Volume 23, Number 4 October 1994


The Overworked American
: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure

Juliet B Schor
Basic Books, New York, 1992, 247 pages

Many of us have been struck by the incredibly long hours worked by so many Americans. Juliet Schor has written a fascinating book about the puritanical commitment of Americans to work, work and more work. Schor's book is fascinating in its own right, and it is also highly relevant to the current debate over sustainable futures.

Our work ethic is really quite amazing. Long work hours is a relatively recent invention, dating to the industrial revolution. In 14th-century England, people worked only some 1500 hours per year. By the mid nineteenth century the industrial revolution had lead to a massive increase in work--to some 3500 hours a year!

The rise of labor organizations lead gradually to work time reductions. This continued until the post-World War II era, after which work time began to climb. In the two decades from 1967 to 1987, annual hours of paid employment in the US increased from 1786 to 1949 hours. Men's work increased by 98 hours per year and women's by 305 hours, as male labor force participation dropped from about 80% to 75%, while female increased from about 40% to 57%. Today--if you have a job--you work harder than ever.

What is going on here? It can't be that we are poor. American incomes average some sixty-five times greater than those of the poorer half of the world's population. Does this income make us better off? Apparently many of us think not! Today more and more of us feel pressed for time. Nor is it that we've lost our ability toproduce. Schor points out that since World War II US per-capita worker productivity has more than doubled. We could live at the same standard as we had in 1948 (which was not so bad, I think), while working only six months a year. Or we could take every other year off. Or retire at age 45. Yet we feel compelled to work. Why? One reason is that we've defined well-being so that there is no such thing as "enough."

A nation that defines itself in terms of ever more material goods, novelty, gadgetry, throw-away items, and "keeping up with the Joneses" is a nation of people who can never, even in principle, be satisfied. We educate and train ourselves to believe in "more" as the true pathway to satisfaction.

What has this to do with sustainability? Here I diverge from Schor, whose focus is on regaining the contentment made possible by leisure. Today's sustainability discussion results from the idea that the world is using resources so fast that we are destroying irreplaceable fossil fuels, rain forests, and species. Resource use is, by definition, equal to population multiplied by resource use per person. Developing nations deplete primarily by population; developed nations by high per capita consumption. Not only do we deplete exorbitantly, but our national posture emphasizes constant growth for an indefinite time.

As economist Herman Daly cogently observed, in the curious language of U.S. economic policy, "constant" has come to mean "constant growth rate," rather than"constant value," as any physicist would think. This is strange but entirely consistent with the exponential growth implied by materialistically "keeping up the Joneses."

These issues are difficult for everyone, physicists included. While physicists as a group may not strive for the excess incomes and golden parachutes characteristic of lawyers, doctors, and University of California top management, we are certainly well endowed with the work ethic. Physicists, differing from most Americans in our interest in intellectual pursuits, still often measure our success in terms of material assets. Is our behavior consistent with sustainability?

Juliet Schor's insightful book provides an unusual jumping off point for exploring what sustainability might mean in America. What better place to start that exploration than to ask ourselves what makes life worth living. And to seek an answer in questioning our national preoccupation with that cornerstone of national doctrine--salvation through consumption. Schor gives us the technical background for understanding one incarnation of Pogo's famous bonmot: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Paul Craig
Graduate Group in Ecology Davis CA 95616

Industrial Ecology and Global Change
edited by R. Socolow, C. Andrews, V. Thomas, and F. Berkhout Cambridge University Press, 1994, 420 pages.

The central theme of this book is how humankind can fully industrialize our society without overwhelming the Earth's natural systems. It is written for those who already understand the importance of this question for the future of civilization and wish to participate more effectively in attempts to implement appropriate strategies. In the five main parts of this book, contributors discuss the industrialization of society; the main natural systems cycles (e.g. carbon and nitrogen cycles); toxic chemicals in the environment; industrial ecology in firms; and policy-making with respect to industrial ecology. These articles address such important issues as recycling, solar energy, chemicals in agriculture, industrial innovation, and international cooperation and present perspectives from North America and around the globe.


OVERVIEW: Six perspectives from Industrial Ecology.

PART I: VULNERABILITY AND ADAPTATION. Industrial Ecology: definition and implementation / Industrialization as a historical phenomenon / Changing perceptions of vulnerability / The human dimension of vulnerability / Global industrialization: A developing country perspective.

PART 2: THE GRAND CYCLES: DISRUPTION AND REPAIR. Human impacts on the carbon and nitrogen cycles / Charting development paths: A multi-country comparison of carbon dioxide emissions / Reducing urban sources of methane: An experiment in industrial ecology / Reducing carbon dioxide emissions in Russia / Energy efficiency in China: Past experience and future prospects / Roles for biomass energy in sustainable development.

PART 3: TOXICS AND THE ENVIRONMENT. Soil as a vulnerable environmental system / The vulnerability of biotic diversity / Global ecotoxicology: Management and science / Industrial activity and metals emissions / Metals loading of the environment: Cadmium in the Rhine Basin, Emissions and exposure to metals: Cadmium and lead / Nuclear power: An industrial ecology that failed?

PART 4: INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY IN FIRMS. Policies to encourage clean technology / Initiaitves in Lower Saxony to link ecology to economy / Military-to-civilian conversion and the environment: Problems and prospects in the Russian Federation / The political economy and industrial ecology of raw materials extraction and trade / Integrating environmentally-friendly energy technologies into the development process.

END PIECE: Industrial ecology: The agenda.