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Forget What You Know About Productivity and Progress

Is there a way to both work less and redistribute wealth more evenly?

YES! Illustration by Fran Murphy

yes! illustration by fran murphy

In 2008, performance artist Pilvi Takala took her seat as a new employee at the company Deloitte, a global consulting firm, and began to stare into space. When asked by other employees what she was doing, she said, “brain work” or that she was working “on her thesis.” One day she rode the elevator up and down the entire workday. When asked where she was going, she said nowhere.

This image of utter inactivity, writes Jenny Odell in her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, is what completely “galled” Takala’s coworkers.

In capitalist American culture, productivity is sacrosanct. If somebody says they had a productive day, the implicit assumption is that they had a good day. Descriptions like “non-contributing member of society” and “loiterer” clearly stigmatize those who aren’t considered productive.

For Odell, this stigma on unproductivity is a real problem. What we really need is to loiter more, do less — in fact, she seems to say, life on this planet might depend on it.

For years, my work as a journalist has centered on the climate crisis, the displacement of people, and the proliferation of segregating, militarized borders around the world. I’ve seen the ways that the hyperproductivity that drives capitalism helped create these problems.

According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, human industry has pumped more than 400 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide — the approximate equivalent of 1.2 million Empire State Buildings — into the atmosphere since 1751, half of that since the late 1980s. The use of solid and liquid fossil fuels, like oil or coal, produced three-quarters of these emissions. That Western modern civilization was going to uplift the masses was rarely questioned, even as factories continued to pump out plastic commodities on the backs of the global poor.

The Inner Level book cover
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

Now the catastrophic results of elite injustice, corporate lies, and collective thoughtlessness are coming in: the hottest years on record, encroaching seas, destructive floods, devastating wildfires, powerful hurricanes, crop-wilting droughts — and 1 million animal and plant species on the verge of extinction, according to a U.N. report. All of this is displacing people by the millions across the globe.

I remember seeing the production quotas in the workers’ stations in maquiladoras across northern Mexico. Between 2001 and 2004, I visited dozens of such factories as part of the work I did for the binational organization BorderLinks, a nonprofit that arranges educational delegations for universities and churches. Workers, often in windowless rooms with a chemical stench, make suitcases, bank pens, dentures, cotton swabs, and electrical components for rockets and fighter jets. People are “optimized” for productivity in a global economy in which progress is measured by constant growth, more stuff, and more box stores.

I’ve seen the paychecks. The approximately $8 a day earned by a line worker is hardly a living wage when the combined cost of a gallon of milk and carton of eggs is more than a half-day’s work. And every minute counts: If a worker is a minute late in many maquilas, they lose their on-time bonus (their paycheck is docked). If a worker is pregnant, they’re fired. Workers often live in homes first built with discarded wood pallets and cardboard as insulation, structures that are extremely vulnerable to ever worse and more frequent 21st-century storms. And the inequality is as ferocious as the weather. According to Oxfam, a top fashion CEO has to work just four days to earn what a Bangladeshi garment worker will earn their whole life.

While there are other outcomes of Western progress and economic productivity, inequality — especially along racial and gender lines — and emissions lead the charge. At the end of 2018, 26 people owned about the same amount of wealth as the 3.8 billion poorest people on planet Earth, according to Oxfam; and emissions reached, yet again, an all-time high.

Increasingly militarized political borders reinforce the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots, the environmentally protected and the environmentally exposed, and those who are White and those who are Black and Brown. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, there were 15 border walls. Now there are 70, most constructed since 2001, almost always situated on the boundaries of inequality, between the Global North and the Global South.

This isn’t the only world that’s possible. But Odell suggests that imagining something else will require first reexamining — and dismantling — the cultural ethos of productivity that creeps into our lives every day.

By doing nothing, people like Takala are “refusing or subverting an unspoken custom,” Odell writes, revealing “its often-fragile contours. For a moment, the custom is shown to be not the horizon of possibility, but rather a tiny island in a sea of unexamined alternatives.”

It’s such a simple idea, but it’s entirely radical. The strip malls and big box stores and endless cars coming and going; the constant consumption and ever accelerating emissions; our nervous systems attached to constantly buzzing smartphones; and the cyberscapes that displace landscapes in our imaginations — none of this is inevitable. Our current model of productivity and capitalism — and profit and segregation — isn’t the only way.

It is possible to create something else, but mental space is needed to dream up new possibilities. Doing nothing creates that space, and shifts attention to other ways of living, loving, and working alongside others.

While there are other outcomes of Western progress and economic productivity, inequality — especially along racial and gender lines — and emissions lead the charge.

One radical alternative is imagined in a recent study, “The Ecological Limitations of Work”: a less than 10-hour work week. Study author Philipp Frey argues for a dramatically reduced work week for environmental reasons. Work — or “the economic activity that causes GHG emissions” — is at an unsustainable level, requiring a dramatic reduction.

This idea raises all kinds of questions. Is there a way to both work less and redistribute wealth more evenly? And what is work, even — is it merely that which contributes to a bloated and catastrophic world economy? Perhaps our very salvation, and slowing down, is in the words of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, who wrote, “What is it to work with love? It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.”

And what about borders? Near the end of the book, Odell describes the 1872 painting “American Progress” by John Gast. The painting depicts Manifest Destiny, the idea that White people moving west were a civilizing force. In the painting, a blond woman in white robes strides westward, trampling “hundreds of species and thousands of years’ worth of knowledge,” Odell writes. This westward expansion was the origin of U.S. territorial borders.

So Odell imagines the opposite of Manifest Destiny. She calls it “Manifest Dismantling.”

Manifest Dismantling would purposefully undo the damage of Manifest Destiny by reckoning with productivity’s assault on the living world. Tearing down a dam, for Odell, would be an example of a creative act of Manifest Dismantling because it would facilitate the return of an ecological landscape.

The same could be said about the 70 border walls, or the nearly 700 miles of walls and barriers along the U.S.–Mexico border. Dismantling these would allow people to move without fear. The saguaros and mesquite in the Sonoran Desert would grow back, and pronghorns, jaguars, and gray wolves could travel freely across borders. But it would also open space for a new vision to emerge, of a more equitable way to relate with each other and the living planet.

Books+Film+Music

6 Shows for Some Women-Led Belly Laughs

Ali Wong and Randall Park

Ali Wong and Randall Park in “Always Be My Maybe.” Photo by Netflix

Before the advent and popularity of streaming services like Netflix, I watched shows and movies that were available through my cable package. Growing up in the ’90s and early aughts, I rarely watched comedies that starred women. And if I did come across comedies with women in the lead, the women were vying to be the objects of men’s affection, like in Clueless, or men were trying to get their attention (sometimes with ill will), like in 10 Things I Hate About You. In short: The male gaze was ever-present. Often films were cast aside as “chick flicks” and given less attention and smaller budgets, despite their success at the box office. In the 1970s and ’80s — an era often referred to as the standup comedy boom — women of the genre were tokenized with comedy clubs booking no more than one woman on any given night. In the case of the famed Comedy Store in Los Angeles, women were relegated to the Belly Room — a different room in the building altogether.

More than a decade after the Comedy Store closed in 1979, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Belly Room had both its fans and critics among women. The writer-performer Emily Levine told the Times, “It was a marginal venue that marginalized women,” while comedian Lotus Weinstock said it was “born out of sexism, to give women a place.”

But since that time (not to mention the inequitable decades before it) things have changed both in the stand-up world and on screen. Time and time again women have proven that viewers are interested in the stories they tell. In 2011 the film Bridesmaids grossed over $288 million worldwide. It was hailed as a cultural landmark and received over 71 award nominations, including one for an Academy Award. Before that, in 2004, Tina Fey wrote the screenplay for the millennial-favorite Mean Girls, which grossed over $129 million worldwide.

“It’s not that these girls are better than the girls who preceded them,” writer Fran Lebowitz told Vanity Fair in 2008. “They’re luckier. They came along at a time when the boys allowed them to do this. In comedy, timing is everything.”

Previously, roles for women leaned toward stereotypes and were vastly underwritten, like Rachel McAdams’ character in Wedding Crashers. But now that more women are performing in — and creating — lead comedic roles, viewers get to watch stories of fully formed women with their own challenges and successes. The following picks, all of which are streaming on Netflix as of this writing, prove that women are not a monolith. Gender is not their sole means of identifying themselves. Their experiences are largely impacted by their other identities, including race, age, and class.

Tuca and Bertie

This animated series is voiced by comedians Tiffany Haddish, of Girls Trip fame, and Ali Wong, whose two standup specials received wide acclaim. Tuca (Haddish) and Bertie (Wong) face challenges that many women in their 30s experience: moving in with partners, workplace sexual harassment, and buying homes. A few bizarre things happen along the way. For example, Bertie’s boyfriend’s grandmother’s ashes somehow get mixed into a sugar container. When the sugar bowl is given away by accident, Tuca and Bertie must get it back. The fully written pair take each challenge hilariously head-on. The show further complicates what friendships between women can look like on-screen. One day they can be grappling through anxiety and sobriety together, and the next they can be completely annoyed with each other.

Good Girls

The first season of this NBC series is available on Netflix, which bills it as a “dramedy.” Three suburban women — Beth, played by Christina Hendricks, Ruby, played by Retta, and Annie, played by Mae Whitman — pull off a heist at a local grocery store in an effort to get themselves out of their finance-related ruts. One woman and her husband, for example, can’t afford to pay their daughter’s medical bills. The robbery leads to some unfortunate circumstances because, as one IMDb reviewer describes it, the show is “soccer moms Breaking Bad.” Beth, Ruby, and Annie have to figure out how to carry on and live with their choices. In Good Girls, Beth, Ruby, and Annie are allowed to celebrate their newfound individual power (and face the consequences of that power) while continuing to be just what they are: mothers.

Ali Wong

Gina Rodriguez yes! illustration by fran murphy

Someone Great

In this film, a trio of friends — Jenny, played by Gina Rodriguez, Blair, by Brittany Snow, and Erin, by Dewanda Wise — have one week to enjoy New York City together before Jenny heads west for a job. The stakes are raised when Jenny’s boyfriend, played by Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield, breaks up with her ahead of the move. On their last full weekend together, the women show up for one another. They cry together, they party together. Together, they accept change in their respective lives. In Someone Great, Rodriguez’s character shows the realistic roller coaster of emotions that is a breakup while allowing for friendships to change over time.

Grace and Frankie

While this series has been celebrated since its premiere in 2015 — there are already five seasons streaming on Netflix — it’s never too late for those who haven’t watched it to catch up. Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin play Grace and Frankie, respectively, and together they go through the aftermath of divorce from their husbands. A twist: Their husbands had a secret romantic relationship with each other for years. The thing is, Grace and Frankie weren’t close friends before their splits. Forced to build and navigate new lives, the pair grow closer, all the while getting on each other’s nerves. The show never leans into ageist humor, but it still gives its main characters room to thoughtfully address the hilarity that comes with aging.

Ali Wong

Ali Wong yes! illustration by fran murphy

Always Be My Maybe

Ali Wong plays world-renowned chef Sasha Tran, who temporarily moves back to San Francisco, her hometown, to open a new restaurant. While there, she and her uber-rich fiancé break up and she reconnects with her more down-to-earth childhood friend (with whom she shared a rather awkward first kiss and sexual encounter) Marcus Kim, played by Randall Park. They haven’t seen each other in 15 years and try to deny their palpable chemistry, but eventually sparks fly. Writing for Vox, Jason Shen says the movie “carries the torch forward” with Asian American characters who move away from stereotypes and “aren’t the traditionally successful doctor or lawyer we are used to seeing on screen.” Bonus: If you’re a Keanu Reeves fan, you’re in for a treat because he makes an interesting cameo playing … himself.

Schitt’s Creek

In this Canadian sitcom (which airs on PopTV in the United States), Catherine O’Hara plays Moira Rose, the matriarch of a family that suddenly finds itself broke after living lives of luxury funded by their video store empire. The Roses are forced to relocate to Schitt’s Creek, “an armpit of a town they once bought as a joke,” according to CBC’s description. In late June, the cast wrapped up production on its sixth and final season, but the first four seasons are currently available on Netflix. In those episodes, the family adjusts to living in a town they view as beneath them while simultaneously trying to make their way back to the more glossy life they once knew. O’Hara told Entertainment Weekly that it’s challenging for writers to construct new, fun storylines for older characters that don’t center on “death, disease, and divorce.” But in Schitt’s Creek, her character Moira “has had so many great opportunities.”

Ali Wong

Amy Poehler yes! illustration by fran murphy

Thankfully, there’s more where these nuanced comedies came from. In July, Amazon picked up a 10-episode comedy series by Tracy Oliver, a writer known for the 2017 hit Girls Trip, which cost $19 million and made $150 million. Amy Poehler has signed on as one of the show’s executive producers. “Until you create the thing that you can then point to,” she told New York Magazine, “there’s no example for it.”

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