Hours Spent or Hours Wasted

Two-million and three-hundred-thousand human beings work for Walmart. Even if we assume (to be conservative) Walmart’s employees work just 20 hours a week on average, that adds up to two-trillion, three-hundred and ninety-six million hours — or three-thousand, four-hundred, and sixty-three human lifetimes… every year.

Three-thousand, four-hundred, and sixty-three lifetimes each year spent stocking, unstocking, and restocking shelves, convincing consumers that they need to buy more, creating spreadsheets to determine the absolute minimum Walmart can pay workers and the absolute maximum they can charge customers, throwing away hundreds of tons of food, crushing local stores, and destroying any attempts at unionization.

Three-thousand, four-hundred, and sixty-three lifetimes spent maintaining the world as it is at best, and fanning the fires of poverty, ecological collapse, and climate disaster at worst. And next year? three-thousand, four-hundred, and sixty-three lifetimes more.

A society can, at least to some extent, be defined by the way it allocates human time and human labor. As the incredible and recently published book Dawn of Everything explores, thousands of human societies have existed before us that minimized the time spent on survival and maximized the time spent on leisure. From the early Mesopetamian tribes who, according to Graeber and Wengrow’s assessment of the archeological data, chose not to domesticate wheat for thousands of years in favor of seasonal wild harvests, to the much more recent indigenous societies of precolonial California which survived almost entirely via foraging, it would seem humanity has very willingly and self-awarely avoided spending our lives on settled, repetitive toiling for thousands of years.

Far from the true freedom of those societies, American “freedom” has increasingly meant dedicating our lives to the destruction of our own communities, ecologies, and civilization.

Beyond the three-thousand, four-hundred, and sixty-three lifetimes spent each year increasing the wealth of the Walton family at an incredible ecological and social cost, another Two-Thousand, Two Hundred and Ten lifetimes are spent (and lost) every year in Amazon warehouses, data centers, and delivery trucks (again, assuming conservatively that the average work week is 20 hours).

This is not only a problem because of the huge quantities of human time wasted on fast delivery or convenient-but-useless products, but also because human beings are thinking creatures. For better or worse, when we spend hundreds of hours doing the same task over months, years, or decades, we dedicate ourselves to honing that craft.

Despite their left politics and self-conscious efforts not to, I hear from friends who constantly end up working beyond work hours and spending what little energy they have left after the 40-hour workweek considering ways to make their companies run more smoothly — companies in which they have no ownership, and whose products are either totally neutral or even absolutely harmful to the world they live in.

To put a twist on Stephen Jay Gould’s famous remark, “I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops”; I am less haunted by the sheer quantity of labor put towards these ends than I am by the certainty that humanity’s best thinkers have been conscripted to make the world a worse place.

Take the US oil and gas industry for example. Every year, one-hundred and ninety human lifetimes are spent extracting, processing, and burning oil (a process that is literally destroying the world.)

At most, even if every one of their employees worked full time and we take LinkedIn’s highest estimate of their size, the Sierra Club spends just three human lifetimes every year trying to solve the problems that fossil fuel extraction is causing.

Think of how many talented petroleum and chemical engineers, skillful oilfield mechanics, and brilliant maintenance workers are spending hours of their lives finding ways to pull just a bit more oil out of the ground — and bring about the climate apocalypse just a bit faster.

The industries that are bringing about ecological and social devastation can pay for thousands of lifetimes every year. The movements that are trying to bring about change — the movements trying to save the planet, end the police state, and stop brutal war crimes — must rely on whatever time is left after their members more than likely spend 40 hours a week working to survive.

Raytheon (a weapons manufacturer) employees spend two-hundred and seventy-one lifetimes every year finding new ways to destroy the world. Peace Action (an anti-war organization with dozens of chapters) spends just 0.07 lifetimes trying to save it.

The United States military uses one-thousand and fifty-seven human lifetimes’ worth of labor time every year advancing its imperialist projects (including regular war crimes). The United Nations uses just fifty-six.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) engages thirty lifetimes worth of effort to harass, detain, and deport people each year. Kids in Need of Defense (an organization founded to help some of ICE’s victims) can only counter with half of one lifetime.

These same problems are repeated, although sometimes less trackably, on every level of neoliberal society. Hundreds of lifetimes are bought and paid for to prevent unionization, while dozens are paid for (and many more volunteered) for labor rights. Thousands of human lifetimes are spent maintaining prisons and police forces; mere dozens of lifetimes spent by nonprofits trying to undo wrongful convictions — every year.

I would love to spend my life working to solve climate change, repair ecologies, undo criminal injustices, organize labor, or just broadly make life better. And even as a I work to gain the qualifications, skills, connections, and organization capacity to do those things, I am constantly confronted by the fact that choosing to dedicate my life to justice is choosing to live less comfortably, eat more ramen, and even, to leave my children with less wealth than I otherwise might be able to.

Under capitalism, the control of human time, effort, and brainpower ensures that those running the world for profit have the power to dedicate millions of lives to their cause, while those who wish to prevent ecological devastation, economic crisis, human suffering, or even human extinction are forced to do so in our spare time.

We can choose to make the world a better place to live in or we can choose to make higher wages, afford better food, and leave more to our families. No society which put the desire to do good in direct conflict with the ability to survive and thrive can be called stable.

Capitalism may claim to be an ideology of liberty, justice, and progress, but the numbers of lives dedicated to profit, incarceration, and deepening crises prove empirically that capitalism is, in fact, a system dedicated almost single-mindedly to the destruction of civilization and the eradication of all humankind.




Writer, Activist, Leftist.

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Matthew Barad

Matthew Barad

Writer, Activist, Leftist.

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