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By Ruby Russell
Since the pandemic hit, how we work has changed. Some of us have had a double load, doing day jobs alongside full-time childcare. Others have found hours we once filled with urgent deadlines suddenly empty. And then there are those of us for whom going to work every day — stacking shelves, emptying bins, caring for the sick — became not just a job but an act of heroism, applauded by society from balconies and doorsteps.
Philipp Frey of the German Center for Emancipatory Technology Studies says there are lessons to be learned from all this, for the good of both people and planet. Last year, he authored a headline-grabbing study suggesting that to prevent climate collapse, Europeans should go down to a nine-hour working week.
"There exists a strong positive correlation between carbon emissions and working hours," Frey said. "Most of us produce less carbon emissions on the weekends than on a normal workday."
This isn't only true of workers in carbon-heavy sectors like manufacturing and energy production. Emissions from commuting and running offices are also a factor. And how we work impacts how we consume.
Research suggests longer working hours are linked to increased consumption, and that this effect isn't just to do with income. Workers with less free time are more likely to use private vehicles instead of public transport, buy energy-intensive, time-saving products, choose convenience foods over sourcing local produce, and in the words of one study, "favor conspicuous expenditure and non-sustainable lifestyles."
Shifting Blame to Consumers
"Everyone knows you have to consume less," Frey said. We know that the throughput of energy and resources inherent in Western lifestyles is unsustainable. But focusing on consumption puts the onus on individual choice instead of asking why we are producing so much stuff that is harmful to the planet in the first place.
"We don't have a debate on how we actually spend our work time because that would imply, rather than giving ethical, moral lectures to individuals on how to behave correctly, actually talking about how we organize our economy, and what are socially useful products," Frey said. If nothing else, coronavirus lockdown time has given us pause to consider what kinds of jobs actually fulfill society's essential needs. These are often in the public sector, low-paid, or in fact, aren't paid at all.
According to the UN, 41% of all the work done worldwide is unpaid: Caring for children and the elderly, domestic work and collecting water, for example. Amaia Perez Orozco, an economist with the feminist XXK Collective in Bilbao, says this figure doesn't include activities like subsistence farming that would bring the share of work happening outside the market economy to more like 50%.
These activities are essential to sustain society — and keep the economy running — but they don't generate profit and are largely left to women.
"We value jobs that are more profitable for capital accumulation more than we value jobs that are profitable for the sustainability of life," Orozco said, adding "so we have a completely distorted way about thinking about the value of jobs."
'Nutritious Base' Vs. 'Junkie Economy'
In a system gearing toward profit and growth, we reward work that turns resources into products and waste, and neglect the human and ecological "nutritious base," as Margarita Mediavilla, professor of systems engineering at the University of Valladolid in Spain, calls it.
"Collapse happens when the base weakens and the system tries to keep growing," Mediavilla said. "Our society has already entered a pattern of collapse and a pattern of over-exploitation." COVID-19, she adds, "increases even more our fragility, and shows the pattern of collapse even more clearly."
Mediavilla says traditional societies aimed to work only as much as necessary to meet the needs of the population and cared for the natural resources on which their livelihoods depended. In contrast, today's "junkie economy," hooked on cheap oil, cheap labor and cheap resources, "needs to produce more and more in order for people to have a decent living."
For some communities, the ecological cost of fueling this system is starkly manifest in their employment opportunities.
Brototi Roy, a political ecologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona researching coal-sector conflicts in India, describes interviewing workers locked into an industry that has polluted the land and fisheries that once sustained them.
When we talk about slowing production or closing harmful industries for environmental reasons, these aims are always set against the imperative to preserve jobs. But Roy says little attention is paid to what workers actually want and we should be asking, "what kind of jobs are we still advocating for, and why are we not asking the people who are doing these jobs if we could provide an alternative?"
Universal Basic Income
For some low-waged workers in India, and various other communities around the world, one possible alternative has been trialed — universal (or unconditional) basic income (UBI). The idea has seen a surge of interest since the pandemic, with Spain planning strings-free monthly payments for poorer citizens and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying UBI's "time has come."
Ecologically minded proponents of UBI say it would give workers greater power to reject jobs that are bad for their own wellbeing or that of the planet. It would also grant financial Independence to those who do vital unpaid labor and give more of us the opportunity to engage in activities like volunteering, community gardening and grassroots organizing of resources outside the market economy.
With more time to invest in each other and our environment, we might be less drawn to "compensatory consumption" — buying stuff to make ourselves feel better, be it status symbols or treats to lift our spirits when we feel burned out and short on the human connection that provides more sustaining mental health benefits.
Optimal Hours for Human and Planetary Health
UBI is also put forward as a solution to people being put out of work by technological developments such as artificial intelligence, as seen in a recent video by Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis, who proposes funding UBI through dividends from corporate profits rather than taxes on labor.
In his 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Maynard Keynes predicted automation would mean we would only need to work a 15-hour week. Frey says Keynes and others of his time, "underestimated how much consumption might be extended." Now, we should be seriously questioning what all this consumption is for.
"What's our main focus?" Frey asks. "Is it to satisfy human needs using as little ecological resources as possible? Or is [the economy] organized in such a way that pushes maximum turnover and corporate profits?"
Frey says he was surprised by the optimal working hours based on emissions his calculations produced. Cutting our working hours so drastically might be good for the climate but he doesn't believe it would be economically sustainable.
Instead, he advocates a redistribution of the kind of work we do, alongside a managed reduction of the working week toward 20 or 24 hours — a level studies suggest is also optimal for workers' health and productivity.
And, he says, one sector of society had already taken the lead before the pandemic — the Fridays for Future campaigners who cut their school week to four days to demand action on climate change: "What the pupils are doing is perfectly reasonable. In a way, they are really ahead of the game."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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