Something that I have realized over the past few years working in conservation and related fields, while also educating myself on other societal issues (i.e., homelessness, wealth inequality, racism, etc.), is that one of the most effective ways that we could achieve our environmental conservation goals would be to convince others — especially the working class — that their free time is valuable and needs to be protected.
From my reading of Martin Hägglund’s This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, I have come to understand that our free time is all that we have during our finite lives on this planet. We only have one brief chance to experience life in ways that we find meaningful, but many of us are unable to do so because our capitalist economic system means that most of us are forced into working wage labour to meet our basic needs. This has created a society where many of us spend our lives working 40-hours (or more) per week, plus commuting to and from those jobs, just to earn a wage to help make ends meet. This system is based on the pursuit of endless profit growth for the wealthy, and it has contributed to many of the intersectional crises we are currently facing including climate change, biodiversity loss, Indigenous genocide, and exacerbating wealth inequality.
The reason why I believe that the pursuit of free time could lead to massive gains for environmental conservation, is that the majority of the work that is done by environmentalists is done to prevent or slow the never ending flow of wealth. What I mean by this is that environmental work typically seeks to protect wilderness and wildlife from exploitation at the hands of large corporations seeking greater and greater profits regardless of the cost to the natural world that sustains us. Environmental work seeks to halt, reverse, and/or prevent these corporations and the governments who enable them, so that humanity and non-human life can enjoy a healthy livable future on this planet we call home. Those corporations are the same entities that employ workers through wage labour, oftentimes with insufficient wages, minimal to no benefits, potentially harmful working conditions, and the never ending 40-hour work week until retirement.
If workers could recognize the preciousness of their free time, I think that we could build a movement in solidarity with one another to fight against the culture of overwork (i.e., hustle culture) as a way to address both environmental destruction as well as our other intersectional crises. I think that this would have a much larger benefit for conservation work than much of the firefighting work that we currently attempt, because it would help address the root cause of those fires before they even happen. The pursuit of free time could both liberate us from the monotony of the 40-hour work week, while creating a healthier, kinder, and more sustainable world for future generations to enjoy.
I should clarify that what I mean by free time doesn’t mean doing nothing or laziness, although I would argue that we should allow more room for those activities in our society as well. We live in a society that relies on each other for our survival, and the division of labour is important because we all can’t just disappear into the woods and become off-the-grid homesteaders regardless of how appealing that might be to some. Some work will always be necessary to ensure that we can reproduce our society and provide the essentials we need to survive, but this work would look much different when we are no longer forced to work 40-hours a week for the sake of shareholder dividends. What I mean by free time is time spent doing anything that you enjoy doing in and of itself. Painting for the sake of painting, or learning a new skill because you enjoy it, not just to make you more attractive for future employers. Free time is the time available for activities, commitments, or projects that you find meaningful as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end (which is typically profits under capitalism). Imagine a world where artists were free to create the artwork that makes them happy, rather than feeling forced into producing products they know they can sell just to feed themselves and put a roof over their head. Imagine a world where you could pursue an education purely because you found the subject matter interesting and meaningful, rather than feeling forced into a specific program because the job prospects are better. That would be true freedom.
The work I do as a Conservation Specialist with Alberta Wilderness Association exists primarily because of the activities of industry, specifically resource extraction such as mining, oil and gas, agriculture, and forestry. The endless assault by those industries against our natural world is a product of greed and the desire for increasing profits for the shareholders of those companies. But those companies also employ workers who are subject to long hours, working away from their families and friends, and at risk from hazardous job sites, all because they need to earn a living to support themselves. If these workers were allowed to work less, then business operations would be forced to slow down, reducing the pace of the harm we cause to our natural world, and providing more time for environmental groups to help mitigate these impacts if and when they eventually happen.
Besides the outright abandonment of capitalism as an economic way of life, there still exist a few other methods by which workers could fight to both increase and protect their free time without impacting their ability to support themselves. The two most obvious approaches would be to demand: 1 — a shorter work week (fewer working hours) with no impact on salary, and 2 — a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of some sort. A shorter work week means that workers wouldn’t have to work as many hours, increasing their available free time while potentially helping to reduce unemployment at the same time. Whereas a UBI would help people meet their basic needs regardless of whether or not they are employed. This would also allow people to leave toxic or harmful work environments, and it would force businesses to offer higher salaries and/or other benefits to attract employees. The two of these combined would mean that workers wouldn’t have to work as hard to support themselves, while simultaneously slowing down the corporations responsible for resource extraction, environmental destruction, and the climate crisis.
Currently, capitalism means that working people are forced to maximize their labour time for the benefit of the wealthy, while many are still unable to make ends meet despite having one or more jobs. A slower, kinder, healthier, and more sustainable world is possible. A society which values and protects our right to free time would have massive benefits for working people, our natural world and might help address the myriad crises we currently face as a species.