spent 10% less time working, our carbon footprint would be reduced by 14.6%, largely due to less commuting or grabbing high-carbon convenience foods on our breaks. A full day off a week would therefore reduce our carbon footprint by almost 30%.

Humans working jobs is bad for the environment, from our pollutant-spewing commutes to the high-carbon goods we buy with our earnings (Credit: Getty Images)

A full day off a week would therefore reduce our carbon footprint by almost 30%

We like to blame climate change on industry and big business. But the way we live, work and consume is actually the primary source of emissions. A multi-national study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology of the environmental impact of consumers found that the stuff we buy is responsible for more than 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80% of global water use.

And yet, growing that consumption still further is what economies are built upon. According to University of Surrey professor Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth, the global economy has expanded on average by 3.65% each year since 1950. In a ‘business as usual’ world, that would lead to a global economy 200 times bigger than 1950 levels by 2100, or 326 times bigger if developing countries continue to develop. “The non-growing economy is anathema to an economist,” writes Jackson. “But the idea of a continually growing economy is anathema to an ecologist. No subsystem of a finite system can grow indefinitely.”

However, there are two conflicting schools of thought about how to save the world by working less: the ‘green growthers’, who believe our salaries can remain the same and economies can continue to grow with a modest cut in working hours and improvements in technology and energy efficiency. And the ‘de-growthers’ – who believe that only by cutting our pay, our working days and our economies can we reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The green growthers

The idea of shorter working weeks and green growth is starting to gain traction. Last year, almost a million German metal workers won the right to a 28-hour working week (down from an already modest 35 hours), while the UK Labour Party (parliament’s second largest party) has flirted with the idea of a national four-day week.

Will Stronge, co-founder and director of Autonomy, a future of work think tank, is a green growther. He cites the recent example of UK postal workers who have successfully argued for a scale-down in hours from 39 to 35 hours, while keeping the same salary. “In many companies, if you said we will cut your pay… but you get an extra day off, most staff wouldn’t be able to afford it.” From an environmental perspective, he says that “electricity consumption [nationally] goes down fairly significantly on weekends and bank holidays”, suggesting that there are energy efficiency gains from going to work less.

Another green growther, Alice Martin, head of work and pay at the New Economics Foundation, believes that “if you reduce working hours while keeping pay constant, then the evidence suggests that does have positive effects on reducing carbon emissions”. Having people in work 20% less of the time translates to a similar drop in carbon emissions, she says, because of changes in behaviour, including reduced commuter travel, eating home-cooked food rather than convenience foods, and spending more time locally, even volunteering. “Having more time in life to do things you actually enjoy could result in a change in behavioural patterns so that you actually stop consuming as many high-carbon products,” she says.

However, the reverse could also be true. With a four-day job on a five-day salary, isn’t there a danger that instead of staying at home cooking organic food on our new day off, that we actually increase consumption: more shopping, eating out and short-haul holidays?

A degrowth protester in France in 2018 holds a placard that reads, "grow or climate, which priority"? (Credit: Getty Images)

The de-growthers

The degrowth camp say ‘yes’. They argue that the only way to reduce consumption is to have less cash: they welcome a four-day week, but only as the ‘sweetener’ for a four-day salary.

Degrowth is a radical, even heretical, economic argument. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has held sway since the 1930s as our means of measuring economic success. However, on a planet with finite resource, endless growth was always an error in the code. In 1972, a report on a computer simulation of exponential economic and population growth, Limits to Growth, commissioned by futurist organisation Club of Rome, became an unlikely international bestseller. The authors found that resource depletion would max out by 2072, leading to "sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity".

However, mainstream politics maintained its course. The material consumption of combined OECD nations increased by almost 50% between 1990 and 2008 – and lo and behold, every 10% rise in GDP saw a 6% increase in material footprint. The modern degrowth movement – reborn in Europe, following the inaugural International Degrowth Conference in Paris in 2008 – therefore argues that we must begin a managed contraction of our economies, starting with a sharp reduction in working hours.

This isn’t the same as welcoming a ‘recession’ and the job losses that come with it. Leading degrowth economist Serge Latouche has explained; “Degrowth does not mean decay or suffering… Instead, degrowth can be compared to a healthy diet voluntarily undertaken.” It results, he says, in “a self-sufficient and materially responsible society”. But it is still a diet. We cannot have our green growth cake and eat it.

Milena Buchs, associate professor in sustainability, economics and low-carbon transitions, University of Leeds – and self-confessed degrowther – says that “if leisure consumption increases” due to a shorter working week “and it is carbon-intensive consumption like travel and goods that create more waste, that is exactly why working-time reduction would also require a reduction in income”. A Global Environmental Change paper also questions whether more people working fewer hours would result in an overall increase in commuting traffic: “if shorter hours are to increase productivity and wages…  consumption and emissions could [go up].”

How universal basic income could help

It’s the top earners who cause the most emissions, however, not the average worker. According to Oxfam, the world's richest 10% produce half of all global carbon emissions, whereas the poorest half of the population cause just 10% of emissions. On this point, Buchs argues that any degrowth scenario would require a means of redistributing wealth “from the rich to the poor”. And the leading proposal to do so is a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

With UBI, instead of being a complex web of welfare benefits, it simply pays everyone in society the same fixed state pay-out, perhaps as much as $12,000 (£10,000) a year. It is often associated with the ‘jobpocalypse’ argument: if robots take our jobs, how will we have money to live? But it’s equally central to degrowth: if we all work less and consume less, how do we protect those already on low wages?

“Like working time reduction, UBI is one of the key proposals to degrowth”, says Buchs. “The idea is to say yes, everyone should have some sort of minimum income so that your basic needs are satisfied." Another way of slicing the same pie could be Universal Basic Services, says Buchs: no free salary, but free public services instead, from universal health care right through to college education.

Degrowth is a radical, even heretical, economic argument. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has held sway since the 1930s as our means of measuring economic success

Shenzhen, China in 2016. GDP has long been the indicator for national success, but degrowthers push for alternative measurements, like quality of life (Credit: Getty Images)

Gross Domestic Problem

Both green growthers and de-growthers agree that GDP is no longer an adequate measure of economic performance, and that forever trying to grow it has a bad effect on the planet. As Oxford economist Kate Raworth points out, GDP completely ignores the “unpaid care economy”, or ecological services such as clean air and clean water: “Any company that presented only its profit and loss account would get laughed off the stock exchange.”

Nina Treu, a leader of Germany’s degrowth (“Postwachstum”) movement, also argues that a system reliant on GDP “needs to always produce more in order to stay stable. These products need to be consumed, which leads to material overconsumption. And this exceeds our natural resources and leads to climate change, which undermines our very source of living.” Even US politician Robert F ennedy once said in the 1960s, “GDP measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Alternative measures to GDP do exist however, such the UN’s Inequality Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), which includes life expectancy, inequality and education alongside income. Whereas Norway, the US and Germany come 10th, 11th and 16th in the World Bank’s GDP table, in the IHDI they come 2nd, 24th and 7th, respectively.

If we all worked a four-day week, there’s good reason to assume that life expectancy, inequality and education scores could all go up. New research by Henley Business School revealed that firms that adopted a four-day working week found that over three quarters of staff (78%) were happier, less stressed (70%) and took fewer days off ill (62%).

‘Part of humanity’s future’?

Yet, say the de-growthers, for this to credibly benefit the environment too, we need to earn less, consume less, lead more frugal lives. I ask Buchs whether that could ever be a platform that people would vote for? “That is exactly the problem,” she says. “We need degrowth, but it isn’t politically acceptable at the moment. To be really, completely honest, I don’t have a good answer [to how we change that].”

Maybe we’ll have no choice. In The Path to Degrowth in Overdeveloped Countries, author Erik Assadourian argues that “In the end, whether societal leaders accept it or not, the natural limits of Earth – brought into view by increasing numbers of a population… striving to live as consumers – will shatter the myth of continued growth, most likely due to dramatic changes to the planet’s systems. Thus degrowth is part of humanity’s future.”

Earth Overshoot Day took less than 50 years to go from 29 December to 29 July – five months lost. The same trajectory for the next 50 years in unthinkable. In 2002, the Club of Rome authors re-formed to update Limits to Growth, 30 years on. Given three more decades of data – not to mention greatly improved computing power – what would the model show this time? The authors were far more pessimistic than they were in 1972: “Humanity has squandered the opportunity to correct our current course over the last 30 years,” they concluded. The projected year for a total collapse of resources was no longer 2072. It was now 2030.

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