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As many of us find ourselves in enforced idleness during these COVID days, we might consider the words of philosopher Bertrand Russell in his In Praise of Idleness (1932): "I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous."
Russell advocated for a gradual reduction in paid labour to four hours a day. This, he argued, would facilitate full employment, provide more time for creative pursuits and contribute to the public good.
“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,” he wrote.
He was writing about paid work. But his point could be understood as a call for less activity in general, a request to sit still. Everything we do uses energy.
Doing is polluting. Doing is warming. Almost by its very nature, doing contributes to the climate emergency. Inactive, we’re less harmful to the planet we live on.
Where could idleness be introduced?
What about transportation? Environmentalists urge us to abandon gas-powered vehicles and embrace electric ones. Perhaps we need to go even further.
Maybe the problem isn’t just fossil-fuelled movement but movement overall — not only how we move, but that we move so much. Perhaps the deeper solution isn’t travelling by fuel-efficient or electric vehicles but calling travel itself into question. Maybe the best thing we can do is the least.
We might consider sleeping more. Asleep, we generally use fewer appliances and lights and require less hot water, heating and air conditioning. Time spent in bed is time not spent driving.
Throughout Canada, an additional hour, or even half-hour, of sleep per night could represent a significant reduction in fuel — to say nothing of health benefits for sleep-deprived people.
That doesn’t mean we should adopt ubiquitous idleness. Rather, we should consider selective idleness. When it comes to climate activism, for example, we require more action, not less.
Illnesses force idleness on people. We require time in bed to recuperate; rest is non-negotiable. So, too, the climate situation demands idleness from society.
As we must listen to the body in sickness, we must listen to the planet in crisis. At the very least, we need to slow down.
COVID-19 has also forced us to reconsider how we work. Perhaps we might also consider Russell’s advice: "When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four . . . I mean that four hours’ work a day should entitle [workers] to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of [their] time should be [theirs] to use as [they] might see fit."
Russell’s suggestion may seem extreme to us in 2020, but in his article he questions the wisdom of asking workers to work long hours each day while other workers remain unemployed and poor.