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Working the Planet to Death

climate change workers' rights

I recently went to a discussion with an intriguing topic – the intersection between workers’ rights and climate change.

On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be much of a connection. But dig a little deeper and it starts to make sense.

Climate change is happening because we’re consuming too many resources – fossil fuels in particular. We use them to power our cars, planes and trains, along with our homes, workplaces and factories. And we also use them to manufacture and transport countless consumer goods.

Here’s the thing – work and consumption are two sides of the same coin. We work for money, and we use money to buy stuff. A few of us only by what we really need, either by choice or because it’s all we can afford to do. But most of us use our disposable income to buy countless consumables – cosmetics, cheap clothes, electronic gadgets, £3 coffees in disposable cups.

We work to consume, because otherwise why bother? Most of us could slash the hours we work if we only wanted enough money to cover our basic needs. But we somehow feel that life isn’t worth living if we don’t consume things. That keeps us trapped. And it’s also an environmental disaster.

Whenever we buy a physical product, resources have to be extracted from the ground to produce it. This might not be such an issue if we all limited ourselves to what we needed. But in our culture of disposability and planned obsolescence, it’s a huge problem.

No time to choose

I’m not trying to imply that everyone is selfish and no-one cares about the planet (though sadly, some people don’t). Another thing about work is that it keeps us so busy and stressed we don’t have time to make the best choices we can. No time to walk instead of drive, no time to hunt for plastic-free produce, no time to wash reusable nappies (diapers) rather than chucking disposable ones in the bin. We might feel bad, but that just adds to our background stress level.

And perpetual stress leads us to pacify ourselves by buying more things. It doesn’t matter that the high is short-lived.

Getting to that job you hate

With the exception of the lucky few who work from home, most people have to commute. No one enjoys it, but few people think about the environmental impact. It’s significant though. Think about the traffic jams which so many people sit in for hours each day, engines ticking over – and the countless buses and trains needed to ferry around everyone else. Imagine if we all worked less, and telecommuted where possible. Our towns and cities would be quieter and less polluted, and it would stop huge amounts of fossil fuels from being burnt.

What's the connection between #climatechange and workers' rights? How working too much harms the planet as well as our #health. #sustainability #mentalhealth

Let’s restructure society!

We probably can’t tackle climate change without some pretty radical changes. And it’s difficult to make those changes when you’re trapped in the system. I know from experience how frustrating it can be to try to organise any kind of political action because so many people are working, even at weekends. And others are unwilling to get involved because it could put their jobs at risk.

So dealing with climate change is going to involve a restructuring of our society. And that may not be such a bad thing, because most of us would be happier and less stressed if we worked less. We devote a huge amount of time to working, commuting, and recovering from work. Several days of every week are wiped out this way. We leave behind our hobbies, and forget what makes life worth living.

We may feel as if we don’t have a choice, but for many of us, this isn’t true. I won’t go on about that too much, since I’ve rambled on enough about it in previous posts like these:

Working Nine to Five: Is It The Only Way?

Why It’s OK Not To Want a Job (and What to Do About It!)

Initiatives like universal basic income, a living wage and so forth would go a long way towards tackling these issues. But we don’t necessarily have to wait for them. Right now, we’re in danger of being so preoccupied with work that we sleepwalk into climate catastrophe. But as the saying goes, there are no jobs on a dead planet. For those of us who can, now is the time to make a change.


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