The Unemployed vs. Mother Nature: Which One Will Win?


For this post, I went to go see Juliet Schorr speak about her book Plenitude.  As a whole, I think her views on the economics of sustainability make a lot of sense and I could see her ideas being implemented on a large scale.  I think her solution to the economic and ecological problems our world is facing is actually a plausible solution because she is not asking people to completely give up their way of life.  She is simply asking them to live in a different way.  In her eyes, living a wealthy lifestyle does not have to mean being very rich.  Wealth can mean things other than money: more time, more social ties, closer relationships with family, etc.  Through working less hours and beginning to self-provision, people can alter their lifestyle into a way of life that is sustainable.  Having read the introduction and a chapter of her book, I knew most of the general points she was going to say, but it was different hearing them from the author herself as opposed to reading points off a page.

Now, I’m not supposed to be “cheerleading” with my post, and it took a while for me to think of a criticism or question about her talk that she gave because I think most of what she said made a lot of sense.  I did find one thing that I did not quite agree with and confused me a little.  Schorr talked a lot about how productivity could be used to lower hours worked rather than expand production, and how this could lead to less carbon emissions, which is a large problem that our world is facing.  She also talked about the huge problem that is unemployment.  She said a fact something along the lines of (I’m remembering as best as I can, sorry if I mess this up) if everyone reduced their hours worked by 20%, than 4 jobs can turn into 5 jobs (by 5 people working 80% as opposed to 4 people working 100%).

Both of these points make sense to me.  I can see how this would lower unemployment because more people would be employed, even if individuals were working less hours.  But, if the aggregate amount of hours worked is the same (which it would be with the scenario presented above), wouldn’t this lead to a steady level of carbon emissions?  I see how this scenario would lower unemployment, but I fail to see how this would lower carbon emissions because the same number of hours will end up being worked–they will just be split up amongst more people.  So, on one hand I support this argument as a means to lower unemployment, but I disagree with it that it would lower carbon emissions.  This creates a trade-off in my mind.  Which should we prioritize more, lowering carbon emissions or lowering the unemployment rate?  I don’t think there is a good answer to this question because both of these things are big problem our country and planet face.  In order to live sustainably, both issues must be addressed, and soon.  But at what cost?

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4 thoughts on “The Unemployed vs. Mother Nature: Which One Will Win?

  1. I think this is a good issue to address. It seems like Schor’s discussion of these two issues (emissions and unemployment) becomes kind of mixed up by the end of her talk. She kind of presents them as two separate issues, but also presents them as being related, so the audience becomes confused. Perhaps this issue can be resolved by going to Scott’s blog post. He wrote about Schor’s argument for using our free time for productive, sustainable activities. If the 5 people who share the typical 4 jobs can use their free time to plant gardens and install solar panels, we might find a solution to our problem.

  2. I think you got her 20% reduction right (that is what she said). Good find on the CEPR paper. I find they do pretty good research.

    That paper must have been a key finding she used in her book as it is strikingly similar.

  3. You puzzle out a key paradox. If you shift productivity gains to fewer hours AND lower unemployment, how do you lower emissions?

    Let’s take a simple example. The economy in year one has 90 units of work which makes 90 units of stuff and emits 18 units of bad emissions. In year 2 it keeps 90 units of work, 100 of stuff and 20 emissions. So, that is productivity gains with the same work. The CEPR report and Schorr said gains from productivity should go to lower hours. So, in my little example, it is like instead of working the same 90 hours and getting ten more stuff, you work 80 hours and produce 90 of stuff. that is the emissions gains. If you keep 90 units of labor, but the additional 10 are from new workers, the example you describe, then you are not going to get an emissions reduction, but you will employ more people.

    This may be too simple and it may be possible to do both- to reduce the number of hours worked, emissions, and stuff AND employ more people. But I would need to consult her book or other research to weigh in on that.

  4. I also agree with your argument on the simple arithmetic involved with the dilemma. Schor is proposing LESS work hours with MORE workers. So, I suppose it depends on which side of the equation is heavier: the reduction in working hours or additional workers. Perhaps other factors that Schor potentially could further include are salaries, benefits, taxes and other employment policies. In relation to my post, I believe that Schor looks towards the finish line of simply more personal time to build eco-friendly projects without providing the economic filler of how the worker dynamic plays out. Great post!

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