US News Item on How Working Less Might Slow 'Climate Change' Ignores Underlying Radical 'De-Growth' Agenda

February 5th, 2013 9:35 AM

A Monday US News item by Jason Koebler ("Study: Global Warming Can Be Slowed By Working Less") illustrates how radical thought injects itself into establishment press news stories.

Koebler's work attempts to be cute, with its picture (a cyclist taking a nap), its subheadline (a suggestion that "a more 'European' schedule would reduce the effects of climate change"), and its opening ("Want to reduce the effects of global warming? Stop working so hard"). The seemingly innocent concept is that "working fewer hours and more vacation time, could prevent as much as half of the expected global temperature rise by 2100." It takes a bit of digging before one learns that the whole idea is really premised on "de-growth" -- "a political, economic, and social movement ... (which) advocate(s) for the downscaling of production and consumption," or, in other words, "the contraction of economies."

The US News reporter correctly characterizes the source, the Center for Economic Policy and Research, as "a liberal think tank based in Washington." In his recent CEPR paper ("Reduced Work Hours as a Means of Slowing Climate Change"; landing page; full PDF), CEPR economist David Rosnick primarily referenced the contents of two previous papers, one of which he co-authored, as seen in this Executive Summary excerpt:

A number of studies (e.g. Knight et al. 2012, Rosnick and Weisbrot 2006) have found that shorter work hours are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions and therefore less global climate change. The relationship between these two variables is complex and not clearly understood, but it is understandable that lowering levels of consumption, holding everything else constant, would reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Setting aside the shaky (if any) relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming ("climate change" is the leftist proxy for the mostly discredited "global warming" term, and there has been no global warming for 16 years), let's look at the philosophical foundation of Rosnick's paper.

The abstract of Knight's paper reveals that it is based on promoting de-growth (bolds are mine thoughout the rest of this post), though he fudges the term in later sentences:

Many scholars and activists are now advocating a program of socially sustainable economic de-growth for developed countries in order to mitigate demands on the global environment. An increasingly prominent idea is that developed countries could achieve slower or zero economic growth in a socially sustainable way by reducing work hours. Previous research suggests that reduced work hours could contribute to sustainability by decreasing the scale of economic output and the environmental intensity of consumption patterns. Here, we investigate the effect of work hours on three environmental indicators: ecological footprint, carbon footprint, and carbon dioxide emissions. With data for 1970-2007, our panel analysis of 29 high-income OECD countries indicates that working time is a significant contributor to environmental pressures and thus is an attractive target for policies promoting environmental sustainability.

Imagine the statist overreach required to keep everyone from working "too much" (e.g., preventing people from getting second jobs if their first job isn't enough, perhaps forcing one of the members of a two-income couple to quit their job, etc.).

Knight's actual study is much more hostile to economic growth and its engine known as capitalism than its abstract would lead us to believe. Here are just a few choice sentences (translations follow):

... the logic of (economic) growth is at the core of unsustainability and climate change, and rejection of the view that technological change will be sufficient to solve those problems within the time frame of feasible action. [1]

... De-growth involves a socially sustainable process of downshifting material throughput (in contrast to involuntary downshifts such as recessions) which relies on policies such as egalitarian income distribution and tax shifting, low hours of work, and high political involvement. It is utopian, and post-capitalist. In both its versions—radical (advocating a new sector of cooperatives, green enterprises, and localization) and reformist (relying mainly on policy transformation), reduced working hours is at the core of the de-growth agenda. [2]

... the extra happiness accruing from free time is not positional, like income, so that its benefits are durable. This suggests a ... potential household level effect in which time affluence reduces consumption desire and environmental impact. If people who have more time are happier, this may reduce their spending. ...


[1] -- "We're all doomed if you don't do what we insist must be done."

[2] -- "You've got to work less, accept lower living standards, and embrace statism, or we're all doomed."

[3] -- "We need to lower incomes and living standards to the point where you won't be able to do anything with your free time except hang around the house."

The Rosnick and Weisbrot paper from 2006 (excerpt; full PDF) essentially says: "We don't know what we're talking about, but we like our growth-hostile premise, so we're going to stick with it." My take is perfectly illustrated in the following paragraph:

However, the relationship between energy consumption and work hours could be more complicated. For example, workers (or families) with less leisure time may dry their laundry by machine rather than drying it on a clothesline. They may not take the time to walk or bicycle to work, but rather drive. These behavioral changes in response to increased work hours would cause energy efficiency to decline as work hours increased. On the other hand, they may have their clothes professionally laundered, or take a cab. While these decisions would increase energy consumption, they would also increase hours worked in the economy, so the effect on this measure of energy efficiency is indeterminate. Finally, they may pay professionals to paint their homes rather than do it themselves. While this would consume the same amount of much energy, it would increase hours worked, thereby increasing this measure of energy efficiency. Of course, as people leave their homes to work, energy savings at home might balance the extra energy consumed at work. Any net effect of work hours on energy consumption is not easy to predict.

Just one note, which even though it supports the pair's premise, clearly demonstrates their sloppiness: Paying professionals to paint your home almost definitely burns more energy, as the pros have to travel to and from their customers' homes and are more likely to use more electicity-burning equipment to get the job done more quickly than do-it-yourselfers.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that all of this is "not easy to predict," the Rosnick and Weisbrot paper sounds a qualified alarm:

The American model is still portrayed throughout the international business press as the one to emulate. The environmental consequences of developing countries’ choices could be very serious.

What's really serious is that US News reporter Koebler either got co-opted by statist de-growth advocates into presenting an important element of their agenda in a favorable light, or served as a willing accomplice.

Cross-posted at