Sunday, January 11, 2009

Good Jobs? Green Jobs?

Fifty years ago, John Kenneth Galbraith addressed a forum of Resources for the Future with the following question and observation:
If we are concerned about our great appetite for materials, it is plausible to seek to increase the supply, to decrease the waste, to make better use of the stocks that are available, and to develop substitutes. But what of the appetite itself? Surely this is the ultimate source of the problem. If it continues its geometric course, will it not one day have to be restrained? Yet in the literature of the resource problem this is the forbidden question. Over it hangs a nearly total silence. It is as though, in the discussion of the chance for avoiding automobile accidents, we agree not to make any mention of speed!
In the half-century since Galbraith made those remarks, many scientists and economists have asked the "forbidden question" about restraining growth. It becomes perplexing, therefore, when the old silence re-asserts itself, as it apparently has in the announced program of the Good Jobs, Green Jobs National Conference.

Clearly cleaner technologies, greater efficiency and renewable sources of energy are part of any solution to the problems of limited resources and adverse environment effects of industry. But another, essential part of a comprehensive green strategy has to focus on developing alternatives to the imperative of economic growth. Ultimately, the technological responses have to be integrated with the ethical and social responses.

One of the alternatives to economic growth is the reduction of working time. Economic growth was adopted as a policy objective in the 1950s and 1960s because it was viewed as a means to the end of full employment. In the 1960s, the AFL-CIO urged "creating jobs through shorter hours," recognizing that "even if other economic policies are successful in stimulating greater growth in the period ahead, the rate of advance in technology and other labor-displacing changes is gathering such momentum that, unless part of the gains in efficiency are distributed in reductions in hours, it is virtually inevitable that it will show up in persistent and increased unemployment" (Economic Trends and Outlook, American Federationist, November 1962).

Not only do shorter work hours present a strategy for creating good jobs, they are better for the environment. David Rosnick and Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research looked at the potential environmental effects of other countries adopted U.S. style long working hours in a report titled "Are Shorter Work Hours Good for the Environment: A comparison of U.S. and European Energy Consumption." They found that the levels of carbon emissions could increase substantially if workers in other countries worked as much as U.S. workers do. Conversely, if the U.S. adopted working times closer to the European average, energy consumption could be reduced significantly.

In his speech, Galbraith went on to inquire whether our happiness would be greatly impaired by more modest consumption. It is not unreasonable to expect that happiness could be enhanced by more generous leisure time.


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