Can a Shorter Workweek and a Greener Economy Provide Relief?

Nicholas Ashford By Teresa Lynne Hill
February 23, 2013

On March 11, 2013, MIT Professor Nicholas Ashford will deliver a presentation entitled "The Crises In Employment, Consumption, Economic Growth, and the Environment: Can a shorter work week and a greener economy provide relief?" As part of the MIT SDM Systems Thinking Webinar Series, the event is free and open to all. Recording and slides are available here.

The webinar, based on Ashford’s new book, Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development: Transforming the Industrial State describes a "perfect storm" of global circumstances threatening to exacerbate the widening gulf between rich and poor, environmental degradation, and industrial stagnation.

Ashford will discuss the effects of the global financial crisis that began in 2008 and has left many people with too little money and/or willingness to spend. In the US, a loss of some 40% of family wealth has drastically reduced purchasing power, resulting in too few goods and services being produced and thereby further increasing unemployment. The poor do not have access to essential goods while other economic actors consume too much energy and resources, exacerbating environmental problems at local and global levels. Neither financial resources nor sufficient willingness to take commercial risk provides adequate incentives to innovate. Two solutions are frequently suggested to address the present crises: spread work out through fewer weekly working hours to reduce unemployment and excessive consumption and green the economy. An analysis of the likelihood of success of each is the focus of this webinar.

In his presentation Ashford will argue that reforms have overlooked structural problems in the economic system and the worsening economic well-being and earning capacity of individual citizens. New metrics beyond GDP and productivity are essential to evaluate the effectiveness of policies in pursuit of stable and sustainable development.

Ashford will suggest a new perspective, examples, and next steps for attendees from a wide array of sectors and industries. These options will describe key relationships and potential remedies for those grappling with these challenges and the need for innovative policy in monetary, fiscal, employment, environmental, and other systemic elements of the crisis. For example:

  • industry—how to focus on producing more environmentally-sound essential goods and services for a larger segment of the population, and create opportunities for employment. This requires a shift from pursuing profit at all costs.
  • academia—how to broaden its perspective in a trans-disciplinary sense to address all aspects of sustainable development in its research and teaching, specifically in economic welfare, innovation in products and services, environmental impacts, and employment creation. He will describe how curricula restructuring and hiring of a broader-oriented faculty are essential.
  • government—how to integrate its industrial, financial, environmental, employment, and trade initiatives rather than adopt a piecemeal approach to societal problems and demands. Reform of the financial sector and job creation should receive immediate and paramount attention.
  • other interested attendees—how to reframe concerns from a focus on economic recovery to transforming the industrial state.

Professor Ashford came to MIT in 1972 as assistant director for the Center for Policy Alternatives. He has become the Institute’s only faculty member with the title of Professor of Technology and Policy. Holding a JD as well as a PhD in chemistry, he teaches courses in environmental law, policy, and economics; law, Technology, and public policy; and sustainability, trade, and environment. He is the author of several hundred peer-reviewed articles in academic journals and law reviews, and has written or co-authored seven books. Environmental Law, Policy and Economics (2008, MIT Press), coauthored with Charles Caldart, focuses on the issues to be discussed in the seminar as they have played out in the US. Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development (2011, Yale University Press), written with MIT PhD Ralph Hall, is the culmination of 13 years of research.

Nicholas Ashford