Dr Kirsty Wild, The University of Auckland 15 September 2022
Amongst all the debate about what social changes might stick post Covid, perhaps the most promising development so far seems to be the re-evaluation of how (and indeed if) we want to work. The campaign for a four-day working week has received a welcome boost.
The wellbeing benefits of reduced working hours are perhaps obvious, but the environmental benefits are less appreciated. In general, we need time to learn many of the skills that underlie lower-carbon habits, e.g. vegetarian cooking, or experimenting with commuting using ‘slower’ transport modes like walking, cycling. But unravelling our long hours work culture also provides important opportunities to break the cycle of extreme work and extreme leisure that encourages leisure flying.
We recently had a workshop at the University of Auckland to talk about the climate consequences of academic flying. Contrary to the idea that flying is critical to career development for academics, the majority of flying occurs amongst senior academics, who already have well established networks and careers. Pushed to identify what key needs academic flying really meets, the room went silent for a bit, then one Professor sighed and said ‘god, its the only time I get a break from email.’
A long hours work culture combined with the demand to be constantly online creates both the sense that dramatic ‘escape’ gestures are required to get some respite from work demands, as well as the notion that, with little time, we need extreme leisure experiences that concentrate all our needs for entertainment, restoration, and social connection into very short blocks of time. Short flying breaks in exotic locales have largely been enabled by cheap flights, but they are particularly easy to market in a culture of work abundance and leisure scarcity.
So what if we took the needs for rest, social connection, and stimulation seriously and made sure they were provided in abundance closer to home, and that we had the time to enjoy them? What if we worked four days, and gave much stronger priority to creating vibrant public spaces and ample restorative greenspace in every neighbourhood? What if on Fridays we could take free, high quality public transport to a local regional park and rest, and explore? The irony of concentrated periods of ‘extreme’ leisure, like short breaks overseas, is that the research shows that they actually meet few of the needs they are designed to address – while imposing a substantial climate burden on the rest of us. They can be highly stimulating, but are often not particularly restorative. Like drinking an espresso, when you probably need a nap.
Every year we take an annual winter holiday to Rotorua. I call it our ‘low-carbon Fiji’. We stay at a campground with hot pools. I love how campgrounds are little mini low-traffic neighbourhoods. We meet lots of new, happy folks, on holiday like us. And we soak, rest, snack and chat, and enjoy the mix of ritual (returning to the same spot is underrated – kids love ritual), as well as the novelty of exploring new spots.
How cool would it be to be able to once again catch a train again to our own little resort spots like Rotorua?
What if we extended the idea of the four-day week to regular paid sabbaticals. Auckland University Technology has a cool scheme where everyone (not just academic staff!) can go down to 80% of their salary, then take every fifth year off, paid. What if overseas travel was something we did a bit less frequently, but when we did do it, we really got time to appreciate it? I worked at AUT for awhile, and the travel that people did on their sabbatical was enjoyed many times over: heavily anticipated in advance, and savoured for years afterwards.
Most Anglo countries like us tend to score poorly on so-called ‘carbon intensity of wellbeing’ measures. We manage to use vast amounts of carbon to produce minimal and diminishing increases in wellbeing. Lets turn this around by swapping out some of our leisure flying carbon with more luxurious, restorative local spaces and the time to enjoy them.