Friday, February 20, 2009

How much should one work?

The notion that the fruit of hard work is sweet has been indoctrinated into almost every educated human being. There's always this story about some juvenile pedaling all the way atop a hill and then enjoying the ride down , which is supposed to inspire one into persevering.

Common sense tells one that hard work is necessary to live a satisfied life (by maintaining a well-fed and satisfied family, essentially). Clearly, evolution can justify this heuristic. It is not impossible to see how the perseverant had an evolutionary advantage over the lazy. But with the absence of predators, stunning advances in medical science and abundance of food, we seem to have prevailed over a large component of evolution. With every passing year, it is getting safer and safer to say that we are not evolving any more. (Mike Judge makes a rather fascinating satirical exaggeration in Idiocracy).

But what if, in the modern context, common sense was all wrong? What if hard work was one of the reasons why there's a lot of trouble in the world today? What if hard work was the reason why the planet's climate is heating up every year? What if this obsession with overtime is forcing us to adopt a particularly ecologically unsustainable lifestyle?

Because the main motivation behind working hard is greed. Nothing wrong with greed, per se. But, a fairly strong case can be made contending that more people working hard results in more economic growth - and more economic growth results in a larger usurpage (sic) of resources on a limited planet. And since the west's GDP usually consists of significant lifestyle components, one feels safe in calling it an inefficient waste.

Every economy is gauged by how much it grows every year. Economists and policy makers try to stimulate growth, create prosperity and wealth. With 6 Billion people (and growing) on this planet - of which more than 4 billion are extremely poor - but getting richer all the same, some questions arise. The planet had a constant population of 300M poorer people before the middle of the 19th century. And then, it rose exponentially - despite British and American Imperialism, despite Hitler, despite genocide in Rwanda, despite the HIV virus and others.

Is it reasonable for us to expect to get richer every year, given that the per-capita resources on this planet are dwindling? Ground water is drying up under large cities. Forests are being cut at a frightening rate. Species are going extinct like there's no tomorrow. Fossil fuels are getting harder to find. Man made dams have more or less sealed the fate of the Colorado river and other major rivers around the planet. Himalayan glaciers are melting.

And on top of that, man made climate change is burning Australia; drying up America's southwest; Darfur, China and Iraq, to name a few. Hurricanes are getting more intense because of warmer oceans. More tornadoes in tornado alley.

Are fantasies of economic growth given such hostile conditions realistic? Is "lifestyle" economic growth justifiable? Considering that third world economic growth is for "survival" rather than lifestyle it is certainly more justifiable.

Perhaps we ought to sit down and make some smart decisions. Perhaps some legislation ought to be passed converting the week to a four day work-week (32 hours). This would ensure that no one gets paid exorbitant amounts of money to pillage the planet as they want. This will bring about less unemployment; there will be more equality - and the GDP will contract - having less of an impact on the environment.

Since almost all nations in the world have strict laws disallowing people from being employed more than 40 hours a week (without adequate compensation), how draconian is it to enforce a law that makes it 32 hours a week? (Of course, if you get paid $7.50 an hour, this 32-hour-workweek will start hurting you - so perhaps some thought ought to go into who should be asked to cut down working hours).

And the extra time people get can be dedicated to leisure - therefore enhancing the quality of life. Working less in the developed world is a win-win situation. From a personal, ecological and social perspective. Perhaps this shall increase the "Gross National Happiness" of the developed world. Perhaps this will make America as happy as Bhutan.

It is heartening to see these opinions make it to the Mainstream. The magazine, New Scientist had a remarkable issue on how economic growth is killing our planet, which makes a very strong case that the planet is in deep trouble because of economic growth. Alternet keeps coming up with brilliant articles every now and then.


Radha said...

Brilliant article.

I completely agree with your views here - nowadays, people tend to live in order to afford the second home theater system/IPOD/expensive lenses(:( ), rather than "live" in contentment. The focus is more on how much more I can buy, rather than how I can live in total satisfaction with the resources that I have,

But, well, I guess it is difficult to convey this when we may also be guilty of falling in the same trap...!!!


And I would really wish for the 32 hour week to be enforced, so that one can spend more time with family/nature, the stuff that is really important in life.

Ludwig said...

You've been reading Russell, haven't you? :) Points taken!