By: Joanna Thompson.
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Jayson Porter never meant to go viral on Twitter. Porter, an environmental historian at Northwestern University, was thinking about an in-class conversation he’d had with some of his students when he tweeted on March 1, 2022: “I’m still stuck on this idea: investing in more sleep for climate justice.”
The tweet quickly exploded, resonating with hundreds of thousands of users, including climate advocates, sleep enthusiasts and burnt-out millennial types. But it also raised a huge question: Can sleeping more really help combat climate change?
The answer, according to experts, is yes—with a few qualifications.
The idea of sleeping in to save the planet is “enticing,” Porter told The Daily Beast, “partly because it’s a reflection of a lot of privilege.” Most of us would love to catch some extra z’s. But simply snoozing your alarm won’t do much to slash carbon emissions. What’s more, not everyone has the time, resources or economic security to sleep more at night without widespread systemic change. That’s why, at its heart, “this is really a question of anti-capitalism,” Porter said.
The trouble is, we live in a society—and for most of us in the Global North, that society happens to be hyper-capitalistic. “Growth is very much ingrained in capitalism,” Milena Buchs, an environmental sociologist at the University of Leeds in England, told The Daily Beast. It’s an insidious truth reflected in business-speak mantras like “growth mindset” and “rise and grind,” which glorify constant work as a virtue.
However, from a climate perspective, humanity’s current workload is downright destructive. It takes a lot of carbon to make the stuff we purchase on a daily basis, like clothes, electronics and various plastics. Industry alone accounts for over a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the EPA. That slice balloons to 40 percent when combined with emissions produced from powering office buildings and commuting to work.
“In most developed countries, work time hasn’t really decreased since the mid-1980s, despite very large improvements in productivity,” Jonas Nässén, a sustainability researcher at Chalmers University in Sweden, told The Daily Beast.
But there are some groups working to counteract this paradox, and their ideas are starting to gain a foothold in the mainstream.
Degrowth is a movement based on the theory that perpetual growth is ultimately unsustainable, both from an economic perspective and an environmental one. Its proponents advocate scaling back the sheer amount of stuff industrial nations produce and moving towards a sustainable, circular economy.
“It’s important to emphasize that degrowth is not recession or a forced shrinking of economies, but an intentional shift,” Neera Singh, an environmental economist at the University of Toronto in Canada, told The Daily Beast.
While a sudden pivot to degrowth policies probably isn’t in the cards for most wealthy nations, some are taking a few tentative steps toward reducing people’s workload.
In June, over 3,300 workers across 70-plus companies in the U.K. began participating in a pilot program of a 30-hour, four-day work week. The six-month trial, organized by the not-for-profit 4 Day Week Campaign, aims to improve their overall well-being by providing extra time to rest and recover (without reducing pay). The goal, according to campaign director Joe Ryle, is “less stress, less burnout, less overwork.”
And those hours off work might not just benefit human health—they could be good for the planet as well.
“Moving to a four-day week is a relatively quick way of bringing down emissions,” Ryle told The Daily Beast.
The science seems to bear this out, at least in highly industrialized nations. For example, one of Nässén’s studies of Swedish households from 2015 found that every 1 percent reduction in working time reduced carbon emissions across the country by 0.8 percent. Another 2012 study suggested that scaling back work hours by 10 percent in industrial countries could reduce their carbon footprint by over 14 percent annually. Most of those reductions come from energy saved on office building lighting, air conditioning, computer usage, and commuting. And in early 2020, COVID lockdowns caused a 5.4 percent drop in global carbon dioxide emissions (that number quickly rebounded as restrictions lifted later in the year).
So, it seems that in general, less time at work equals lower emissions. But, experts caution, how people spend their personal time matters too.
Activities that are more expensive also tend to be more environmentally costly. Travel, particularly by plane, is an especially carbon-intensive undertaking. So are consumption-driven activities, like shopping. Whereas “reading a book, having a conversation, or going for a walk are obvious low-emitters,” said Nässén. It turns out that sleeping might just be the greenest activity of all. A 2019 study of nearly 5,000 households in Austria found that sleeping (and generally vegging out) was the least carbon-intensive way for a person to spend their free time; in contrast, going out to eat at a local restaurant emitted nearly 20 times as much carbon dioxide.
However, even sleep isn’t necessarily carbon neutral. In the summer and wintertime, for instance, folks often leave air conditioners or heaters running all night in order to stay comfortable. And sleeping with a noise maker or other plugged-in device could consume extra nocturnal energy.
Ultimately, Porter thinks that this sort of “personal responsibility” narrative by itself is insufficient in the fight against climate change. “Sleep is an environmental justice issue,” he said. “There are so many different things, both class and race, that disproportionately affect how people of color sleep.” To reduce emissions in a meaningful way and give everyone adequate time to rest, developed nations need to address larger, more structural issues, like unrestricted industrial growth and socioeconomic inequities.
Buchs believes that our current pandemic-altered economic landscape might offer an opportunity to allow some degrowth practices to take root naturally (albeit in a less intentional way than many degrowth advocates would like). “Some economists think that this could be part of an obvious sort of era where we see very low growth rates anyway, and where policymakers have to adjust to this very new context,” she said. She sees the growing interest in programs like the 4 Day Week Campaign as a sign that this shift has already begun.
For his part, Ryle hopes that 4 Day Week’s impact will ripple into environmental justice circles, too. “We need to be taken much more seriously by the climate movement,” he said.
Nässén sees implementing shorter work weeks and encouraging people to get more rest as a far easier sell than many other sweeping climate policies.
“While many pro-environmental lifestyle changes are [purely] sacrifices, this is a bit of both,” he said. “You’ll sacrifice a bit of consumption, but you’ll get more time for recovery or to do the things that matter to you.”
As much as we might wish it could, more hours spent dozing off won’t magically solve climate change. But restructuring the work week to allow for more rest could be a significant step towards a sustainable future—one where we can all… sleep just a little easier.