Why winning the fight against climate change will require working less.
The problem with asking people to change their lives to slow climate change is it's a terrible offer. You're essentially saying: stop flying and driving and buying clothes, coffee, holidays etc, and in return the planet might be a bit less uninhabitable a century from now. No wonder this hasn't gone down well. Nobody likes a hair shirt. The moment voters' lives are at all inconvenienced — as they are now with rising energy prices — governments ditch climate activism and scramble to let us keep heating the planet.
Politicians are sticking to their traditional promise: annual rises in gross domestic product that let people buy more stuff. But that can't be the offer any more. Making and consuming stuff heats the planet. Instead of more stuff, governments need to offer people more time. Specifically, in developed countries where people have enough to live on, we should cut working hours to save the planet. A four-day week would be a good start.
This promise would be premised on two sad facts. Firstly, most people dislike their jobs. A global study by Gallup estimated that only one in five full-time workers feels engaged at work. Many workers also feel time-poor, in part because of increasing childcare duties. People need to work to feel fulfilled, but a little work goes a long way: eight hours a week is the "most effective dose" for wellbeing, reported academics from Cambridge and Salford universities in 2019 after studying more than 70,000 British workers.
The second sad fact is that when societies grow richer, they don't necessarily grow happier. Equal societies tend to, but unequal ones don't. In other words, the extra output often serves chiefly to trash the planet. Imagine the speech at your retirement party that listed your career achievements and concluded, "so your total carbon footprint is . . . ". Picture that number on your tombstone.
Each additional hour's work produces more CO2 — through our commute and, above all, through the stuff we create and consume. Our consumption accounts for more than 60 per cent of all greenhouse gases, estimated researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in 2016. It's still the case that when we get richer, we generally emit more carbon. In the boom year of 2018, for instance, US emissions jumped 2.7 per cent. Almost everyone feels they don't have enough money, yet almost everyone in developed countries has more than almost anyone before us ever dreamed of. It will never be enough. But it's already too much for the planet.
So to stop climate change, we need to get poorer, and the safest way to do that is to work less. This would continue a long trend of improving life by cutting working hours. In 1870, the average worker in industrialised countries put in more than 3,000 hours a year, or 60 to 70 hours a week for 50 weeks, calculate economic historians Michael Huberman and Chris Minns. By 2019, that total had dropped to 1,383 hours in Germany, and 1,777 in the US, before slumping during lockdowns.
In 1956, Richard Nixon predicted a four-day work week in the "not-too-distant future". That future might finally be arriving. The four-day week is being piloted in various countries, discussed even in Japan, and is already common in Iceland. In fact, cutting a day's work wouldn't do nearly enough to reduce emissions, because rested workers are so productive that their output remains dangerously high.
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After giving people more free time, we'd need the nanny state — yes — to push them to use it on low-carbon activities such as walking, playing sport or cooking. To deter people from jetting off on long weekends, we'd need higher taxes on flights, for instance. The revenues could fund insulation, public transport and so on. Carbon prices would also be a hard-to-dodge way of taxing the world's richest 1 per cent, who produce more than twice the emissions of the 3.1 billion poorest humans, according to the charity Oxfam.
True, cutting hours wouldn't work for everyone. We'd have to compensate poorer people in rich countries who need every cent they earn. Shorter hours certainly wouldn't work for poor countries, but then they produce relatively low emissions per capita anyway.
Last month in Amsterdam, I glimpsed our possible future. It was a gorgeous Monday afternoon and, though there were almost no tourists, the café terraces were full of locals sunning themselves and chatting to friends. The average Dutch work week of 30.3 hours is the shortest in Europe (though still too long for some Dutch trade unionists). It's probably no coincidence that the Netherlands ranks among the world's happiest countries. Admittedly, the Dutch have divvied up work in a sexist way: women average 27 paid hours a week and men 37. But it isn't beyond our abilities to devise a fairer apportionment. Once other rich countries follow suit, the climate wouldn't be the only beneficiary.
Written by: Simon Kuper
© Financial Times