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. When you do this, a day represents about 650 million years, an hour, 27 million, a minute, about 450,000 years, and a second, 7,500.

On Sunday morning, the earth congeals from cosmic gases. In the next few hours, land masses and oceans begin to form, and by Tuesday afternoon, the first tiny “proto-cells,” of life emerge, probably from scalding primordial vents in the bottom of the oceans. In the next few days, life forms become larger, more complex, and more wondrous.

Before dawn on the last day—Saturday—trilobites and other strangely-shaped creatures swim by the millions in the Cambrian seas. Half a billion years later, in real time, we will be amazed by their fossils, scattered about the globe.

Around the middle of that very last day of the week, those gargantuan beasts, the Great Reptiles, some mild, some menacing, thunder across the land and fill the sky. The dinosaurs enjoy a long run, commanding earth’s stage for more than four hours, until a monstrous meteorite, landing in the Gulf of Mexico, makes the climate too cold and ends their reign.

By the late afternoon and evening on Saturday, mammals, furry, warm-blooded, and able to withstand a cooler world, flourish and evolve until, just a few minutes before midnight on that final night of the week, Homo sapiens walks erect on two legs and learns to speak, use fire, and create increasingly complex forms of organization.

Only about 10,000 years ago in real time, less than two seconds before midnight in our metaphor, humans develop agriculture and start building cities. At a third of a second before midnight, Buddha is born; at a quarter of a second, Christ.

Only a thirtieth of a second before midnight, we launch the Industrial Revolution, and after World War II—perhaps a hundredth of a second before midnight in our week of creation, on the final night—the age of consumerism, the age of stuff, begins.

In that hundredth of a second, Brower and others have pointed out, we have managed to consume more resources than did all human beings all together in all of previous history. We have diminished our soil, fisheries, fossil fuels, and who knows what other resources by half. We have caused the extinction of countless other species, and we have changed the climate.

Think about it; try to grasp in your mind what it means that we have done all of this in the blink of the geological eye.

There are people, Brower went on to say, who believe that what we have been doing for that last one-hundredth of a second can go on indefinitely. If they even consider the issue, they believe, without evidence, that application of new technologies will allow our continued hyper-exploitation of the planet’s resources.

They are considered normal, reasonable, intelligent people; indeed, they run our corporations and our governments. But in reality, they are stark raving mad. It will be hard to change their minds and hard to change our behaviors, but not nearly as hard as it would be to change the laws of physics or find other habitable planets to exploit. We simply can’t grow on like this.

Already, our “ecological footprint” is well in excess of what is sustainable for future generations. The limits suggested by Brower and others often call forth a sense of “gloom and doom,” a sense that sacrifices for the sake of the biosphere will mean lives of poverty and misery for all. But the good news is that the world doesn’t have to continue the same patterns of economic growth to attain high levels of human well-being and happiness.

The relationship between money and well-being is complex, but it does not suggest that future happiness requires endless growth in incomes. Indeed, the dominant, though frequently challenged theory for the past several decades has been the “Easterlin Paradox,” named for its creator, economist Richard Easterlin. That theory offers two major conclusions:

1. When comparing individuals within a country, wealthier people report greater happiness, but

2. When making international comparisons, national income per person beyond a level of modest affluence is only weakly related to peoples’ happiness levels.

There is a significant exception to this second assertion: The lowest income countries—those without enough money for food and shelter—are least happy with their lives. Evidence indicates that this is also true on an individual level. Recent survey data in the United States, for example, has found that people in poverty are less happy, are more likely than those not in poverty to suffer from chronic health problems, and are disproportionately prone to suffer from psychological depression.

When GDP rises in low-income countries, it is often accompanied by significant gains in happiness. But beyond a modestly comfortable standard of living, there is very little relationship between national income and happiness. Countries whose people have enough income to meet their basic needs are barely less happy than those with greater wealth.

Easterlin bases these conclusions on a wealth of data. If correct, his theory has far-reaching implications for policy decisions. While the eradication of poverty should be a primary goal of government policies aimed at improving happiness, the same is not necessarily true for economic growth per se, which, beyond a modest level of comfort and security, does little to improve well-being. Moreover, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have demonstrated that the Easterlin paradox holds in many other areas of life as well as happiness—life expectancy, educational levels, leisure time, and so forth.

Uneconomic Growth

There has been much recent controversy regarding Easterlin’s thesis, with some researchers pointing out that in many cases, happiness levels do continue to grow—albeit slowly—along with GDP, even in the richest nations. But while some gains in happiness may continue past the point at which the curve of happiness tends to flatten out, they are often far too modest to justify their costs in decreased equity and sustainability. Economist Jeffrey Sachs and others (including Easterlin) have made the case that where such gains do continue, they are likely to be greatest in more equal societies with strong social and economic safety nets, such as the Nordic countries. Nonetheless, such gains are still coupled with potentially unsustainable resource use.

While the economic paradigm based on limitless growth prevails in nearly all nations, the United States provides the clearest powerful example of the Easterlin paradox. Although U.S. per capita GDP has tripled since the late 1950s in real dollar terms, levels of happiness remain essentially the same as they were then.

Economic growth, our current indicator of success, is measured by the rise of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is 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.”

Economist Herman Daly argues that “growth” refers to purely quantitative expansion, while “development” denotes qualitative improvement. As Manfred Max-Neef puts it, “Growth is not the same thing as development and development does not necessarily require growth.” Indeed, as we have seen, if such growth comes at the expense of equality, sustainability, or the ability to meet essential non-material needs, it may actually impede development and well-being. It becomes, in Daly’s words, “uneconomic growth.” Much current growth, comprised of defensive measures against the negative impacts of earlier growth, can be seen in this way.

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 socio-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 . . . Need time? Eat fast food . . . ), 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 does. 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 (www.happycounts.org) 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 luminaries Juliet Schor, Gus Speth, and others—for strategically moving toward a successful economy without continuous economic growth: work reduction. Americans, who work some of the longest hours among rich countries, are increasingly stressed by overwork; indeed, cardiologist Sarah Speck calls workplace stress “the new tobacco.” It negatively impacts both health and happiness. She says she is now seeing heart attacks among patients in their forties and fifties, while when she started out in medicine a generation ago, she didn’t see them until patients were in their sixties and seventies.

Ironically, such overwork is increasingly combined with underwork—many Americans cannot find sufficient paid employment to meet basic needs, and unemployment, while down a bit in the past couple of years, is still much higher than the United States would have considered acceptable a generation ago.

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 and consumption (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 care-giving. 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.

The organization Take Back Your Time (www.timeday.org) has been working to shorten work time by, among other methods, requiring paid vacation time for American workers, who currently have the shortest vacations in the rich world. Sarah Speck says she often tells her patients to “take two weeks (not two aspirins) and call me in the morning.” But often, they cannot get the time off. The United States is one of only five nations in the world—the others are Nepal, Burma, Suriname, and Guyana—without a paid vacation law, and more than a quarter of American workers (the poorest) have no access to paid vacations and cannot afford to take time off without pay.

Eighty years ago, the U.S. Senate passed a bill that would have made the official American workweek thirty hours, with extra pay for overtime. Today, when we are at least five times more productive per worker hour and are experiencing high levels of unemployment, it’s time to give shorter working hours another look. Doing so would not only provide more access to jobs, it would provide more time for us to take care of our health, families, communities, and environment. Recent studies by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and by researchers at Chalmers Institute of Technology in Sweden have also found that work reduction leads to significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the culprit in climate change.

Some argue that it will be very difficult to change the laws that permit work without end. Again, they forget that it will be far harder to change the laws of physics to permit growth without end. Economic justice and environmental sustainability both require work-time reductions. Conrad Schmidt, of British Columbia’s Work Less Party, puts the solution in simplest terms: Workers of the World, Relax!

  • 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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