Can We Work Less and Save the Planet, Too?
By Todd Miller
In 2008, performance artist Pilvi Takala took her seat as a new employee at the company Deloitte, a global consulting firm, and began to stare into space. When asked by other employees what she was doing, she said, "brain work" or that she was working "on her thesis." One day she rode the elevator up and down the entire workday. When asked where she was going, she said nowhere.
This image of utter inactivity, writes Jenny Odell in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, is what completely "galled" Takala's coworkers.
In capitalist American culture, productivity is sacrosanct. If somebody says they had a productive day, the implicit assumption is that they had a good day. Descriptions like "non-contributing member of society" and "loiterer" clearly stigmatize those who aren't considered productive.
For Odell, this stigma on unproductivity is a real problem. What we really need is to loiter more, do less — in fact, she seems to say, life on this planet might depend on it.
For years, my work as a journalist has centered on the climate crisis, the displacement of people, and the proliferation of segregating, militarized borders around the world. I've seen the ways that the hyperproductivity that drives capitalism helped create these problems.
According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, human industry has pumped more than 400 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — the approximate equivalent of 1.2 million Empire State Buildings — into the atmosphere since 1751, half of that since the late 1980s. The use of solid and liquid fossil fuels, like oil or coal, produced three-quarters of these emissions. That Western modern civilization was going to uplift the masses was rarely questioned, even as factories continued to pump out plastic commodities on the backs of the global poor.
Now the catastrophic results of elite injustice, corporate lies and collective thoughtlessness are coming in: the hottest years on record, encroaching seas, destructive floods, devastating wildfires, powerful hurricanes, crop-wilting droughts — and 1 million animal and plant species on the verge of extinction, according to a UN report. All of this is displacing people by the millions across the globe.
I remember seeing the production quotas in the workers' stations in maquiladoras across northern Mexico. Between 2001 and 2004, I visited dozens of such factories as part of the work I did for the binational organization BorderLinks, a nonprofit that arranges educational delegations for universities and churches. Workers, often in windowless rooms with a chemical stench, make suitcases, bank pens, dentures, cotton swabs and electrical components for rockets and fighter jets. People are "optimized" for productivity in a global economy in which progress is measured by constant growth, more stuff and more box stores.
I've seen the paychecks. The approximately $8 a day earned by a line worker is hardly a living wage when the combined cost of a gallon of milk and carton of eggs is more than a half-day's work. And every minute counts: If a worker is a minute late in many maquilas, they lose their on-time bonus (their paycheck is docked). If a worker is pregnant, they're fired. Workers often live in homes first built with discarded wood pallets and cardboard as insulation, structures that are extremely vulnerable to ever worse and more frequent 21st-century storms. And the inequality is as ferocious as the weather. According to Oxfam, a top fashion CEO has to work just four days to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn their whole life.
While there are other outcomes of Western progress and economic productivity, inequality — especially along racial and gender lines — and emissions lead the charge. At the end of 2018, 26 people owned about the same amount of wealth as the 3.8 billion poorest people on planet Earth, according to Oxfam; and emissions reached, yet again, an all-time high.
Increasingly militarized political borders reinforce the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots, the environmentally protected and the environmentally exposed, and those who are White and those who are Black and Brown. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, there were 15 border walls. Now there are 70, most constructed since 2001, almost always situated on the boundaries of inequality, between the Global North and the Global South.
This isn't the only world that's possible. But Odell suggests that imagining something else will require first reexamining — and dismantling — the cultural ethos of productivity that creeps into our lives every day.
By doing nothing, people like Takala are "refusing or subverting an unspoken custom," Odell writes, revealing "its often-fragile contours. For a moment, the custom is shown to be not the horizon of possibility, but rather a tiny island in a sea of unexamined alternatives."
It's such a simple idea, but it's entirely radical. The strip malls and big box stores and endless cars coming and going; the constant consumption and ever accelerating emissions; our nervous systems attached to constantly buzzing smartphones; and the cyberscapes that displace landscapes in our imaginations — none of this is inevitable. Our current model of productivity and capitalism — and profit and segregation — isn't the only way.
It is possible to create something else, but mental space is needed to dream up new possibilities. Doing nothing creates that space, and shifts attention to other ways of living, loving and working alongside others.
One radical alternative is imagined in a recent study, "The Ecological Limitations of Work": a less than 10-hour work week. Study author Philipp Frey argues for a dramatically reduced work week for environmental reasons. Work — or "the economic activity that causes GHG emissions" — is at an unsustainable level, requiring a dramatic reduction.
This idea raises all kinds of questions. Is there a way to both work less and redistribute wealth more evenly? And what is work, even — is it merely that which contributes to a bloated and catastrophic world economy? Perhaps our very salvation, and slowing down, is in the words of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, who wrote, "What is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth."
And what about borders? Near the end of the book, Odell describes the 1872 painting "American Progress" by John Gast. The painting depicts Manifest Destiny, the idea that White people moving west were a civilizing force. In the painting, a blond woman in white robes strides westward, trampling "hundreds of species and thousands of years' worth of knowledge," Odell writes. This westward expansion was the origin of U.S. territorial borders.
So Odell imagines the opposite of Manifest Destiny. She calls it "Manifest Dismantling."
Manifest Dismantling would purposefully undo the damage of Manifest Destiny by reckoning with productivity's assault on the living world. Tearing down a dam, for Odell, would be an example of a creative act of Manifest Dismantling because it would facilitate the return of an ecological landscape.
The same could be said about the 70 border walls, or the nearly 700 miles of walls and barriers along the U.S.–Mexico border. Dismantling these would allow people to move without fear. The saguaros and mesquite in the Sonoran Desert would grow back, and pronghorns, jaguars, and gray wolves could travel freely across borders. But it would also open space for a new vision to emerge, of a more equitable way to relate with each other and the living planet.
Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.
In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
- Study: Birds Are Linked to Happiness Levels - EcoWatch ›
- Snowy Owl Flocks to Southern States in Search of Food - EcoWatch ›
Who says you can't go home again?
- Disastrous BP Oil Spill 'Flattened' Microbe Biodiversity in Gulf ... ›
- 10 Years After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Threat of Disaster ... ›
- Oil From BP Spill Has Officially Entered the Food Chain - EcoWatch ›
2020 was the largest wildfire season in California's modern history, according to state agency Cal Fire. And, as the climate crisis continues to increase fire risk, there are concerns that 2021 could be just as devastating.
- How Goats Are Preventing Wildfires in California - EcoWatch ›
- Sonoma County Wildfire Spreads 7,000 Acres in Less Than Five ... ›
- Prison Inmates Fighting California's Deadly Fires - EcoWatch ›
More than 1,600 gallons of oil have spilled in the Inglewood Oil Field — the largest urban oil field in the country, where more than a million people live within five miles of its boundaries, the Sierra Club wrote in a statement on Wednesday.
- Kinder Morgan Pipeline Spills up to 42,000 Gallons of Gasoline Into ... ›
- Chevron Refinery Dumps Oil Into San Francisco Bay - EcoWatch ›