The first step towards slowing global warming is to stop working, says Colin Tudge in these extracts from his new essay for the Idler 81, Nov/Dec 2021
As Oscar Wilde famously observed, “Work is the curse of the drinking classes.” Good one (as usual). Very arch. But with a little tweaking, Oscar’s joke becomes a profound truth that we should all impress upon the world’s leaders. The work ethic – which sees hard work for its own sake as a prime virtue, and drives the present, ultra-competitive, ultra-productive, neoliberal “growth economy” – has become the curse of humanity and is threatening all life on Earth.
The idea behind the growth economy – that we should strive constantly to grow richer, supposedly to raise our “standard of living” – is grotesquely off-beam. As E F Schumacher (author of Small is Beautiful) might have said, such an approach is no longer appropriate. For our own sake and for that of the planet, we need to take our foot off the accelerator and produce less.
We can learn this from biology. Thus we find that other animals work as hard as they need to but no harder. True, some unfortunate creatures are obliged to work hard. Small, warm-blooded animals like shrews rapidly lose heat and so must toil with Stakhanovite zeal to find enough worms and beetles to fuel their fevered metabolisms. But lions, on the other hand, are big and stay warm easily. Plus they eat meat, rich in protein and calories, so – when things are going well – they can afford to be wonderfully lazy, only hunting every few days, and sleeping for up to 20 hours.
Today, as everyone halfway sensible knows (even if many world and financial leaders do not), the age of insouciant, super-energetic, super-productive agriculture and all the industrial superstructure that’s been built on it, must end. The Earth itself is collapsing. The super-competitive economy that obliges us to compete for more and more resource and wealth must end with it. The work ethic that drives the whole frantic, materialist, global competition, and especially the mindset that makes a virtue of this, is no longer appropriate.
We need to replace the growth economy not simply with a no-growth economy but with a minimalist economy. This requires new economic structures and, most of all, a new mindset. Instead of asking “What’s the most we can get away with?” we should ask: “What’s the least we need to do to achieve personal fulfilment and a reasonable deal for everyone, and to look after the natural world?”
If they seriously addressed this question, then the richer countries at least, including all the G7 and most of the G20, would surely find they could live well on half or in some cases 100th of what we consume now, and that no one need be deprived, if their economies were more egalitarian. That is what we need to aim for.
These extracts come from a longer piece in Idler 81, Nov/Dec 2021
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