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Work Less to Sustain Planet Earth, Say Activists

"Choosing to work less is the biggest environmental issue no one's talking about," regrets Conrad Schmidt, an internationally known social activist and founder of the Work Less Party, a Vancouver-based initiative aimed at moving to a 32-hour work week.

"As a society, we're working exponentially hard to decrease sustainability and it's making us miserable -- just look at how antidepressants are on the rise," he says.

Americans work more hours than anyone else in the industrialized world. According to the United Nations' International Labor Organization, they work 250 hours, or five weeks, more than the Brits, and a whopping 500 hours, or 12 and a half weeks, more than the Germans.

Maintaining growth means using more energy and resources, both in manpower and raw materials, which results in increased waste and pollution.

John de Graaf, producer of the groundbreaking 1997 PBS documentary "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, says, "It's staggering. The USA has declined relative to all other industrial countries in virtually every quality of life measured -- health, equality, savings, sustainability -- though that's not so with the GDP and certainly not with the number of billionaires.," he says. Unsurprisingly, the United States is the world's largest polluter.

Housing a mere 5 percent of the world's population, it accounts for 22 percent of its fossil fuel consumption, 50 percent of its solid waste, and, on average, each citizen consumes 53 times more goods than a person in China, according to the environmental nonprofit, Sierra Club.

When people work longer hours, they rely increasingly on convenience items such as fast food, disposable diapers, or bottled water. Built-in obsolescence has become standard business practice -- just throw it away and make more -- leaving mountainous landfills in its wake. "Earning more often means spending money in ways that are environmentally d etrimental.

We're finding that to compensate for lack of time, you actually need more money to work those extra hours," says Monique Tilford, acting executive director of the Centre for a New American Dream, a Maryland group promoting environmentally and socially responsible consumption. If the world started clocking American hours, then it would be detrimental to its environmental health, says writer Dara Colwell.

According to a paper issued by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, D.C., if Europe moved towards a U.S.-based economic model, it would consume 15-30 percent more energy by 2050. This would impact fuel prices worldwide and boost carbon emissions, resulting in additional global warming of 1-2 degrees Celsius. Any reductions in greenhouse gas emissions made through conservation, cleaner fuels or green technology would be overwhelmed by increased industrial output.

A national organization with 10,000 members, Take Back Your Time has launched a campaign calling for national legislation guaranteeing a minimum of three weeks of paid vacation, an issue it hopes to make part of the 2008 presidential campaign.

As it stands, America is the only industrial nation that offers no legal protection for vacations. The average vacation in the United States is now only a long weekend, and 25 percent of American workers have no paid vacation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Compare that to Sweden, which mandates 32 vacation days per year It's just those kind of values Schmidt has tried to encourage in his Work Less Party.

Schmidt, a former computer programmer, started by getting rid of his car and cycling to work, then took advantage of the savings by reducing his workweek, which allowed him enough time to write his book, make two documentaries, and organize a community theater group -- all in the last three years.

"People spend so many hours wo rking they have no idea of how much creative potential they have, but you get a taste of mental freedom you want more of it. It's an explosion of creativity." says Schmidt, quickly adding, "I'm a workaholic, but it's the type of work that's the problem. Our society is focused on work that makes stuff that goes directly into landfills. Essential work such as art, music, creativity, community, the kind necessary to create a healthy society and planet, is being negated in favor of that."


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