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Workers of the World, Relax!

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The late, great environmentalist David Brower used to say that there will be no profits, no corporations, no economic growth, and by implication, no successful economies on a dead planet.

Brower, who made the Sierra Club a powerful force for conservation and founded Friends of the Earth, often delivered what he called his “sermon.” He compressed the age of the earth, some 4.6 billion years, into the Biblical week of creation.

The earth forms on Sunday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first life-forms arrive. Over the next few days, they grow larger and more complex. On the last day of the week, at 10 a.m., the dinosaurs show up. They last until 3 p.m., when an asteroid ends their reign. Only three minutes before midnight on the final night, humans arrive. And only in the last tiny fraction of a second before midnight do we get the consumer society that began after World War II.

In that last fraction of a second, we have used more resources than all human beings who ever lived before that time, reduced our soils and fisheries by half, caused the extinction of countless species, and changed the climate. Our leaders believe that what we’ve been doing for that last fraction of a second can continue indefinitely. We consider them normal and reasonable, Brower observed, but actually, they are stark, raving mad.

We can’t grow on like this.

Already, our “ecological footprint” is well in excess of what is sustainable for future generations. And beyond a modest level of income, growth doesn’t make countries happier either. So perhaps we should be asking a different question: Is continuous growth undercutting our efforts to create a successful economy? I think so.

Economic growth, our current indicator of success, is measured by the rise of the gross domestic product (GDP), the market value of the goods and services we produce, the sum total of things bought and sold. It’s commonly agreed that GDP is a blunt instrument; it doesn’t measure valuable activities that are not monetized (e.g., housework) and it counts (as a plus) expenditures that only alleviate things gone wrong (e.g., cancer treatments). Perhaps Bobby Kennedy put it best when he said, “It measures, in short, everything except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Fist squeezing smiley face ball

By all accounts, the United States’ economy has grown faster than those of Europe over the past two decades, when measured by GDP. We trumpet that fact as indicating the success of our economic model. But Italian economist Stefano Bartolini makes a powerful case for a different view. He says our more rapid growth rate is a symptom of American economic decay, not dynamism. In his new book, Manifesto for Happiness, to be published in English this year by the University of Pennsylvania, Bartolini calls the United States “the example not to follow.”

In short, his argument is this: Growing inequality has left median American hourly incomes flat for a generation while GDP doubled. We were able to purchase the increased volume of consumer goods produced by working longer hours and by taking on excessive personal debt. But more work and more stuff have left us lonelier and less connected with each other, while growing debt has led to calls for slashing taxes, leading to higher prices for public goods such as higher education or access to public parks. 

We have been encouraged to counter these losses by purchasing even more private goods (Want friends? Buy a hot car… Want nature? Fly to a tropical paradise…), leading to even heavier debt and workloads. Moreover, our lifestyles, built around private consumption, have created low-density sprawl that makes public transit too expensive and encourages automobile dependence, longer commutes, and even less social connection, while further reducing public space and access to nature. It’s a vicious circle.

In short, Bartolini argues, free or publicly provided and often non-material need-satisfiers have atrophied or been crowded out by costly private consumer goods.

The outcome is poor health (the worst in the rich world), time stress, greater anxiety, and diminished happiness, including a suicide rate that now exceeds that for traffic fatalities. Yet our expenditures to soften these impacts (the highest health care costs in the world, for example) mean our economy grows faster than Europe’s, where people work and consume less and devote more time to social relationships. We are hamsters, turning the wheel faster and faster but never moving forward to better lives.

This result can scarcely be called a “successful” economy. Economic success is better measured the way Bhutan measures it. Since 1972, that tiny Himalayan kingdom has been promoting Gross National Happiness rather than GDP. With Bhutan’s encouragement, the United Nations is now advocating “equitable and sustainable well-being” as the goal of development instead of mere economic growth, while asking member nations to measure their success in pursuing happiness. A better measurement of “success” is the first step toward well-being.

In the United States, an organization called The Happiness Initiative has been working with colleges and communities on such a measurement of progress, using a comprehensive but short survey that measures life satisfaction in ten “domains” identified by researchers as essential for happiness: financial security; environmental quality; physical and mental health; education; arts and culture; government; social connection; workplace quality and time balance.

“Time Balance” scores for Americans are uniformly low, leading to my own recipe—supported by Juliet Schor, Gus Speth, and others—for strategically moving towards a successful economy without continuous economic growth: work reduction.

High unemployment is certainly no indication of economic success; indeed, it contributes greatly to unhappiness. As productivity increases, employment must be maintained either by greater production (with attendant environmental costs) or by sharing and shortening work hours through reduced work weeks, longer vacations, liberal family and sick leave policies, and greater opportunities for decently remunerated part-time work with benefits. 

Work reduction would provide more economic security and more time for self-chosen activity—exercise, gardening, volunteering, environmental restoration and stewardship, socializing, stress-reducing leisure, personal caregiving. Yet, this obvious answer to the question of how to create a successful economy without continuous growth has been systematically excluded from American politics since the Second World War. 

Some argue that it will be very difficult to change the laws that permit work without end.  They forget that it will be far harder to change the laws of physics to permit growth without end. Conrad Schmidt of British Columbia’s Work Less Party, puts the solution in simplest terms: Workers of the World, Relax!


Image Credit

“stress” by bottled_void. (CC BY 2.0)

  • John de Graaf

    John de Graaf is the Executive Director of Take Back Your Time and co-founder of The Happiness Initiative. He is the co-author of the books Affluenza and What’s the Economy for, Anyway?.

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