I began my first book on environmental issues with a chapter on time, because that’s what every one of my friends brought up when I told them I was going to write about practical things we could do to make the world a better place. Here’s an extract from that chapter:

Although we often quip that time is money, if every moment spent relaxing, playing with your children, or contemplating the ocean waves were a penny lost, every human activity could be quantified in terms of its monetary value. How much is your baby’s smile worth, or a game of chess, or helping a 10-year-old with her math homework? How about a day spent decorating the house for Christmas, or an afternoon in bed with your beloved?

Money can sometimes buy time – by making it possible, for example, to hire someone to do a task you dislike or aren’t good at – but the idea that time is money is misleading. People end up trapped by the need to finance a luxurious lifestyle and may in fact have far less free time than those who live more simply. E. F. Schumacher, the former Coal Board economist who became internationally renowned as author of Small Is Beautiful, economics as if people mattered, summed this up with what he called the first law of economics: “The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labor saving machinery it employs” – and, presumably, to the amount of money it has. In the same way, the more money a society has, the less real leisure time people enjoy.

In economic terms it seems that we always have a role to play: if we aren’t earning money we should be spending it. A good example of this, pointed out by Ivan Illich in the Limits to Medicine, is the way women have been encouraged to switch from breast to bottlefeeding. The change has provided industry with customers for factory-made formula. Contrary to the notion that we have more free time than our ancestors, a notion fostered by a culture which needs our continual contribution as employees and as consumers, people in some primitive agricultural or hunter gatherer societies enjoyed more leisure than we do. As a rule, they spent between 15 and 20 hours a week providing for themselves and their children, leaving the remainder of their time for socializing and relaxing. (This is not the case for many Third World women today, however; the chores of obtaining scarce water and firewood take up an increasingly large proportion of their day.)

Many people who live directly off the earth find considerable amounts of time to engage in activities that are not economic: enjoying religious rituals, fiestas and pow-wows, arranging marriages, renewing friendships. In Victorian novels, even working people seem to find time for festivities at county fairs and on market days. Our free time is less leisurely and more expensive than was our grandparents’. It is also less simple to decide how to spend our leisure time because our lives are complicated by multiple roles and by our beepers, computerized diaries and cellular phones. A Sunday afternoon ramble and pub lunch have to be squeezed between catching up with the weekly washing and finishing off a report for Monday’s staff meeting.

From Chapter 1 of The Green Home, (c) Karen Christensen 1995

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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