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Lack of Leisure Is Killing Us and the Planet: An Interview with John de Graaf
Sunday, 08 January 2012 00:00  |  Written by Marita Prandoni | Interview

Empty Hammock on the Beach at Sunset photo by Jin SooJohn de Graaf is an activist filmmaker who has been producing documentaries—primarily for public television—for 30 years. His films, Affluenza and Escape from Affluenza, explore with humor the exorbitant environmental and social costs of American consumerism since the 1950s. As a filmmaker, he has received more than 100 regional, national and international awards. He also founded the Hazel Wolf Environmental Film Fest, held annually at the University of Washington in Seattle.

With a few colleagues, de Graaf started Take Back Your Time, a nonprofit “to challenge the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, families and relationships—as well as our communities and our environment.” They have designated October 24th as Take Back Your Time Day to signify that the remainder of the year would be the amount of time most workers in industrialized nations receive annually as vacation or wellness leave.

Co-author of the book, Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic, he also edited the handbook Take Back Your Time, which features well-known experts in civic policy, health and the environment such as David Korten, Anna Lappé, Vicki Robin, Cecile Andrews and others.

EcoHearth: Our educational institutions promote competition, insisting that if we don’t work enough or more efficiently, other nations could get ahead and dominate us. Is there something wrong with that idea?

John de Graaf photo courtesy of John de GraafJohn de Graaf: It’s counterproductive, really. All of our competitors among the world’s 20 most competitive nations have excellent work/life balance and workplace policies. We are the only country that doesn’t. Overwork actually decreases hourly productivity and costs us big time for healthcare. What makes US companies less competitive is paying for healthcare instead of our using a single-payer system as do other countries. And our overwork contributes to the fact that we are nearly twice as likely than Europeans to suffer from expensive-to-treat chronic illnesses after age 50, making our healthcare even more expensive.

EH: How does the US measure up against other industrialized countries in providing vacation benefits to their workers?

JdG: We measure up poorly against nearly all countries, not just industrialized ones. The only countries in the world of any size—more than a million people—that don’t give vacation time by law are the US, the Guyanas, Nepal and that bastion of human rights, Burma. That’s it. All European countries give workers at least four weeks vacation by law.

EH: What are some of the social costs of overwork?

JdG: Of course, there are the huge health costs—men who don’t take regular vacations are 32% more likely to have heart attacks and women, 50% more likely. But vacations also improve family bonds and the happiness of children, whose strongest memories are often of family vacations. Our lack of paid family leave results in children who are less healthy, less ready to learn, less able to socialize well, more prone to attention-deficit disorder and more likely to get in trouble than is the case in countries that provide such leave—including all other wealthy countries. Our lack of paid sick days by law means that 90% of restaurant workers (and 50% of all workers) don’t get any paid sick days. They come to work sick and get others sick as well, stay sick longer, etc.

EH: And the environmental costs?

JdG: Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, has pointed out the problem of “nature deficit disorder”—kids just aren’t getting out into the natural world; lack of vacation time plays a big role in that and in allowing kids real time to experience the rhythms of nature. There are huge costs to the environment from our overwork culture. One study showed that if we were to reduce our work hours to European levels, we’d reduce our energy use and carbon footprint by 25-30%. Long work hours encourage the use of convenience and throwaway products, reduce efforts to recycle, encourage use of high-energy transport rather than walking, cycling or taking public transport, etc.

EH: Has the current recession slowed American workers’ tendency to overwork?

JdG: Yes, it actually has. The American workweek is now at its lowest level in many years, as is mandatory overtime. On the other hand, about a quarter of Americans are actually working more now, to cover for workers who were laid off by the recession. But there are some hopeful signs.

EH: The public option currently being discussed to give all Americans access to healthcare is met with protests that it would constitute socialism. You have asked the question, “What’s an economy for?” Are US citizens waking up to the fact that their human rights are being trampled in the name of free-market capitalism?

JdG: Well, I hope so. Some are, that’s for sure, and Obama’s election was a positive sign. Hopefully we will have a public healthcare option soon. A Rasmussen poll found that Americans under 30 don’t really prefer capitalism to socialism. I’m sure they mean what the right now calls “socialism” or “European-style socialism”: the mixed economies of northern Europe, which have done very well lately in comparison to the US. They outperform us on nearly any quality-of-life indicator you can look at—health, education, security, fairness, environmental protection, welfare of children, crime and imprisonment, etc. I’m hoping people will see this. These are not socialist countries really—more than half of their economies are private—but they have some socialistic features, which we would do well to emulate. The possibility of this terrifies the right wing—they believe the answer to every problem is to cut taxes. Bad idea. We are currently suffering from the consequences of the deregulation, privatization, tax cuts for the wealthy crusade—a mentality that has dominated US politics for the last 30 years.

EH: Do you have any new social-media projects underway?

JdG: My new film is What’s The Economy For Anyway? It offers an edgy and timely critique of our consumer-driven model of economic growth and its supreme cost to our planet and the quality of our lives. The film, hosted by ecological economist Dave Batker, presents facts, entertains, explains and engages, and reminds us that the purpose of our economy is to serve people, not for the people to serve the economy.

Additional resources:
Affluenza: the All-Consuming Epidemic by John de Graaf , et al.
Take Back Your Time, John de Graaf, ed.
Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv
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Comments (3)add
Written by kristaf , July 24, 2009
Our workaholic ways need to change. While we push ourselves, often WAY past the 40 hours we are paid for, not taking advantage of what vacation time we are allotted because there's "just too much to do", innovation actually suffers. Creativity does not thrive in an environment where our minds are constantly busy, we need to strike a balance between work, rest, and play. I think a lot of us are so busy trying to prove we deserve to be here we forget what's it's like to "be here".
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Written by DIONYCIO PADILLA , July 24, 2009
The individuals in this country are in dire need of reform. Yes, that means me and you!
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Written by Francisco Ramos , July 23, 2009
This is an excellent interview. It sheds light on the consequences of the American work philosophy. This country is in dire need of reform.
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