Introduction by Croakey: There are growing calls for drastic cuts to the working week to help fight climate change, including from a discussion paper released earlier this year by UK progressive think tank Autonomy and also long-term challenges to the ‘growth at all costs’ approach that still rules global economies and threatens the planet.
Claire Martens, senior communications officer at the African Natural Justice organisation, explores the possibilities and responsibilities in the thought-provoking piece below.
We are at a point in history where hard choices have to be made. We exist in a system that is finite and is slowly crumbling. What my radical friends have known for ages is slowly becoming a normal way of thinking — our current system (capitalism) is not only leading to massive inequalities, but sending us spiralling into a climate catastrophe.”
Her article was originally published at the Daily Maverick, and is republished here as part of Croakey’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 300 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
Claire Martens writes:
Many years ago, I remember being disturbed by an article about how there won’t be enough jobs in the future for everyone. Having experienced my own struggle to find work, I remembered clearly the dark depression that hovered as I waited to hear back about my applications.
As terrifying as the weight of such uncertainty on my shoulders was, it bothered me more that, because I wanted a job, someone else might go without. Further, because of the economic narrative we are buying into, finding a job won’t just be difficult for millions, but has become impossible.
Was there something I could do?
I posted a question on Facebook: “Would you work for half the time if it meant that someone else would also get to have a job?”
No one commented.
It is probably unthinkable to anyone that they would take a decision that would cut their earnings in half, simply for the sake of fairness, and not because they had to. Of course, in my naivety, my immediate thought was that cutting jobs in half would solve the unemployment crisis.
But all these years on, I am starting to see that maybe I was on to something. I don’t mean dividing jobs in half, but rather, spending less time working. We should be moving away from the current labour market towards a system where we have more time for family, community and the natural world. Our labour does not define us, but what we leave for the Earth does.
With this in mind, I want to make the case for giving four days to the Earth – and by Earth, I also mean community.
We are at a point in history where hard choices have to be made. We exist in a system that is finite and is slowly crumbling. What my radical friends have known for ages is slowly becoming a normal way of thinking — our current system (capitalism) is not only leading to massive inequalities, but sending us spiralling into a climate catastrophe. For those like me working in the environmental sector, we are desperately scrambling for answers.
Over the past few months, I have been working for a non-profit that believes in advancing the rights of indigenous people and local communities, peoples who hold the key to protecting our biodiversity. Traditional knowledge and community practices have helped them to live in harmony with nature for centuries. There were fundamental principles that communities lived by, and a deep connection to the Earth that continues to be inexplicable and sacred. The tragedy of the commons did not exist in a world where you only took what you needed and lived directly in relation to the Earth.
So, how do we reconnect with the Earth? That’s easy. Spend less time in cars, behind computer screens and rushing from place to place. Devote more time to true connection — to the natural world and to each other.
While I’m sure it is not necessarily original, I first thought of the phrase, “four days for the Earth” when I read an article by Kevin Bloom in which he quotes a San healer as saying, “Four days a week must be ecosystem work…” Of course, it’s not clear what that means, but my interpretation was: more of our week should be devoted to something outside of labouring for the capitalist system — anything from cultivating a garden, to spending more time with family. Our communities used to be one and the same with the Earth, but now we hold our individual selves superior, losing the deep connection to the extraordinary — to the self-regulating, infinitely adaptive and ever-changing ecosystem that is Earth.
For most people deep into their nine-to-five full-time occupation, cutting back on workdays is not a conceivable option, is it?
Yet, this could work, and be an easier adjustment than you think. Of course, I am deeply aware of how privileged you would have to be to be able to take a pay cut, and still support your family. I am also painfully aware of how few people are working, especially in South Africa, and how many side industries are reliant on the fact that we are bound to the current economic model. But for those of us with the jobs, we don’t need as much money as the current model tells us we need, and we certainly don’t need this version of the “good life” currently being sold to us.
Money does not provide happiness, community does. It’s not about what we are giving up, but what we are giving to.
The case for working less
There are more and more articles arguing for a four-day workweek, or even three. In June, the Guardian reported that, “One analysis found that if we spent 10% less time working, our carbon footprint would be reduced by 14.6%. If we cut the hours we work by 25% – or a day and a quarter each week – our carbon footprint would decline by 36.6%.”
This was a revelation to me and should be to many.
Cutting back your working days does not just reduce your carbon emissions, it also reduces your reliance on the convenience economy which creates so much waste in its processing. So much energy is spent fuelling the current economy, that downsizing it means reducing its carbon impact.
When it comes to maintaining your current lifestyle, in some ways you will actually save money; you would have fewer childcare costs, pay less insurance and fuel costs and ditch the gym for time outdoors.
If you have more time to spend with your family, you will cease to need those holidays in far-off island paradises (and considering that sea-level rise is resulting in the disappearance of some islands, there will be fewer “island paradises” in the future).
If we need to fly across the world to escape from our lives, then we are probably not doing the right kind of living anyway.
The case for ‘working’ for something else
I don’t want to make more of a case for the three days that we will be working in the current labouring system. The disruptive shift I am advocating for is not about the number of hours less that we will be working, but how our focus will shift to well-being in the true sense — a being that is well, that is healthy and resilient and connected.
I came across the concept of “eudaimonia” while reading about well-being as defined in the Latin American index, “Índice de vida saludable y bien vivida”. Eudaimonia is achieved when basic needs are met, but also when people are able to devote their free time to “leisure, reflection and introspection, interpersonal relationships, love, erotism, and to participation in public life”.
Throughout my life, I have believed my value lies in my labour. My whole life has been structured around that labour, being free from it only at birth and I will gain back my time when (and if) I retire.
I have lived in places where I can provide my labour, accessed the products and services that are required of me to allow me to labour — the education, clothes, cars and computers — then used the fruits of that labour, money, to escape that system, but only for a few days at a time (while on holiday).
I no longer buy this. In War Talk, Arundhati Roy gifts us this beautiful quote:
The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.”
And I believe it.
‘More time’ is the great disruptor
A few weeks back I attended a noticeably middle-class discussion on the climate crisis in South Africa and one of the key questions that arose was, “what can I do?”
One panellist urged the crowd to “leverage” what they had control over, although many still struggled to identify this “magic wand”.
The answer was easy for me. We were all employees or employers; the leverage will be the labour system. When we stop seeing ourselves in relation to the capitalist economic system, but rather as valuable social creatures, then we can start to disrupt the system. We no longer have to buy what the labouring system has sold us.
So, what does “four days for the Earth” entail? I am not entirely sure, but I think the more time we have to contemplate it, the more likely we are to discover it.
By not being part of the system, we will get a perspective on our lives we never had before. I think we will begin to see that this is not a time to be holding on to our “good lives” — because they are shrivelled, insular and blind.
We need to meet our immediate needs, yes, and that can be done in three days of labour. But then we need to devote the rest of the time to something greater than ourselves.
It’s about going within, about reconnecting to our histories, to simpler times, to smaller worlds. We get to keep some of our conveniences, those things that make our lives infinitely better, like vaccinations and modern technologies, but start to look around us and start to focus on our communities and the natural world. The great disruptor is more time.
Let us start to change the values. In Deep Adaption, Professor Jem Bendell says, “…we can conceive of resilience of human societies as the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances so as to survive with valued norms and behaviours. Given that analysts are concluding that a social collapse is inevitable, the question becomes: What are the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive?”
Let us look to the values of a previous era, ones that still remain in certain indigenous societies. In South Africa, we have ubuntu, but there are so many others involving reciprocity, bartering and shared responsibility. Four days for the Earth could be one of those values, and I truly believe it will make a difference.
All around me, I already see people making small differences to the communities they come from, from creating free “Libraries of Things” to creating spaces for recycling initiatives, starting social enterprises and doing clothes swops, developing training programmes, mentoring youth, guerilla gardening — the list continues. I am also impressed with the thinking coming from those advocating for the “reciprocity” or “solidarity” economy.
These ideas are not radical, nor are the values they are based on, but they are essential if we are going to reconnect with what really matters, and save ourselves in the process.
I want to reiterate, once more, how conscious I am that I live in a country with extremely deficient formal employment opportunities. I know that the informal economy, as well as the social grant system, are literally keeping people from starving to death. Deeply fragmented and deeply unequal, we will not easily overcome the challenges we face. But if nothing else, now is the time for us to embark on a collective struggle against the most pressing issue we will ever face, climate collapse. Detaching ourselves from our worth as labourers, dismantling capitalism in the process and having more time for community and Earth may be the only way forward.
Claire Martens is the senior communications officer at Natural Justice, an Africa-based organisation specialising in human rights and environmental law in pursuit of social and environmental justice.
This article is published as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration involving more than 300 media outlets around the world that is putting the spotlight on the climate crisis in the leadup to a Climate Action Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 September. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian. Croakey invites our readers, contributors and social media followers to engage with these critical discussions, using the hashtag #CoveringClimateNow. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.