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.
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By Bob Jacobs
Hanako, a female Asian elephant, lived in a tiny concrete enclosure at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo for more than 60 years, often in chains, with no stimulation. In the wild, elephants live in herds, with close family ties. Hanako was solitary for the last decade of her life.
Hanako, an Asian elephant kept at Japan's Inokashira Park Zoo; and Kiska, an orca that lives at Marineland Canada. One image depicts Kiska's damaged teeth. Elephants in Japan (left image), Ontario Captive Animal Watch (right image), CC BY-ND
Affecting Health and Altering Behavior<p>It is easy to observe the overall health and psychological consequences of life in captivity for these animals. Many captive elephants suffer from arthritis, obesity or skin problems. Both <a href="https://doi.org/10.11609/JoTT.o2620.1826-36" target="_blank">elephants</a> and orcas often have severe dental problems. Captive orcas are plagued by <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank">pneumonia, kidney disease, gastrointestinal illnesses and infections</a>.</p><p>Many animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2017.09.010" target="_blank">try to cope</a> with captivity by adopting abnormal behaviors. Some develop "<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.05.003" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stereotypies</a>," which are repetitive, purposeless habits such as constantly bobbing their heads, swaying incessantly or chewing on the bars of their cages. Others, especially big cats, pace their enclosures. Elephants rub or break their tusks.</p>
Changing Brain Structure<p>Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished, stressful captive environment <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2019.05.005" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">physically damages the brain</a>. These changes have been documented in many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.903270108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">species</a>, including rodents, rabbits, cats and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">humans</a>.</p><p>Although researchers have directly studied some animal brains, most of what we know comes from observing animal behavior, analyzing stress hormone levels in the blood and applying knowledge gained from a half-century of neuroscience research. Laboratory research also suggests that mammals in a zoo or aquarium have compromised brain function.</p>
This illustration shows differences in the brain's cerebral cortex in animals held in impoverished (captive) and enriched (natural) environments. Impoverishment results in thinning of the cortex, a decreased blood supply, less support for neurons and decreased connectivity among neurons. Arnold B. Scheibel, CC BY-ND<p>Subsisting in confined, barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact seems to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">thin the cerebral cortex</a> – the part of the brain involved in voluntary movement and higher cognitive function, including memory, planning and decision-making.</p><p>There are other consequences. Capillaries shrink, depriving the brain of the oxygen-rich blood it needs to survive. Neurons become smaller, and their dendrites – the branches that form connections with other neurons – become less complex, impairing communication within the brain. As a result, the cortical neurons in captive animals <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/cne.901230110" target="_blank">process information less efficiently</a> than those living in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.420020208" target="_blank">enriched, more natural environments</a>.</p>
An actual cortical neuron in a wild African elephant living in its natural habitat compared with a hypothesized cortical neuron from a captive elephant. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Brain health is also affected by living in small quarters that <a href="https://doi.org/10.3233/BPL-160040" target="_blank">don't allow for needed exercise</a>. Physical activity increases the flow of blood to the brain, which requires large amounts of oxygen. Exercise increases the production of new connections and <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.aaw2622" target="_blank">enhances cognitive abilities</a>.</p><p>In their native habits these animals must move to survive, covering great distances to forage or find a mate. Elephants typically travel anywhere from <a href="https://www.elephantsforafrica.org/elephant-facts/#:%7E:text=How%20far%20do%20elephants%20walk,km%20on%20a%20daily%20basis." target="_blank">15 to 120 miles per day</a>. In a zoo, they average <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150331" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">three miles daily</a>, often walking back and forth in small enclosures. One free orca studied in Canada swam <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-010-0958-x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">up to 156 miles a day</a>; meanwhile, an average orca tank is about 10,000 times smaller than its <a href="https://www.cascadiaresearch.org/projects/killer-whales/using-dtags-study-acoustics-and-behavior-southern" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">natural home range</a>.</p>
Disrupting Brain Chemistry and Killing Cells<p>Living in enclosures that restrict or prevent normal behavior creates chronic frustration and boredom. In the wild, an animal's stress-response system helps it escape from danger. But captivity traps animals with <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1215502109" target="_blank">almost no control</a> over their environment.</p><p>These situations foster <a href="https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000033" target="_blank">learned helplessness</a>, negatively impacting the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/6391686" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">hippocampus</a>, which handles memory functions, and the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropharm.2011.02.024" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">amygdala</a>, which processes emotions. Prolonged stress <a href="https://doi.org/10.3109/10253899609001092" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevates stress hormones</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.10-09-02897.1990" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">damages or even kills neurons</a> in both brain regions. It also disrupts the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2005.03.021" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">delicate balance of serotonin</a>, a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, among other functions.</p><p>In humans, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/nimg.2001.0917" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">deprivation</a> can trigger <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">psychiatric issues</a>, including depression, anxiety, <a href="https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00367" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mood disorders</a> or <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1073858409333072" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">post-traumatic stress disorder</a>. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-010-0288-3" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Elephants</a>, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.0050139" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">orcas</a> and other animals with large brains are likely to react in similar ways to life in a severely stressful environment.</p>
Damaged Wiring<p>Captivity can damage the brain's complex circuitry, including the basal ganglia. This group of neurons communicates with the cerebral cortex along two networks: a direct pathway that enhances movement and behavior, and an indirect pathway that inhibits them.</p><p>The repetitive, <a href="http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.bbr.2014.05.057" target="_blank">stereotypic behaviors</a> that many animals adopt in captivity are caused by an imbalance of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2010.02.004" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">serotonin</a>. This impairs the indirect pathway's ability to modulate movement, a condition documented in species from chickens, cows, sheep and horses to primates and big cats.</p>
The cerebral cortex, hippocampus and amygdala are physically altered by captivity, along with brain circuitry that involves the basal ganglia. Bob Jacobs, CC BY-ND<p>Evolution has constructed animal brains to be exquisitely responsive to their environment. Those reactions can affect neural function by <a href="https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/311787/behave-by-robert-m-sapolsky/" target="_blank">turning different genes on or off</a>. Living in inappropriate or abusive circumstance alters biochemical processes: It disrupts the synthesis of proteins that build connections between brain cells and the neurotransmitters that facilitate communication among them.</p><p>There is strong evidence that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0577-11.2011" target="_blank">enrichment</a>, social contact and appropriate space in more natural habitats are <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-1090.2003.tb02071.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">necessary</a> for long-lived animals with large brains such as <a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0152490" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elephants</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/13880292.2017.1309858" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cetaceans</a>. Better conditions <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5543669/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reduce disturbing sterotypical behaviors</a>, improve connections in the brain, and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/cdd.2009.193" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">trigger neurochemical changes</a> that enhance learning and memory.</p>