The United States leads the world in two categories: work and waste. American employees put in more hours and take fewer vacations than just about anyone else in the industrialized world, and our individual ecological "footprints" are much larger.
Coincidence? I think not. The way we work drives our habits of consumption and waste. The more we work, the more we drive, the more energy we burn, the more styrofoam to-go containers we use. At the end of the day, we're so tired, we devour more takeout and TV, often falling asleep in front of the latter. If we want to accelerate the recent trend of reducing waste, it may be time to consider the radical step of, well, relaxing more, consuming less, and living fuller lives. May the Wall Street Journal editorial board strike me down.
Working less is a radical notion today, but it hasn't always been. Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, work hours declined steadily in the industrialized world. In 1956, then-vice president Richard Nixon said that a four-day workweek was "not too far distant." But men today report working 100 more hours a year than in 1976. For women, it's 200-plus hours. All these extra hours have helped more than double the productivity of the American worker in the past half-century — but they have also increased our energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions.
Naturally, most businesses blanch at the notion of giving up any competitive edge in a globalized economy. But it's not as if moving to a four-day (or 32-hour) workweek would simply lop 20% off the economy. Cutting hours may actually raise per-hour productivity. France, home of the 35-hour week, creates more GDP per work hour than the United States ($37 versus $34, as of 2003). Norway spanks us too ($39), and Norwegians work 26% fewer hours a year than Americans. It's a myth of modern hypercapitalism that an overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed-out workforce is a necessity. Studies have consistently shown that longer workweeks increase productivity only in the very short term. In a recent survey by Salary.com, workers copped to wasting about 20% of the average day Web surfing and gossiping. Sound familiar?
For many years, some lonely crusaders have argued that working less improves the health and well-being of workers, reducing sick days and social alienation. Alas, seemingly none of the newly minted "green" businesses have experimented with fewer hours yet. Some companies are fiddling around the margins with telecommuting and flextime. After many hours searching, the only outfit I could find that is trying a shorter workweek is a nonprofit called the Center for a New American Dream, which advocates for conscious consumerism and work-life balance. "We don't consider our work part time," says executive director Lisa Wise. "We pay a full-time wage and do full-time work within a 32-hour week."
Admittedly, exchanging some of our wealth for downtime is an idea that tacks hard against our Protestant work ethic. But the alternative is bleak: If everyone adopted the U.S. work- and-waste model, global temperatures could go up 4.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. The resulting floods, droughts, and diseases would generate an economic hit far worse than any extra vacation time.
Companies can take the first step by reinventing the workweek. Then it's up to us to devote our increased leisure hours to activities with low environmental impact — and not to driving around gas-guzzling cars or booting up power-hungry electronics. Then we could enjoy both continued wealth and improved planetary health.David Roberts also covers green issues for Grist, an online environmental magazine.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.