In his marvellous 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness,” philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “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.” His words could provide direction as we strive to remedy the climate crisis.
Subscribe to Science Matters
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.
In the 1930s, Russell understandably didn’t mention environmental protection — although he alluded to the human ability to alter the planet. But there’s no reason we can’t build on his thinking and find in idleness a climate solution.
His thesis concerns 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.
When my kids were small, we had an insightful pediatrician who would approach mild sickness with the words, “Well, we could try medication or we could do nothing.” He taught me that holding back, avoiding action, is sometimes — although not always — a worthy choice.
Where could idleness be introduced?
Maybe the problem isn’t just fossil-fuelled movement but movement overall — not only how we move but that we move so much.
What about transportation? Environmentalists urge us to abandon gas-powered vehicles and embrace electric ones. The latter are excellent and certainly part of the solution to the climate emergency, but perhaps we need to go further. Maybe the problem isn’t just fossil-fuelled movement but movement overall — not only how we move but that we move so much.
Even driving an electric vehicle can contribute to environmental crises. Beyond the ecological impacts from manufacturing them, they can facilitate other climate-altering activities — we can take our Tesla to the butcher shop or the airport. Perhaps the deeper solution isn’t travelling by electric vehicle but calling travel itself into question. Maybe the best thing we can do is the least.
In this vein, 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.
What if we encouraged people to nap during the day? It sounds far-fetched, but emergencies require novel thinking.
What if we encouraged people to nap during the day? It sounds far-fetched, but emergencies require novel thinking. We could set up cots at schools and businesses, ask people to turn off lights and devices and lie down for 30 minutes. We could call it “nap club.” Not everyone would participate, of course, but those who did might find it a delightful mid-afternoon refreshment. Cities like Tokyo, London and New York now have “nap bars” and “nap cafes.” Toronto has a company called Nap It Up that rents beds for 25-, 55- or 85-minute snoozes.
As bears pose little threat when hibernating, so humans reduce their destructiveness when sleeping. Inactive, we’re less harmful.
And consider that the Buddha didn’t reach enlightenment until he decided to stop doing everything. He just sat down under a big old Bodhi tree!
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, not less. We need to mobilize greater numbers of people and expand our influence.
But even here non-doing has a place. Environmentalists are often asked to travel to distant conferences as part of their work. They should feel free to refuse these offers. If a meeting isn’t essential — and, granted, figuring out what’s essential isn’t always easy — they should consider staying home.
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. 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.