Climate Change, Economic Growth, and Work Hours

Juliet Schor, Guest Blogger

Economist Juliet Schor is known worldwide for her research on the interrelated issues of work, leisure, and consumption. Her books on these themes include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (retitled True Wealth for its paperback edition). She is also a professor of sociology at Boston College.

I have a hard time thinking about the future without orienting all of my thinking about climate, because I just don’t see much of a positive future unless we can address climate change very significantly. And that means, for wealthy countries, pretty radical emissions cuts in a pretty short period of time. It actually means that for most countries.

So, as I think about the future, I think about what we could do that both addresses climate change through radical emissions reductions and also increases social justice, reduces inequality, and starts solving the enormous problems that we have in this country. My most recent book, True Wealth, is about how to do that. Obviously we need to get onto a renewable energy system, there’s no question about that. We need a carbon tax or carbon regulation, and that’s stuff that is very well known.

What is not understood, I don’t think, is that we can’t successfully address climate change with a model in which we continue to try to expand the size of the economy.

We’re going to have to deal with working hours, because that’s the only way to stop expanding the size of the economy in any sensible way. So the core of what we need to do is to get back on the trajectory of using productivity growth to reduce hours of work. And that then opens up incredible possibilities in terms of rebalancing the labor market, integrating the unemployed, and having a fairer distribution of hours.

We’re talking about the distribution of income, but not about the distribution of hours, which is one of the things that drives the distribution of income. So, fair access to the work that exists, giving people more time off from work, and doing much more as a society—and probably a lot on the local and community level—to ensure basic needs for people.

With declining work hours, people’s incomes are pretty much stabilized, so you need to bring the incomes of the bottom up, and you need to bring the incomes of the top down. Part of that has to be a redistribution of work opportunity and creating community provisioning of basic needs, like publicly-owned utilities which provide power and heat for people at reasonable prices, enhanced public transportation, more public provisioning of food.

There are really interesting things going on in global South countries bringing farmers and consumers together in local food economies that are not just about high-priced organic food, which is what we have here [in the United States], but low-priced food that ensures food security for people.

So, shorter hours, basic needs being met—including housing, education, healthcare—that’s the direction I would like to see us go, and I think that really it all flows out from a kind of commitment to climate protection. It could all flow out from a commitment to basic needs, too. They really integrate.

Time use is central, and I think you get a totally different culture of consumption if people’s incomes are on a basically stabilized trajectory and what they’re getting is more and more free time. So, you have a new culture of consumption that is not about the acquisition of the new, it’s not the “work and spend” pattern as I’ve called it, it’s not “throw away” or media driven, it’s more “true materialist,” where you really pay attention to the things you have, and it’s a kind of earthier consumption.

This blog post is an excerpt from the interview “The Future of Work, Leisure, and Consumption in an Age of Economic and Ecological Crisis,” originally published in the September/October issue of Dollars & Sense. You can see the full interview here.

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