Recently, I’ve been noticing that the more sustainable/climate-conscious lifestyle option in our existing society is often the slower one. This means that ‘busyness’ or time poverty is a major barrier to the adoption of behavior changes to address climate change.
It’s important to address these barriers, because behavior changes like changing purchasing decisions, household behaviors, travel habits, and diet are necessary. (In concert with market, policy, and cultural changes — they all build on each other.)
For example, I started taking public transport again, for the first time in years. I noticed how it changed the structure of my entire day. Not only did I have to plan around the bus schedule and factor in a longer commute time, but the addition of a walk to the bus-stop and people-watching opportunities made the day feel much slower and calmer.
There are other changes I’d like to make: shopping at farmer’s markets. Cooking more of my meals. Walking or biking places. Taking the train instead of flying. In each case, time is the main constraint.
I’m determined to find a way, because I enjoy these activities more than the modern quick-easy-packaged-default alternative. The problem is that these options are not available to most people.
What is time poverty?
Time poverty is defined as the “chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them,” and it is pervasive. Workers, parents, women, millennials all reportedly suffer from its symptoms.
Time poverty has implications for climate action
The authors of Tackling climate change under time-poverty: Cooperatives as temporal pacers write:
Tackling climate change requires future-oriented action toward unpredictable events, whereas time-poverty requires people to deal with the bare necessities of the present.
The authors of A Measure Whose Time has Come: Formalizing Time Poverty write:
Research linking the impacts and inclusion of time poor populations need not be limited to social policies — indeed, it is likely that in economically developing countries there is a link between environmental degradation and the time poor, which has implications for climate change research and policies.
We can make sustainable living more convenient
It is both possible and worthwhile to make the sustainable lifestyle choice as convenient as the default one.
For example, we can invest in public transport systems so that the commute time is comparable to driving. Right now, it takes me over twice as long to get to work by bus than by driving, because the nearest stop is a 20-minute walk from my destination.
Also, we need sustainable alternatives to cooking. It is not inevitable that packaged or delivered meals are usually processed, unhealthy, and unsustainable. That was a design choice made by the companies that dominate the packaged food market. We can make a different choice now.
I would argue that it’s essential that we do. When designing sustainable behaviors, we have to take into account everyone’s constraints. In the future, we need adoption by everyone, including the busiest among us.
And we can decrease time poverty
People are busy and burnt out, and we need to adapt climate actions to accommodate that. But we can also help people be less busy and burnt out. For our own sake as well as the climate’s.
One way to do that is through cultural change. An HBR article points to organizations with a culture of busyness as a cause of time poverty:
The reasons for the rise in “time poverty” (as social scientists have termed it) are numerous and nuanced, but corporate cultures that value busyness are at least partially to blame — and in theory should also be easy to correct.
Even if employees don’t leave, busyness harms the bottom line by reducing staff engagement and increasing absenteeism. It also impairs workers’ health: A 2021 World Health Organization report showed that overwork can increase the risk of stroke, heart disease, and ultimately death. Conversely, research suggests that reducing working hours to manageable levels can enhance productivity.
Society has been re-evaluating our relationship with work since the pandemic, as seen in the Great Resignation, Quiet Quitting, and increased interest in 4-day workweeks. I find all of these trends promising in alleviating time poverty as well as decreasing consumerism.
In the book Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Robin made the point that a lot of our purchases and time expenditure are driven by our demanding jobs:
Think of all the monetary expenses that are directly associated with your job. In other words, if you didn’t need that money-earning job, what time expenditures and monetary expenses would disappear from your life.
For example, expenditures related to commutes, attire, and recovery from job exhaustion.
What I’m taking away from this is that working less could save us money and time, offsetting the potentially lower pay.
A slower, more sustainable lifestyle may be feasible for more folks if we can figure out how to get there.
Addressing climate change will require innovation throughout society. I want to urge two particular kinds of innovation with this piece:
- For sustainability and lifestyle influencers to experiment and try to find creative ways to make their lifestyles accessible to busy people.
- For entrepreneurs, product designers, and policy makers to direct their innovation to products, services, and plans that make sustainable lifestyle choices more convenient and accessible to time-poor people.
I’m not sure where exactly that innovation will lead, only that it is needed.