Could a Green New Deal Make Us Happier People?

Too many of us work too much. It’s not just making us miserable, it’s wrecking the planet.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

For as long as climate change has been a part of America’s national consciousness, it’s been talked about in dire terms, evoking images of some hellish, “Mad Max”-style dystopia. The title and much of the content of David Wallace-Wells’s recent book is a variation on the same theme, stirring up hundreds of pages of images’ worth of an “Uninhabitable Earth” to make the case that the conversation has not been dire enough.

In describing the nature of the problem, drastic terms are of course necessary. Annihilation looms, and the chaos it threatens to bring about — stronger storms, more fearsome floods, unbearable heat — is truly the stuff of nightmares. But the apocalyptic framing of the problem has also shaped how we talk about solutions to it. From carbon taxes to consumption cuts, climate policy has long been framed as an issue of stiff-lipped sacrifice: What will we have to give up to save our skins? The right takes this characterization to extremes, accusing climate hawks of wanting to ban cars and hamburgers and throw civilization back into the Dark Ages.

While its critics like to pretend otherwise, the Green New Deal — an economy-wide mobilization to decarbonize the United States as soon as possible — turns that question on its head, asking instead where we need to invest society’s vast resources.

But could a plan to curb emissions also make us happier? Could the things we cut back also be the things that make us miserable?

A growing body of research, though, points to some more unexpected reasons why a Green New Deal could make us more cheerful.

If you buy scientists’ claims that an economy-wide mobilization is the only thing that can stave off full-blown catastrophe, there are some obvious reasons to believe that a Green New Deal — the only call for that on the table — will make us happy, at least in the long run. Averting civilizational collapse, that is, is a happier outcome than the alternative. Provisions like a federal job guarantee, improved public transportation, and reining in pollution could improve millions of lives in the shorter term. A growing body of research, though, points to some more unexpected reasons why a Green New Deal could make us more cheerful.

The most recent entry on this front is a forthcoming paper from economists Anders Fremstad and Mark Paul. Looking at household-level data on work hours and household purchasing habits from the Consumer Expenditure Survey, they then calculate the carbon intensity of that spending to produce individual carbon footprints for each of the households surveyed. Fremsted and Paul find that people who work less also emit less carbon dioxide.

The punchline here isn’t novel; economist Juliet Schor has been drawing connections between work hours and climate change for well over a decade, stemming from her work in the 1993 best-seller “The Overworked American,” delineating how Americans have come to work more and what effect that has on how people spend their dwindling leisure time. Namely, by doing more shopping, a habit spurred on by copious corporate advertising. “Many potentially satisfying leisure skills are off limits because they take too much time: participating in community theater, seriously taking up a sport or a musical instrument, getting involved with a church or community organization,” she wrote then. “We have gotten ourselves entrenched in a cycle of work and spend — a cycle of long hours and consumer mentality as a way of life.” As Schor’s recent work has pointed out more directly, all that manufactured consumption comes at a high carbon cost. Examining data from 29 high-income OECD countries conducted between 1970 and 2007, Schor and the late Eugene Rosa and Kyle Knight found in comparing nations that shorter work hours reduce both ecological (i.e., resource usage) and carbon footprints.

Things didn’t necessarily need to turn out this way. At the start of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that work weeks could dwindle to just 15 hours as people opted for more leisure time, their material needs being met and then some as living standards rose. The labor militants that helped push for and win the original New Deal also campaigned for shorter work weeks and higher wages, to allow more people to do less work overall while getting more of their basic needs met by a freshly minted welfare state. Combined with rising automation, many expected that shorter work weeks were all but inevitable as Keynes predicted. Yet years later, work hours in the United States have ballooned and remain stubbornly high, thanks in no small part, as Schor documents, to the right wing’s persistent attacks on unions. Productivity has skyrocketed as wages have stagnated — a split that widened starkly as neoliberalism and the giddy consumerism it brought with it took hold.

Though global phenomena, the effects of each have been felt acutely in the United States, an oddly tired man out among wealthy countries. As Fremsted and Paul reiterate from Schor’s and others’ work, “Most high-income countries have substantially shorter work hours and significantly smaller carbon footprints than the U.S. For example, the average German worker toils 23 percent fewer hours than their American counterpart, and the average German emits 46 percent less carbon.” None of that happened by accident, of course: In Germany, shorter work weeks have been a perennial demand of the country’s labor movement, which has a formal role in the governance of its biggest companies. Shorter weeks can go hand in hand with a job guarantee too — if each person works less, there are more useful jobs to go around.

What’s novel about Fremstad and Paul’s new paper is that it estimates the impact of work hours on carbon emissions using variation across households, whereas other studies use variation across countries, or (less often) states. It also highlights the kind of carbon impacts we could expect work hour reductions to have here compared to other places. They describe how the same amount of work hour reduction here in the United States reduces emissions by less than it would elsewhere. The relationship between those two factors is much stronger in Germany and Sweden, for instance, where fewer work hours correspond with far more significant emissions reductions. Asked why this is the case, Fremstad points to other carbon-cutting policies that compliment shorter work hours in these and other countries, including more stringent climate rules but also investment in public transit and housing. Shorter work hours, then, are “not a panacea … just reducing work hours will not radically reduce emissions by all that much,” Fremstad told The Intercept.

“The intuition is pretty straightforward,” he said. “If people work less and earn less, the thing they cut back is not going to be heating their home or buying some gasoline. Those are necessities. What will change is spending on less needed things, maybe restaurant meals — not particularly carbon-intensive stuff. If everyone’s furnace is still burning gasoline, it doesn’t matter how much we change how often it burns. Changing that is going to require investments.”

By making those investments, Fremstad added, “a Green New Deal would transform those purchases” to create “a less carbon-intensive dollar than buying another dollar of gasoline.” Fremstad and Paul argue that while larger changes are need, reducing work hours should be in the mix of the Green New Deal’s policy suite.

Focusing on these consumer choices ignores the fact that government policy structures consumption choices at every turn.

Any climate plan worth its salt ultimately needs to do two things: change the amount of energy people consume and the composition of that energy by electrifying the economy and having much more of it run off zero-carbon power. There’s mounting evidence that doing one or the other simply won’t be enough. Green New Deal advocates have made reference to a World War II-style mobilization to achieve the latter, which — at least in the short term — could stimulate carbon-intensive consumer demand in ways that would need to be balanced out to mute its environmental impact.

Yet mainstream conversations about carbon footprints have tended to fixate on individual action: Do you use a plastic bag at the store or bring your own? Do you drive a gas-guzzling SUV or a Prius? Focusing on these consumer choices ignores the fact that government policy structures consumption choices at every turn, as well, in ways that have relatively little to do with whether you “buy green” or not.

Contra Fox News’s fear-mongering, the sorts of policies proposed as part of a Green New Deal are not premised on creating some draconian rationing system of secret police confiscating hamburgers. And the developed countries with much smaller per capita emissions than the United States are hardly dystopias.

In order, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands claimed the top five slots in this year’s U.N. World Happiness Report. This doesn’t mean Finns or their Scandinavian neighbors are a jolly bunch; they’re generally pretty restrained, even dour compared to us oddly smiley Americans. Researchers measure happiness based on six specific categories: GDP per capita in terms of purchasing power; life expectancy; social support from networks of friends and families; having the “freedom to choose what you do with your life”; generosity; perceptions of corruption; and both positive and negative affect, or, how often people reported experiencing positive or negative emotions. Aside from GDP per capita and life expectancy, the data for all of these categories is drawn from self-reported answers to the Gallup World Poll. The United States dropped from rank 11 to 19 between two periods U.N. researchers compared, between 2006 and 2008 and from 2016 to 2018. We now land between Belgium (18) and the Czech Republic (20).

What makes Americans so unhappy? “We found the only one of the six factors that has grown, income per capita, and that’s contributed to helping happiness but only by a small amount. It’s been offset by a declining sense of freedom and generosity and an increase in perceived levels of corruption,” said economist John Helliwell, an editor on the report.

“One thing that we have noticed in psychological experiments,” he said, is “that people overestimate the amount of happiness you’re going to get from more income or more consumption, and underestimate the happiness they get from more time with family and friends.”

It’s a truism in capitalism that economic growth is synonymous with prosperity, and prosperity is synonymous with happiness. The data doesn’t bear that out. “It’s not a zero linkage,” Helliwell said of the relationship between happiness and economic growth, “but it’s not one you should spend all your time studying because it’s only one part of the total. … In a way, what we’re doing by focusing on subjective well-being is taking economics back to its roots: helping people find efficient ways to have better lives. It was only because the more narrowly defined income statistics were so easily available that success came to be defined in more narrow terms,” particularly GDP growth.

It’s a truism in capitalism that economic growth is synonymous with prosperity, and prosperity is synonymous with happiness. The data doesn’t bear that out.

Happy countries are doing well on measures outside the report’s bounds too. On average, the carbon footprint of the average American is more than twice that of residents in the world’s happiest countries. They also work 330 hours less each year — about 41 fewer days for those working eight hours a day, owed at least partially to the European Union-wide mandate that workers get four paid weeks off per year and high levels of union density.

These places each back fairly ambitious climate policies, at least compared to the United States: pledging carbon neutrality by 2030, pushing the whole European Union to go net-zero by mid-century, investing in renewables-based heating systems, and the list goes on.

But less obviously green investments also go a long way toward their residents to live less carbon-intensive lives, and creating a built environment to make them both possible and pleasurable. State-supported dense and affordable housing, for instance — critical to building a low-carbon world — can encourage people to work and learn closer to where they live. Well-funded public housing in other parts of the world includes things like kindergartens, bars, and restaurants — the kind of “social infrastructure,” as New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls it, that enable hyper-local communities to grow and thrive. Just 7 percent of Americans currently use public transit to commute. And much of the carbon costs embedded in things like education and even sports stem from the fact that people in many parts of the country use cars to reach them, lacking any viable alternative or the resources to buy a Tesla. Beyond common-sense reforms like fuel efficiency standards, building out robust transit networks can help to remedy that and chip away at carbon-heavy car culture, one of the biggest contributors to U.S. emissions. This kind of low-carbon infrastructure has spillover effects too. Decarbonizing transit, for instance, doesn’t happen in a vacuum: Electric trains and cars in cities also mean electric ambulances and trucking, creating spillover effects for everything from health care to agriculture.

CARTERET, NJ - NOVEMBER 17: Vehicles move along the The New Jersey Turnpike Way while a Factory emits smoke on November 17, 2017 in Carteret, New Jersey. The United States is still contributing to the global greenhouse gas emissions as the Trump Administration has dismantled the U.S. foreign-policy to reduce carbon pollution. Political divisions in the United States over climate change have spilled over to the outside world as seen at the COP23 United Nations Climate Change Conference that ends today in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images)

Vehicles move along the New Jersey Turnpike Way while a factory emits smoke in Carteret, N.J., on Nov. 17, 2017.

Photo: Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Corbis via Getty Images

As another sociologist, Daniel Aldana Cohen, has pointed out, it’s not only density that lowers emissions — particularly the kind built for the carbon-hungry rich; New York City’s vaunted Second Avenue subway, through the tony Upper East Side, has done the planet no favors. “When the people clustered are prosperous professionals, the carbon benefits of density can be cancelled out by the emissions their consumption causes. The smokestacks, of course, are elsewhere,” he writes. “It’s by expanding collective consumption — in housing, transit, services, and leisure — that we can democratize and decarbonize urban life.”

Given more time, we’ll probably opt to spend it with friends and family rather than at Target. And particularly if things like education and health care are provided for, it’s more likely that we’ll spend our money on good meals and parties rather than fast fashion and end tables. There’s plenty of need to decarbonize our more leisurely consumerism too, but those projects aren’t exactly separate. As Raj Patel and Jim Goodman argued recently, industrial agriculture is on a collision course with a sustainable planet and the well-being of most farmers. “A survey by the National Young Farmers Coalition suggests that there’s a generation of young people who want to farm sustainably, organically, and as a part of a robust local food system,” they wrote. “Their main concerns are an inability to afford land, student debt, poor health care, and a shortfall of skilled farm labor.”

Happy countries’ investments in collective consumption and their shorter work weeks allow for a whole host of activities that make us happier — and happen to not destroy the planet.

Happy countries’ investments in collective consumption and their shorter work weeks allow for a whole host of activities that make us happier — and happen to not destroy the planet. Research by Indiana University’s Joseph Kantenbacher has found that the things that bring us the most joy also don’t tend to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These generally involve some kind of human connection. “Intimate relations” and “socializing after work” take the top two spots in a 2006 study by economists Daniel Kahneman and Alan B. Krueger, ranking activities that improve self-reported life satisfaction. Shopping ranks relatively low, along with non-work related time on the computer, commutes, and (of course) work. Volunteering also ranks highly, a category that can include everything from neighborhood trash pickups to community organizing that pushes for more climate-friendly policies. And people who get more sleep are generally more satisfied with life, as well as healthier than their overworked and under-slept counterparts.

So provided we’re not filling up a gas tank to get to them, our favorite creature comforts — socialization, sex, and sleep — simply aren’t carbon-intensive. Ensuring that we don’t just seek out more polluting, less gratifying things to do with our leisure time isn’t a matter of buying the right car or lightbulb. It’s about building a society that makes a low-carbon and altogether happier life possible for everyone.

It’s worth noting that — for the most part — the world’s happiest countries, by ranking, are social democracies, or at least far closer to that model than the United States. Aside from investing more money in the kinds of public goods above, they also tend to treat things like health care and child care as basic rights. Relatedly, they’re far less unequal in the United States, according to the GINI Index measuring inequality within countries. People spend less of their free time in cars, and public institutions create literal spaces to relax. Iceland’s extensive network of pubic pools (sundlauds), for instance, are geothermically heated, open year-round, and a core part of the island’s civic culture. One New York Times Magazine reporter observed wistfully that they are “key to Icelandic well-being.”

“The more local swimming pools I visited,” he wrote in 2016, “the more convinced I became that Icelanders’ remarkable satisfaction is tied inextricably to the experience of escaping the fierce, freezing air and sinking into warm water among their countrymen.”

There’s no guarantee a Green New Deal would create American sundlauds, but it’s a nice thought.

ICELAND - DECEMBER 09: Tourists enjoy the Secret Lagoon hot spring natural pool as part of the Hot Golden Circle Tour, on December 9, 2017 in Reykjavik, Iceland. Iceland is volcanically and geologically active, creating many geothermal hot springs and pools. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Tourists enjoy the Secret Lagoon hot spring natural pool in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Dec. 9, 2017.

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

This isn’t to lionize actually existing social democracies, or overstate the extent to which they can be seen as a clean blueprint for building a better and greener America. They’re for the most part tiny countries that are leagues less diverse than the United States — a fact made painfully obvious by rising anti-immigrant politicians bent on protecting their generous welfare states from mostly nonwhite outsiders. Let’s also not forget that Norway is a prolific oil exporter, greening the home front while continuing to ship its toxic exports overseas. These countries are neither socialist utopias nor carbon-neutral ones.

Defined in a certain way — as workers having more ownership over the means of production — democratic socialism may well make people happier still. Helliwell and his fellow researchers have observed a “systematic” relationship between happiness and employees seeing their co-workers and immediate supervisors as partners rather than as bosses. Half-jokingly, I said that the ideal form of workplace organization to maximize happiness would be a worker cooperative, in which employees own and run the business. “There’s no question. Any measure of cooperative behavior uniformly produces higher happiness on the job, and for workers when they come home as well,” he responded soberly. “The principles of most cooperatives are exactly the principles that make people happy: They like to work in an environment where everybody is on the same team, where the interests of workers, shareholders, and customers are aligned.” A recent study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine would seem to back that up. Researchers found that workers who have less control over their jobs are more prone to mental illness and binge drinking. “By being relatively protected from domination and exploitation, work characterized by authority, autonomy, and expertise may offer protection from psychosocial risk factors for mental illness and drinking outcomes,” they write.

Figuring out what to call a low-carbon world, though, is much less important than ensuring it actually gets built. “It isn’t big government that gives you happiness, nor is it small government. It’s the right kind of government,” Helliwell said. “You want a government that people believe in. If you’re in a high-trust environment, people don’t fight” about which policies to implement, at least not to the extent that we’re used to here in the United States, he added. It’s also hard to argue with the fact that ensuring people’s basic needs are met — for food, health care, housing, child care, and more — creates the conditions for a happier life, and far more directly than simply raising per capita income. It may not be a coincidence that the places where these things are treated as basic rights are also generally ahead of the curve on climate.

A group of researchers preparing their findings for the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s next report have started to sketch out that link, laying out a series of what they called Shared Socioeconomic Pathways that forecast how we do or don’t avert planetary catastrophe. SSP 1 — a kind of best-case scenario — envisions “more inclusive development that respects perceived environmental boundaries. Management of the global commons slowly improves, educational and health investments accelerate the demographic transition, and the emphasis on economic growth shifts toward a broader emphasis on human well-being. Driven by an increasing commitment to achieving development goals, inequality is reduced both across and within countries.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more unequal economies sketched out in further SSPs are also far less likely to reign in emissions along the timeline needed, as may not be too difficult to guess based on what the Donald Trumps and Jair Bolsonaros of the world have planned.

The Green New Deal components that its critics have decried as wasteful add-ons — social housing, a federal job guarantee, universal health care — are anything but. Truly full employment, for instance, the aim of any job guarantee, could reduce emissions by bringing more workers into the economy and reducing per-capita work hours overall. Some might further spend that time engaged in creating sites of low-carbon leisure like the original New Deal did with the Works Projects Administration, via everything from the Federal Theater Project to the Civilian Conservation Corps; we may get our sundlauds yet. Offering decent wages for less work is also a good way to entice people away from poorly paid jobs in carbon-intensive supply chains like Walmart, the largest employer in 22 states and (for many) one of the only options on offer to pay the bills. And people working less leaves more time for the things that actually make us happy, reducing demand for the cheap consumer goods Walmart pumps out. Eliminating unemployment further means eliminating a major driver of unhappiness, as Helliwell and fellow researchers have found. Because if being overworked makes people unhappy, being unemployed may be worse still.

That’s just one example. Like other green wins, getting a job guarantee means redefining what it is that economies should be working toward. Reaching net-zero emissions in the United States will involve massive transformations across virtually every aspect of society, including the quality and quantity of the energy we consume. A Green New Deal isn’t just about subbing out one form of energy for another as all else remains equal — and there’s plenty of inequality to be rooted out. It’s about building a carbon-free America. If we succeed, that country will also be a happier one.

“In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving, however excellent his pictures may be,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1932, arguing for shorter work weeks amid a deepening Depression. “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen instead to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines. In this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish for ever.”

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