What are the most sustainable societies today?
By definition, they are the few remaining stone age cultures. Those few hunter-gatherer societies deep in the Amazon or in the Kalahari. So it seems natural that we should look to them for guidance. But what can we actually learn from them that is relevant? Yes they are clearly very much aware and in tune with their environment, but why?
I propose that it is because they can. And by that, I mean they have the time actually notice where they live, and study it, and learn from it. They can do all this, because on average they work roughly half of what we “civilized, industrialized, globalized” folks do. And they do it outside, with family and friends.
And by the way, that’s still way more than any other animals work. The least busy of men are still the busiest of animals, by far. Even those species that are synonymous with work- the ants and the bees- don’t really work that much. Though the hive or colony may buzz with activity all day long, the individual bee or ant only works about 4 or 5 hours a day.
Of course, I’m not proposing we blow this world back to the stone age. But if we look at the root causes of so many of our problems, it’s hard to avoid tracing them back to the industrial revolution. I’m not proposing a return to the agrarian age either, but even the peasants of the middle ages got between 2 and 6 months of vacation. And that’s because the harvest only lasts a few weeks, as does the planting season, as does the season of hoarding to make it through the winter.
I propose that the greatest harm caused by the industrial revolution is how it distorted our relationship to work. Prior to industrialization people by and large did not do the same job all day, and they certainly didn’t do the same work all year long. They took longer lunches, and afternoon naps, and had way more holidays. Every wedding, every funeral, every birth was a celebration not just for those directly involved, but for the whole community. I’ve been to villages in my native Mexico where a girl turns fifteen and everybody parties. Everybody. That used to be the norm. That sort of thing used to happen everywhere, all the time. Obviously there’s just way too many of us now to keep that sort of thing going, but surely we can find other ways to keep our priorities straight.
But somehow over the last few centuries we’ve transformed work from being a necessary inconvenience (and an actual punishment according to religious traditions), into a virtue. But the notion that the harder we work the more we’ll prosper is a blatant lie. Think of the hardest working people you know. They’re not popstars, pro-athletes or movie stars (or even a certain billionaire president) – they are farmworkers, and teachers, and blue collar folks living paycheck to paycheck and struggling to make ends meet. And what’s true of people is true of nations. Mexico is the hardest working nation in the OECD, with its workers putting in nearly twice as many hours as those of Germany.
It has been proven time and again, that those who work less, work better. Overworking can not only decrease relative effectiveness, it can actually decrease total output. Of course this depends on the actual job being performed and all sorts of other variables, but the point is that there is no reason for us to work as much as we do. Especially not given increased automation.
It may seem idealistic to propose a 20-hour work week. But I propose that the key to sustainability is not just adopting the latest cutting edge technology to reduce waste and pollution, but rather a return of work to its rightful subordinate place in our lives. Halving the work week would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It would reduce unemployment, and all the other social ills linked to unemployment. More importantly it would allow us the opportunity to refocus our lifestyles away from consumption and towards relationship building. It would give us time to actually enjoy our families, to get to know our neighbors, to take notice of where we live, and who we share our space with, and how we can do it better.
But frankly the most important reason for working less is that with climate change, extinctions, deforestation, soil degradation, overpopulation, ocean acidification, and dead zones and rivers that aren’t fit to swim in, we are clearly not going to leave the next generation a better world. The least we can do is give them more time to enjoy it.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.