Working less: is this how we save the climate?

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If we all work less, we produce less and save the planet on the side. Does this work out?

Teresa Bucker

Corona has brought my family closer together, it was the time together that became free because we didn't have to rush to the office or to the daycare. A privilege I know. If I'm honest, I don't want to go back. Work less, more free time for everyone. Suddenly ecological behavior has a tangible benefit and fulfills long-cherished wishes: more time for family and friends, for relaxation, sleep and hobbies. And more and more often you read that it could also protect the climate if we all reduce our hours. Is that correct?

The idea that a shorter working week also means less CO2 emissions is repeatedly supported by studies. Recently, a number caused quite a stir: In 2019, the British study "The ecological limits of work" calculated the maximum number of hours we should work in this country so that the earth does not warm up by more than two degrees. The result was a maximum of six hours a week. What sounds like a completely absurd future becomes a little more understandable when you consider that we have long been living in a completely absurd present – and pretend we have almost three earths at our disposal. It seems almost plausible that we would have to reduce our working hours to a sixth.

© Paula Winkler / Shutterstock

But fewer working hours also mean less production, i.e. fewer products that we are only too happy to ship to us from the other end of the world. As the economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have recently shown, our economy starts to shake quite a bit when people suddenly only buy the things they actually need. How is this supposed to be when companies only produce what is needed? As a result, business interests in reducing working hours and consumption are extremely low. But we in the global north have also got used to consumption. Even more: The British journalist Madeleine Bunting, who wrote a book about the "overworking culture", even believes that our excessive buying behavior is not only a monetary consequence of work, but is also psychologically related to too much work. That we have to "repair, comfort, restore" ourselves through consumption: the new bag as a reward for the pitch, the outlet shopping trip because the week was so exhausting. We work because we want to consume. But we also consume because we work. Working hours alone do not burden the climate, but the standard of living that is related to it, which we find pleasant or which we absolutely want to achieve.

The facts

Let's get to the specific details: Reducing all jobs one to one is not that easy anyway. As a civil engineer, it is much more difficult to work in a climate-friendly way than for a seller in a second-hand shop. A shorter working week would have very different effects on the carbon footprint of the two professions. The question arises, why do we know the carbon footprint of an avocado but not that of our working day?

So we shouldn't dream of all of us working less altogether, but must begin to clearly define which professions actually harm the climate and which ones save resources. Or quite drastically: The parts of the "globalized, profit-oriented, fossil-fuel-industrial economy (…) that do not serve the common good and cannot be sustainably converted" would have to be pushed back for climate protection, according to the economic historian Matthias Schmelzer and the cultural anthropologist Andrea Vetter .

For workaholics there are "low carbon jobs"

Workaholics could instead let off steam in "low carbon jobs". Especially since the demand for environmentally friendly jobs is already there: There is a lack of skilled workers in care professions such as care for the elderly and in daycare centers. We even need growth here, because no society can do without people taking care of one another.

Would it be radical to demand that high-paying "high carbon jobs" in the mobility, agricultural or textile industries no longer simply be advertised in the future – at least not without the monthly social-eco-hours that you have to do? Or that CO2-intensive work is taxed with an extra eco-tax? If we offset our flights, why not our jobs?

Unfortunately, politicians still shy away from regulating the economy more ecologically. With our current way of life, we are safeguarding jobs, but we run the risk that the planet will not survive. The challenge of a combined climate, labor and economic policy would be to create work that protects the environment and establishes an ecologically prosperous society. Is that feasible?

Tax overtime higher instead of rewarding it

"A society that could be described as modern and sustainable at the same time does not exist anywhere on earth", write the sociologists Bernd Sommer and Harald Welzer in their essay "Sustainability and Utopia". This utopia must guide us in order to preserve the planet. Especially since there are already the first approaches to circular economy, some of which are regulated by the state: France, for example, already banned supermarkets by law in 2016 from throwing away food that is fit for consumption; In order to send a signal against overproduction, a similar regulation is also being planned for clothing. The US economics professor Juliet Schor has even been pleading for decades that advertising should be regulated and taxed higher so that people are less likely to be surrounded by buying impulses in their everyday lives. And she suggests that overtime should be limited by law. Happiness researcher Richard Layard would simply tax overtime higher so that it becomes completely unattractive for employees and bosses and thus no longer triggers the race in society – or the frenzy of competition across entire national borders. Because the fact that poorer countries with a previously lower carbon footprint also strive for the prosperity of the rich countries can hardly be criticized for this.

"We just have to imagine this new normal"

Let's come back to the hypothetical six-hour week. At one point it actually seems to be able to solve a gigantic and very German climate problem: commuting. In 2018, around 19.3 million people drove an average of 17 kilometers to their work, in 2000 there were 14.9 million who covered two kilometers less. Almost three quarters commute by car. But something is happening: in the first few weeks of the pandemic, according to a survey, the number of those who work from home from time to time rose from a little more than one in three to almost one in two. This could actually have gigantic consequences for the climate. For example, a study commissioned by Greenpeace showed that an additional home office day would save 1.6 million tons of CO2 per year because there would be less commuting.

But here, too, there is one but: if the goal is that we all work less and, above all, less on site, telcos in pajamas are not enough. The world of work also needs a radically different urban planning that brings people and work closer together. Comprehensive and safe bike paths, public transport networks and a rental policy that no longer pushes people to cheap outskirts while they continue to commute to the cities.

Who am I if I am not defined by my job?

But a radically shortened working week also harbors problems: Firstly, for many people, their salary barely covers the cost of living. Lower wages would therefore push a large part of society even more to the edge of the subsistence level. There is also the connection between work, money and identity. Many associate consumption with freedom, self-fulfillment, social acceptance. This raises questions: How do others behave when you suddenly live more modestly? Who am I if I no longer define myself through the job? What am I doing with all this time? We must first learn to no longer focus on gainful employment. Working less would therefore also be a major social transformation in which people would have to reinvent themselves no less than. Especially since more free time does not automatically mean less consumption of resources. Or to put it another way: What good is a four-day week when the extended weekend trips lead to the other end of the continent?

What does it all mean?

Reducing hours alone won't fix it. To stop the climate crisis, we have to think bigger and be much more self-critical. When growing up, being successful and a modern society means for us that our own standard of living must constantly increase, the shorter working week and an intact environment are a long way off. Reprogramming our identity and advocating the utopia of a modern, sustainable society politically will be a tough project. As many people as possible must want to get involved globally to rethink prosperity – perhaps as time prosperity. And learn not to have to rush from A to B anymore, to want to rush. A future in which people themselves determine their own lives again and not the job dictates everyday life, could mean a future for an intact climate. We just have to want to imagine this new normal.

Who writes here: Teresa Bücker

Why you should know them: Because nobody debates the uterus so confidently and intelligently with CDU politicians. Whether on a political show stage or on Twitter.

Green Struggle: Despite having two children, the question is: Do offspring pollute the environment or are children the climate protectors of tomorrow?

Anger moment: With every bike ride without a bike path in dangerous city traffic. Where is the promised traffic turnaround?

Would you like to read more about the topic and exchange ideas with other women? Then take a look at the BRIGITTE community's "Society Forum" past!

BE GREEN 02.2020: Cover

In BE GREEN, BRIGITTE's new sustainability magazine, you can read the exclusive interview with Greenfluencer Marie Nasemann: "I don't want to fuel the fashion madness anymore."

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BRIGITTE BE GREEN 02/2020