John de Graaf Advocates More Time and Less Stuff

Less is more: not just for aesthetics; it might work for the economy and the environment, too.

April 21, 2009

The "growth imperative" -- the belief more is always better than less: more hours worked, more stuff produced, more stuff sold -- is ultimately unworkable, according to author and documentary producer John de Graaf. Not just because we can't afford it, de Graaf said at Knox on April 14, but because the earth can't sustain it.

John de Graaf"If everybody on the earth began to consume like we Americans do, we'd need five earths," de Graaf said. "That's a problem -- we're four planets short." De Graaf is a long-time critic of over-consumption, including his book "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic," and two related documentaries, "Affluenza" and "Escape from Affluenza."

Improvements in technology have enabled -- and will enable -- production with less environmental impact, de Graaf said. However, American society has coupled increased productivity with material prosperity -- higher wages and higher spending, but also higher indebtedness, longer work hours and lower levels of satisfaction.

Time pressure and overwork are linked to the lack of ecological sustainability, de Graaf argued in his lecture. De Graaf recommended that Americans work more like Europeans, creating more leisure time and saving energy: "If we reduced our working hours to European hours, we'd reduce our energy usage by 25 percent."

"We have to trade future increases in productivity for time instead of stuff," de Graaf said.

De Graaf conceded that "there is a trade-off: We would not have as much stuff. We would have smaller houses, and fewer and smaller cars... [But if we] change our priorities, it will lengthen our life span and improve the quality of our environment."

The growth imperative seems to offer only two choices, de Graaf said. "Either we have to increase productivity and consume more, or else we will have layoffs... There is a third choice, to share working hours to give people more time off."

De Graaf also showed an excerpt from his most recent video, "What's the Economy For, Anyway?" He has produced more than 15 programs for Public Broadcasting System. de Graaf is also on the board of the organization Take Back Your Time, which advocates shorter work weeks and more vacation time.

Roger Taylor at John de Graaf lectureKnox President Roger Taylor (photo, right) introduced de Graaf's talk, "Time and Sustainability," as part of EquiKnox, a series of campus activities to promote ecological sustainability at Knox.

Founded in 1837, Knox is a national liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois, with students from 47 states and 48 countries. Knox's "Old Main" is a National Historic Landmark and the only building remaining from the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates.

John de Graaf
John De Graaf: "If we're to become sustainable on a finite planet, we need to trade productivity for time instead of stuff."