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One Approach To Sustainability: Work Less

by John de Graaf

hand%20with%20time.gif About six years ago, I addressed the annual state conference of the Associated Recyclers of Wisconsin, an organization of private and public waste managers. The topic of my talk, “Haste Makes Waste,” was focused on overwork and overconsumption. I told the assembled solid-waste handlers, “if you want to reduce landfills, reduce working hours.”

I argued that the long hours we in the United States work -- some 300 more per year than western Europeans -- mean we are more likely to rely on “convenience” and disposable items, such as heavily-packaged fast foods and single-use goods. I told my audience that many people had told me they were “too pressed for time even to recycle.” Moreover, our long work hours allow us to produce and buy more and more “stuff,” resulting in a greater pressure on resources and an inevitably stream of more waste.

A few members of the audience told me they agreed with my remarks, but I’m sure most thought I was pretty far out. Since then, the arguments for cutting working time to save the planet have only gotten more compelling.

I’m all for the new greener technologies and alternative energy strategies, but by themselves, they won’t stop climate change or create a sustainable society. To do so, we need to think outside the box and apply whole systems thinking to the ecological and social problems we face. To create a sustainable society, we’ll need to work less to have more of what we truly need: time.


With their long vacations and far shorter working hours, Europeans are consistently far healthier than Americans -- after the age of 50, they are only about half as likely to suffer from chronic illnesses such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and even cancer. They are only half a likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and they spend only half as much on average as we do for health care. Studies show their better health results from more exercise, more socializing with friends and families, less stress and more sleep; all of these are made possible by having more time.

Europeans are not only more personally sustainable (they live longer!), but they are also more environmentally sustainable. On average, they produce only about half the amount of air pollution, use half as much energy and produce half as much solid waste and greenhouse carbon per capita as we do; all while enjoying a similar material lifestyle. Their average “ecological footprint,” at 12 acres per person, is also about half that of ours. They are far from perfect (since their lifestyles still would require two and half planets if reproduced everywhere), but their ecological impact is far less than ours.

A December, 2006, study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research provided strong evidence that if Americans were to reduce their working hours to European levels, they could drastically cut their energy use by as much as 26 percent, nearly meeting key Kyoto climate change targets. This is a massive reduction. Combine this with advances in clean energy technology, and we could reduce our impacts even further.

The study argued that by reducing work hours, Americans would reduce the energy used for transportation (with more time, Europeans are far more likely to walk, bike or take public transit), and even more importantly, that they would reduce the energy necessary for the production of goods – as Americans trade time for money, they would consume and produce less.


In response to escalating fuel costs, many companies are now considering going to a four-day work week. They believe this will save large sums on commuter fuel expenses and reduce traffic congestion. The problem is that they mean four 10-hour days. But for many American families in which both parents work, such long days will intensify daily stress.

Families will find less time to take care of tasks on the home front, or to exercise, eat properly and so forth; and families with young children will be hit particularly hard -- imagine leaving children in daycare 10 or more hours a day. The health impacts could be severe. There will be increased pressure to reduce commute times (since the work day is already so long), encouraging more high-energy (automobile) commuting to get to and from work faster so as to have more time at home. Moreover, businesses will see a clear decline in hourly productivity, since fatigue sets in rapidly after eight hours on the job.

The real solution to this problem is to go to a four-day workweek of eight-hour days. Total production would be reduced slightly, but this will make us more sustainable. The commuting/energy benefits of the four-day week would be kept, without the negatives. We could expect significant reductions in energy and resource use, and in health problems and health care costs. Talk about a win-win situation! The Center for a New American Dream, a Maryland non-profit, has had such a 32-hour work week for 10 years, with excellent results for productivity, creativity and worker morale.


In 2002, together with a group of colleagues, I started TAKE BACK YOUR TIME to promote the idea of trading gains in productivity for time instead of stuff. In our view, such a strategy would leave Americans healthier, happier, and more connected to each other, their communities and the environment. Increasingly, the evidence is mounting that we were on the right track. We are now working on campaign to pass a law in the United States guaranteeing paid vacation for workers (the United States is currently the only industrial nation without such a law). But the campaign is about more than passing the law; it’s about generating a new national dialogue about the importance of time.

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The diseases mentioned in the 2nd section are also specifically linked to meat consumption. And America eats 1.6 times the amount of meat as Europeans. So as well as lifestyle differences this is also an important factor.

We should also remember the effect of meat eating in any discussion about the environment. I know that World Changing is ahead of the game in this department :)

More details on this response:

Posted by: Alistair Dark on 20 Jun 08

This is a way to get us to "More Time, Less Carbon" -- a thoughtful proposal for new policy that will be especially useful to 'extreme commuters' in the country where people drive far more miles to and from work than anywhere else in the world.

Presidential candidates: this beats the 'gas holiday' hands-down!

I do think, though, that a four-hours-longer 36-Hour Work Week of four nine-hour days will be easier to sell to American policymakers and Americans themselves. A federal redefinition of the "full-time" workweek as 36 hours would enable the widest possible adoption of four-day workweeks and reduce commuting -- and the time workers spend in clogged traffic, and commuting's CO2 emissions -- by one-fifth for the affected workers while reducing work time by one-tenth: a great gain!

I suggest two further articles:
"Sixteen Reasons For The Four-Day Work Week", at and
"More Time,Less Carbon: the 36-Hour 4-Day Work Week",

Posted by: Gregory Wright on 21 Jun 08

Let us take a moment to identify global challenges that are emerging and converging in our planetary home. Of course, this is a partial list to which other threats to human and environmental health can be added.

1. Unregulated human overpopulation of Earth
2. Unwelcome human-induced effects of global warming in particular and climate change in general
3. Human-driven pollution of Earth's environs
4. Reckless dissipation of Earth's resources by the human species, with particular attention to the challenges posed by peak oil and peak soil.
5. Relentless expansion of the unbridled global economy.

These distinctly human activities appear to be overspreading the surface of Earth on such a gigantic scale and at so astounding a growth rate that scientists can make projections indicating a noticeable risk to life as we know it and to the integrity of Earth, perhaps in these early years of Century XXI. That is to say, Earth cannot much longer sustain unrestrained human population growth, unrestricted per human consumption and unchecked economic globalization without running the risk precipitating some kind of global ecological catastrophe.

Posted by: Steven Earl Salmony on 21 Jun 08

I've noticed increasing talk about quality of life issues in the mainstream media lately. The kind of talks where people compare GDP to people's happiness and health. I think this discussion of reduced work hours has to be part of that as well.

My only comment to the negative would be that defining full-time as 36 hours instead of 40 may mean having to pay more overtime or hire more employees to allow employers to not pay overtime assuming overall they still need the same number of man-hours per week. I'd appreciate an explanation of how that would work, technically speaking.

Posted by: Jarrett on 21 Jun 08

Has anyone given any thought to the way we offer consumer services? Do we really need to buy soap at 4:00am? Why do so many businesses need to stay open so late at night?

I remember when I was very young that no businesses were open on Saturdays past 6:00pm, and no one was open at all on Sundays, except for Denny's. I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, so this was not just a small town phenomenon. People knew that businesses were not always open, and learned to adjust to this, by thinking ahead, and gettng what they needed in advance.

What does this mean? I also remember that neighbors and families had more time to spend with each other, and lives weren't so stressful. Life was not all about keeping up with the Jones. This was late 70s, early 80s, so we are not too far removed from these times.

I believe we as a country of "consumers" have been sold a "need" for 24 hour convenience, a need which did not exist 15-20 years ago. We could all return to this prior mindset, and save energy, and time at the same time. Wouldn't that be nice?

Posted by: Nicole Moss on 23 Jun 08

as a reply to Nicole Moss, i think the 24 hour convenience stores are the result of the hectic lifestyles we face as americans. with everyone working so much in the week it is hard to plan ahead and get all the daily chores done in time to allow grocery stores and such to close earlier in the day. I totally agree with this article in that limiting work weeks to 4 days will help make us greener, but i think having a format such as working 7 hours m/w/f and working 8 hours tues/thurs will be a better sell. no government in the world will go with the 4 day work week idea especially the US or Canada because we are globally competing for resources and contracts with other nations and producing less means essentially shrinking our economy.

Posted by: David Shults on 23 Jun 08

Interesting post about the four-day workweek here:

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 23 Jun 08

I appreciate the spirit of this movement. It is logical in its approach but fails to account for the illogical behavior that got us in this mess in the first place.

This is the corollary to the "Consume less" movement - whose track record is abysmal. Many decades later and no only have Americans by and large not responded to "consume less" but the developing world is trying to get in the consumption game too. So that's a net gain of billions in 'consume more" camp.

I say - work and consume smarter! Consumption need not be evil - we are just not very good at it right now and have not had reason to be. Cradle-to-Cradle thinking can design the harm out of consumption if we get the economic feedbacks right.

Any solution is going to need to account for the limited capacity of humans to overcome our "vices". Just think of all the people that eat and drink themselves to death. We are human and though some of us will reach an enlightened state that allows for moderation in our short lives, most will not.

So harness the power of the psychologically unstable workaholics in our wonder filled planet and get them solving our problems - cause if you ask them to work less, they will just look for a second job!

I can hear it now: "but those people will over consume with their fat paychecks!"
My response: I am ready to retire, so let those guys kill themselves working and I'll be happy making decent money. Plus, if we get it right, they will solve the problem by unlinking consumption from destruction!

Then we can get back to the very important task we all face of reaching enlightenment. Which us enviro's have unfairly cornered the market on.

Posted by: Bill on 23 Jun 08

I wouldn't have thought much about this until I moved to Australia! Here everyone gets a minimum of 4wks vacation, and people work shorter hours than in the states. There is no doubt that it adds to the quality of life, and I do find that I have more time to grow a garden, take walks/use public transport, and other such things. But I think this is only one small part of a solution.

Thanks for sharing this!

Posted by: eddie on 23 Jun 08

when the economy crashes due to Peak oil and housing/debt bubble there will be so few jobs that redistribution of work to as many people as possible will be necessary.

Posted by: glacticsurfer on 24 Jun 08

I don’t think having a four day week will help the cause. A holiday doesn’t mean people won’t go out. Also a 10 hour week would mean low efficiency which will hit the company hard. We need to come up with better transport facilities. I would like to get your views on sustainability on our blog

Posted by: aditya on 24 Jun 08

Don't forget that the savings from not commuting disappear during cold winters as people must heat their homes.

4 day weeks during the summer months? I could subscribe to that!

Posted by: Scatter on 24 Jun 08

Along the same lines of argument...

Workers of the World Relax - The simple economics of Less Industrial Work

Posted by: Steve on 24 Jun 08

I would love to work 4 days a week. Though I can't work 10 hour days, and would not want to anyway. I have a kid in school, and there is no way I'll send him somewhere for 11 hours (10 + commute time). I have learned that I can work 4 days, 32 hours week at this place. Business is so bad, they are open to non-standard work weeks. But, that would come with a 20% salary cut. I can't afford that at this time. At least not voluntareely.

Posted by: scifichick on 24 Jun 08

Actually, most U.S. workers can just practice civil disobedience on this one. Unless you are actually an hourly employee, your work week is not determined by the number of hours you work. You are called "exempt" because your employer doesn't pay you more or less no matter how long you are at work. Ride the bus. Ride a bike to work. Walk to work. If your manager asks, say you had a meeting. Or a flat. Or you turned your ankle. Go home early enough to have a nice evening. When it is time to take a vacation, get sick a week before you leave and stay sick a week after you get back. Make a simple rule, like only shop on Monday, and keep it. The net effect on your life and the planet is what we are looking for, not getting legislation passed, right?

Posted by: Joe Bell on 24 Jun 08

Totally agree with you this. Work itself should be gradually eliminated. If we only multiplied in proportion to our resources we would have no need for climate and fuel worries. If we don't and somehow manage to fix these issues, new ones will crop up in their place, as it has been throughout history.
Visit this site for the real solution - the perfect world theory -

Posted by: Sanju Paison on 27 Jun 08



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