With climate change threatening life as we know it, perhaps it's time to revive the forgotten goal of spending less time on our jobs
She does concede that there is a direct connection between energy use and climate change, and that most economic activity uses energy. Zabin also said there was a clear and measurable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions during the Great Recession that began with the 2008 economic crash, when economic growth stalled and unemployment was high.
"When we're in recessions and output and consumption slow, we see a reduction in impact on the climate," Zabin said, although she added, "They're correlated, but they're not causal."
Other studies have made direct connections between work and energy use, at least when averaged out across the population, studies that Rosnick cited in his study. "Recent work estimated that a 1 percent increase in annual hours per employee is associated with a 1.5 percent increase in carbon footprint," it said, citing the 2012 Knight study.
Zabin's main stumbling block was a political one, rooted in the assumption that American-style capitalism, based on conspicuous consumption, would continue more or less as is. "Politically, reducing economic growth is really, really unviable," she told us, noting how that would hurt the working class.
But again, doesn't that just assume that the pain of an economic slowdown couldn't be more broadly shared, with the rich absorbing more of the impact than they have so far? Can't we move to an economic system that is more sustainable and more equitable?
"It seems a little utopian when we have a problem we need to address by reducing energy use," Zabin said before finally taking that next logical step: "If we had socialism and central planning, we could shut the whole thing down a notch."
Instead, we have capitalism, and she said, "we have a climate problem that is probably not going to be solved anyway."
So we have capitalism and unchecked global warming, or we can have a more sustainable system and socialism. Hmm, which one should we pick? European leaders have already started opting for the latter option, slowing down their economic output, reducing work hours, and substantially lowering the continent's carbon footprint.
That brings us back to the basic question set forth in the Rosnick study: As productivity increases, should those gains go to increase the wages of workers or to reduce their hours? From the perspective of global warming, the answer is clearly the latter. But that question is complicated in US these days by the bosses, investors, and corporations keeping the productivity gains for themselves.
"It is worth noting that the pursuit of reduced work hours as a policy alternative would be much more difficult in an economy where inequality is high and/or growing. In the United States, for example, just under two-thirds of all income gains from 1973-2007 went to the top 1 percent of households. In that type of economy, the majority of workers would have to take an absolute reduction in their living standards in order to work less. The analysis of this paper assumes that the gains from productivity growth will be more broadly shared in the future, as they have been in the past," the study concludes.
So it appears we have some work to do, and that starts with making a connection between Earth Day and May Day.
EARTH DAY TO MAY DAY
The Global Climate Convergence (www.globalclimateconvergence.org) grew out of a Jan. 18 conference in Chicago that brought together a variety of progressive, environmental, and social justice groups to work together on combating climate change. They're planning "10 days to change course," a burst of political organizing and activism between Earth Day and May Day, highlighting the connection between empowering workers and saving the planet.