Have we become too productive?
Tim Jackson thinks so. The professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey and the author of Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet wrote an editorial in the New York Times arguing that it’s time to stop working so hard.
Productivity — the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy — is often viewed as the engine of progress in modern capitalist economies. Output is everything. Time is money. The quest for increased productivity occupies reams of academic literature and haunts the waking hours of C.E.O.’s and finance ministers. Perhaps forgivably so: our ability to generate more output with fewer people has lifted our lives out of drudgery and delivered us a cornucopia of material wealth.
But the relentless drive for productivity may also have some natural limits. Ever-increasing productivity means that if our economies don’t continue to expand, we risk putting people out of work. If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go around. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth.
Jackson argues there are a few sectors where efficiency and productivity are blatantly detrimental: education, healthcare, craft and culture.
It is the accuracy and detail inherent in crafted goods that endows them with lasting value. It is the time and attention paid by the carpenter, the seamstress and the tailor that makes this detail possible. The same is true of the cultural sector: it is the time spent practicing, rehearsing and performing that gives music, for instance, its enduring appeal. What — aside from meaningless noise — would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?
While asking musicians to play faster is obviously a ludicrous form of efficiency, the classical music industry does have other, more complex problems. It is often beset with heated contract negotiations, as musicians fight for better pay while orchestras try to balance the budget. Are they striving to be too productive? Are they pursuing an unattainable level of growth? Or are they simply trying to do the best they can with what they have?
Some of the most efficient and productive people I know are artists. Some make incredible use of limited resources, or even use other people’s cast-offs to create beautiful new works. I know painters who churn out a new work every day, almost compulsively.
So when is efficiency and productivity good for art, and when should it be dismissed?