National / News / April 16, 2009

Free time impacts our sustainability

On Tuesday, April 14, John de Graaf gave a talk entitled “Time and Sustainability,” along with a showing part of his documentary, “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?” De Graaf is an author, award-winning television producer, and executive director of the Take Back Your Time initiative.

His lecture, which was opened by Roger Taylor and sponsored by the Knox College President’s Task Force on Sustainability and the Cultural Events Committee, was the spring feature event in Knox’s EquiKnox series.

De Graaf began the lecture by talking about the sacrifices that people make to get on the “treadmill” of producing and consuming, which can result in something he calls “affluenza: a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

The main sacrifice he focused on in his lecture was the sacrifice of time, though he also mentioned sacrifices of health, happiness and security. According to de Graaf, the average American works approximately 300 hours, or nine weeks, more per year than people in other countries. Though Americans are able to acquire more “stuff,” their health and family ties simultaneously deteriorate.

In addition, our level of consumption is increasing with our level of work. According to de Graaf, “if everybody in the world consumed like Americans, we would need five planets — and that’s a problem because we’re four planets short.”

De Graaf noted in his speech that while trying to explore alternatives to this situation, the question always arises, “But what would that do to the economy?” to which he proposed the exploration of the question, “What’s the economy for, anyway?”

To being to answer that question, he showed the beginning of his documentary, which explained the history and theory behind the Gross Domestic Product, in addition to shining a comedic light on the subject (“the grosser it gets, the better we assume the economy to be”). His documentary also explored the conundrum that a major oil spill adds more to the GDP than if the oil were safely delivered to shore. De Graaf disagreed that the end of capitalism would solve all economic problems, but instead said, “The market system has to have checks and balances.”

After investigating the question of the purpose of the economy, de Graaf returned to the topic of time, saying that despite our constant development of technology, Americans are continuing to work more and more. This, in turn, is negatively affecting the family, friends, community, contributions to society, and freedom that people claim to hold dear.

According to de Graaf, if we want to become more sustainable as a country, we need to use our productivity to create time instead of stuff. An example he gave about the connection between personal and environmental sustainability was the example of people who want to improve their health and environment but are pressed for time, therefore eat fast food and use more disposable items rather than recycling and gardening.

“It’s not just environmental sustainability; it’s personal and family sustainability – more time is step one in that direction,” said de Graaf.

While the taking back of time could result in the reduction of yearly productivity (i.e. less “stuff” produced per year), it would also positively result in the increase of hourly productivity, making working hours more efficient, and therefore more productive.

De Graaf ended with several suggestions on how to encourage personal and environmental sustainability, including the use of new green technology, the use of tax credits to create job-shares to prevent lay-offs, and the modification of the time/stuff trade-off.

While de Graaf acknowledged that it is a challenge to build a movement during the current economic crisis, he was still optimistic, “Every crisis is an opportunity— it’s an opportunity to reevaluate what’s important to us.”

Laurie Nowak


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