Monday, July 7, 2008

From work and spend to work and, well, more work

This little essay is a work in progress. It may is a little rough, but I'm letting you have it all the same. I guess, when it comes down to it, what I'm trying to say is that the cost of living and leisure time rewards of environmental living are harder to reap if you live within a culture that still prioritizes consumption.

One of the things I often talk about is how about building community and spending more time with kids, for example, would make us happier than does the huge material consumption we have become accustomed to. Indeed, to my way of thinking, one of the top benefits of a lifestyle or culture that prioritizes a respect for and effective use of resources would be more leisure time.

Because if you use fewer resources then you get to spend less time digging them out of the ground, moving them around, molding them into the stuff you want, and working to pay for them. Juliet Schor says in her book the Overworked American that, because of productivity increases, if we accepted a 1948 standard of living (in terms of goods and services and, presumably, levels of resource consumption), we could have a four hour work day or take every other year off.

But instead of getting more leisure time as productivity goes up, we tend to get more income. American employers, for a host of reasons including training and turnover costs, would much rather have fewer workers toiling all the hours than double the workers with a more leisurely schedule.

So we get a harried schedule where American workers put a full work-month more every year than their European counterparts. In return, we get disposable income which we can exchange for consolation prizes at the nearby mall.

Long working hours, in other words, deserves some of the blame for our environmental catastrophe. They help fuel the lust for stuff. They also get the blame for stress-related heart disease and psychological problems and kids who don't get to see their parents enough and not enough time with friends and on and on. Unhappier planet, unhappier people.

And for a while there, during the No Impact experiment, in addition to letting go of the material pleasures, we worked really hard at filling our lives with the non-material satisfactions. Friends came over and played charades. We had more dinner parties. We spent a lot of time with Isabella doing stuff like splashing in the Washington Square fountain.

What I had postulated proved to be true: that time spent doing inherently satisfying things that were free and didn't use planetary resources made us happier than spending the same time working to pay for things that weren't free and did use resources but which advertisers suggested would bring the same satisfactions.

What I didn't realize at the time was that I was able to make this work because of the structure of my work life as a book author. Typically, I have a lazy year with lots of leisure (research) and then a crazy busy stressful year with nothing but work (writing).

The charades and water fountains all happened during the research year. Now, I'm working all the hours and, believe me, I'm not throwing too many dinner parties--however much they might contribute to my life satisfaction.

I've been feeling guilty about this, and never more so than on Friday night at the Hudson River Park. That night, my three-year-old Isabella and I sat on the grass. She pretended to be a teacher at her school and instructed me to be Isabella. At one point, presumably reflecting something that happened at school, she grabbed me by the chin and said, "Isabella, if you don't stop talking you will have to stay in the classroom while everyone else gets to go play in the school yard."

Well, here's the thing. I don't want Isabella to stop talking. I want her to talk and talk and talk. I love when she talks. The best thing I ever hear is, "I want to tell you something, Daddy." What is going on in my life that every day she goes to a place where someone might tell her not to talk?

And this quote from Juliet Schor's book, referring to the beginning of the industrial revolution, didn't make me feel much better: "Putting little children to work at school for very long hours at very dull subjects was seen as a positive virtue, for it made them 'habituated, not to say naturalized, to labour and fatigue.'"

Oh hell, I'm probably just suffering from the growing pains of being a dad, here, but the point is, I don't feel right about the amount of time Isabella spends in nursery school, and even though I'm not a consumer and I'm not spending money on stuff, there isn't much I can do about it.

I'm not reaping all the benefits, in other words, of living environmentally. I'm not getting the leisure time to spend with my girl and I'm not entirely sure why. Partly, it's, as I said, the structure of my work. But why, while I'm working so hard, couldn't Michelle, say, work fewer hours?

Partly because we still need two incomes and partly because jobs aren't structured that way. There is something problematic about trying to move towards a less consumptive lifestyle while living within a culture that still puts facilitation of consumption first.

In a world that recognized the satisfactions of family life beyond the need to produce and consume, perhaps Michelle's work would be more flexible. Perhaps part of the reason we need two incomes is that, even though we consume less and would gladly work less, the high cost of living reflects what people who are stuck in the work-to-spend-to-consume treadmill are willing to pay.

Perhaps a culture that used productivity increases so we could work less instead of spend more--that put non-material satisfactions before material ones--prices would reflect the need to spend less. Who knows?

What I'm trying to say is that the benefits of living a non-consumptive lifestyle would improve in a society that prioritized the values of human and planetary happiness. This is part of why it's important to work for cultural change as well as to changing our individual lifestyles.

The good news: that in a culture less centered on stuff and use of material resources, those of us who want to might be able to spend more time with our kids. Perhaps, too, it will be a world where we don't have to habituate our children to labour and fatigue. And one where our three year olds can talk as much as they damn well please.

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