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Costing the Earth?

September 22, 2010

I love Radio 4 almost as much as I love food and ranting. Almost. But sometimes it drives me NUTS.

I often drift off to sleep listening to a podcast, and last night I picked Costing the Earth. It appealed to me because it was about working from home and its impact on the environment, which, as a freelance translator and student of sustainability, is an issue close to my heart.

The gist of the programme was as follows: some studies show that employees working from home reduces carbon dioxide emissions; some studies show it increases them. (This appears to depend on the time of year – heating individual houses in the winter is less efficient than heating offices, but aside from those few months working from home isn’t worse.) Some studies found working from home increases productivity; some studies found it doesn’t. Some studies found working from home increases employee wellbeing and satisfaction; some studies found it doesn’t. Therefore, it is impossible to say one way or the other whether or not people working from home will single-handedly solve all our climate change/peak oil problems, but in some circumstances it could maybe help. A little.

In short: it depends on the context.

No shit.

What I found incredibly frustrating, though, was that nobody interrogated whether the jobs that people were doing were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the environment (which is, in itself, an incredibly simplistic way of looking at it). I mean, what’s the point of working from home and reducing your carbon dioxide emissions and increasing your productivity if you, for example, work in the marketing department of a car company? Or a budget airline? Or a company that makes unnecessary plastic widgets? Or chemical fertilisers? How does that compare to an organic farmer who takes her produce to market in a landrover?

You can’t look at environmental issues in a vacuum – they’re all embedded in these processes of social organisation, like the kind of jobs people have, the typical working week, whether people live in cities or the countryside… In an economic system predicated on getting people to consume more and more stuff, then whether or not people are driving to offices or heating their poorly insulated houses is… well, the words ‘deckchairs’ and ‘Titanic’ spring to mind!

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