The events of the past few years—financial meltdown of 2008, the failed Copenhagen talks and increasing climate destabilization, the BP oil disaster, and the financial crises in the Eurozone—make it clear that the business-as-usual economy is both wreaking havoc on the planet and failing on its own terms. But so far, the conversation about how to transform this economic model has been stuck in neutral. Traveling around North America discussing my new book, Plenitude, I am increasingly convinced that a key obstacle to moving forward is a lack of confidence that there is another way. To gain that confidence, we need to articulate a model of how a sustainable economy could work.
The core insight of my model is the need to transform how people spend their time. Its first principle is to reverse the increased in time devoted to the market that has occurred in recent decades. (The US, most of the global South and some OECD countries have experienced rising hours.) In the US, annual hours of work rose more than 200 from 1973 to 2006. Longer hours raise the ecological footprint, both because of more production, and because time-stressed households have higher-impact lifestyles. Getting to sustainability will require slowing down the pace of life, which means working less.
Shorter hours are also key to solving the unemployment crisis. In the US, it will require 11 million new jobs to return to pre-crash levels. That breaks down to 500,000 new jobs a month for almost two years. That’s an unrealistic number, unless we address hours of work. In comparison to Western European countries, where hours are much shorter, the U.S. has to generate between 6 and 20% more in Gross Domestic Production to create each new job.
The recession has gotten us started down this road. When it began the workweek stood at 34.1 hours, but by April of 2010 it was 33.3. A rising workweek is a strong desiderata of recovery for mainstream economists, but they fail to see that it makes job creation harder, contributes to stress among employees, and exacerbates ecological degradation. Declining hours could re-balance the labor market and free up time for people to engage in low-impact, self-providing activities that reduce their dependence on the market. These include growing food, generating energy, building housing, and making small-scale manufactured goods, such as apparel and household items.
This do-it-yourself activity is highly satisfying for people, because it helps them learn new skills and allows them to be creative. It also turns out to be the catalyst for start-up businesses and second careers as people take their newfound skills and passions and earn money with them. Freeing up time from the formal market is one condition for incubating a green, small business sector. Self-providing is also part of how we can construct more economic interdependence. As people begin to do more self-providing, they barter, trade, and share on a local level. This builds wealth in social capital, which enhances well-being and security.
Finally, the fourth principle of plenitude is that people will consume differently. With more time and less disposable income, they’ll shift to buying fewer new products, and prefer goods that are longer lasting and repairable. They’ll also participate more in economies of re-sale and exchange. I call that “true materialism,” a consumer practice that respects the materiality of the earth.
Perhaps the most important dimension of plenitude, in contrast to the dominant discourse on sustainability, is that it is not a techno-fix. We do need to change the technologies we use, especially in the energy sector. But this model shows us that we can move a long way toward sustainability by focusing on how we spend our time and organize our economic lives. Shifting to slow, small-scale, low impact ways of living and producing can yield dramatic reductions in footprint, even without new technological systems.