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Flying Cars and Four Day Work Weeks

December 14, 2010

When I was a child, I enjoyed reading Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. These magazines were replete with articles about the wonders that the future would bring. There would be energy that would be too cheap to meter, cities on the moon and under the sea, and flying cars. Advanced automation techniques would give us considerable leisure time, and a four day work week was just around the corner. In my lifetime, I've seen no flying cars, but I can understand why. Such a vehicle is technically not practical, not to mention the air traffic control system that would be required to safely monitor an airspace of hundreds of millions of these little things scurrying about. However, a reduced work week has always been possible, since the promises of automation have been true. Individual greed in wanting that larger television set, and investor greed in wanting more from corporations, has prevented it from happening. In fact, with employees being electronically connected to the office all hours of the workday and weekends, things have gotten worse. When you add everything up, many professional employees now work at least sixty hours a week.

Flying car

A flying car from Modern Mechanix, April, 1933.[1]

Nearly everyone wants economic growth, and they've grown to expect it. In a recent opinion piece in Nature,[2] Peter Victor writes that's it's time to stop and smell the roses for more than one reason. Victor is an economist at York University (Toronto), and the author of the book, "Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster,"[3] that argues against continuous growth. For one thing, our planet has finite resources and can't support unlimited growth. The environmental consequences of this growth culture are already seen in climate change, loss of biodiversity and soil degradation from agricultural practices that are too intensive. As quoted in this article, the mass of material required by humans increased eightfold during the twentieth century, double the fourfold increase in population. All that material production, whether ores, oil, or biomass for food, comes with a burden of waste.

Much of this growth depends on an energy supply, and the age of cheap energy appears to be coming to an end. Not that a more efficient use of energy will help. As recounted in the article, when the economist, William Stanley Jevons, looked at the consequences of improved steam engine efficiency in 1865, he found that the enhanced efficiency encouraged more steam engine use, and coal consumption actually increased. From 1760 to 1910, steam engine efficiency increased by a factor of thirty six, but the use of steam power in the UK increased by a factor of 2,000.[2]

One way we might mitigate the unpleasant effects of growth is to encourage growth only in industries for which resource demands are minimal. The other option is to get off the growth cycle. This might be unpleasant for some, since mitigation of the worst environmental affects would require a decrease in the GDP of some countries by as much as 6%. The emphasis here should be on the word, some. The bad actors know who they are, since they are the richer nations. It's easy to become seduced by growth when you're the recipient of its production, but the distribution of production wealth is quite uneven in today's world. Economic growth hasn't brought any greater happiness to people, and the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots is fueling must of the world's current unrest. There's the further specter of the developed world stripping the Third World bare of its natural resources.

One problem is that zero-growth is an uncharted area, and people would rather stick with the tried and true. One wonders whether capitalism is even compatible with a zero-growth economy, but even in a steady state model there will be areas of growth, such as renewable energy. One of the few measures of prosperity other than the GDP is the GPI, or genuine progress indicator. The GPI is somewhat like the "net profit" of a country, as opposed to the GDP, which can be viewed as a gross profit. It attempts to take into account the costs of production, for example[4]
• Resource depletion
• Crime
• Ozone depletion
• Family breakdown
• Air, water, and noise pollution
• Loss of farmland
• Loss of wetlands
Victor mentions at the conclusion of his article that there are things that can be done at a grassroots level to enhance wellbeing, such as buying locally produced foods and other items. The four day work week has eluded my generation, and now I'm now at the end of my working career. Perhaps there's hope for greater leisure for future generations.

As an aside, Paul Victor's commentary in Nature is two pages long.[2] I was able to read it, since I have a print subscription to Nature. If you wanted to read his article online without a subscription, you would need to pay $32, or $16/page. WTF! Victor's 272 page book, "Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster," is sold for $35.00, or less than thirteen cents per page.[3] I reported on journal pricing in a previous article (Journal Pricing Protest, June 14, 2010).


  1. Theodore A. Hodgdon, "AT LAST - a Convertible AUTO-PLANE," Modern Mechanix, April, 1933, pp. 66-67.
  2. Peter Victor, "Questioning economic growth," Nature, vol. 468, no. 7322 (November 18, 2010), pp. 370-371.
  3. Peter A. Victor, "Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster," (Edward Elgar Publishing, October 29, 2008), Paperback, 272 pages (via Amazon).
  4. Genuine Progress Indicator Page on Wikipedia.

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Linked Keywords: Popular Science; Popular Mechanics; flying cars; automation; air traffic control system; Internet; Modern Mechanix, April, 1933; economic growth; Nature; Peter Victor; economist; York University (Toronto); climate change; biodiversity soil retrogression; soil degradation; ore; petroleum; oil; biomass; cheap energy; William Stanley Jevons; steam engine; fuel efficiency; gross domestic product; GDP; Quality-of-life index; Third World; capitalism; renewable energy; genuine progress indicator; GPI; Baby Boom Generation.