“In short, “work” as we know it tends to make us unhappy because we do so much of it, because it is so repetitive, because we don’t get to choose what we do, and because what we are doing is often not in the best interest of our fellow human beings.”
-From an essay titled “How Ethical is the Work Ethic?” on the website freegan.info.
For Arthur Crosman, the Freegan Bike Workshop is freedom. The shop, located in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, probably wouldn’t evoke that word for many people. It’s housed in the gloomy basement of a neighborhood community center; old tires and tubes hang from the ceiling, wheels are stacked in the corner, and random bike parts litter the floor.
Crosman is a student and freegan who works at the shop two days a week, helping neighborhood kids put together bikes using parts salvaged from throughout the five boroughs. He lives in a small studio space upstairs, pays $300 per month in rent, and gets much of his food and possessions from daily raids on New York City dumpsters. For Crosman, freedom has meant avoiding the constraints of a 9-to-5 job.
“I don’t see any reason to do it,” he says. “I just want to live a life that’s satisfying for me.” When he needs extra money, Crosman has a flexible job putting up flyers around the city. “When I’m not working I spend time with friends,” he says, “and I’ve been playing a lot of music, which is very rewarding.”
Crosman’s attitude toward work is representative of the view shared by many freegans, who see most modern jobs as little more than sources of consumption income that lock people into exhausting cycles of “work and spend.” Since most people have little control over when they work or what they produce, freegans like Crosman would rather minimize their need for income and dedicate their time to pursuits of their choice. In many instances, Crosman said, freeganism is a reaction to negative experiences in the workforce. For example, Freegan Bike Workshop founder Christian Gutierrez is a former Wall Street investment banker.
The conception of freedom as a right to self-determination has an interesting parallel in American history. Indeed, it was a desire for the very same freedom that propelled Calvinist and Puritan settlers out of England to the eastern shores of the United States in the 17th century. When they came, though, these settlers carried with them the roots of modern American attitudes about work. As historian Mark Stoll Notes in his book Protestantism, Capitalism and Nature, the Puritans considered work a religious virtue, while idleness was a sin. “Even to their contemporaries, Protestant businessmen projected the image of humorless devotion to constant work, a devotion which had no parallel before the sixteenth century,” Stoll writes.
Arguably, it was this very work ethic that played an important role in building the great industries of the United States. Yet it’s interesting to wonder whether the captains of commerce from centuries past would even recognize the current conception of their ideas, juiced up as they are on a potent cocktail of globalization and technology. In the early 1990s, Americans worked 100 to 200 hours more annually than people did 20 years before, according to Harvard economist Juliet Schor. This increase has brought higher standards of living, and has vastly increased consumption levels. On the whole though, its legacy is a mixed picture.
Americans are stressed out. Stress and stress-related ailments account for 75 to 90 percent of all doctor’s office visits in the U.S. Thirty percent of Americans say they feel anxious, and there is a 10 percent increase in reported depression in people born after 1966, compared to people born before that date. Moving Americans from the factory into the office hasn’t decreased the monotony of many jobs; “More than 600,000 U.S. workers suffer ‘musculoskeletal disorders’ from overexertion or repetition,” each year, “resulting in $15-20 billion in annual workman’s compensation payments,” according to the 2004 book Priceless by Tufts University Economist Frank Ackerman and Georgetown Law Professor Lisa Heinzerling.
These statistics illustrate the fine line between the benefits of hard work and the costs of exhaustion-induced burnout. Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken summed up the tradeoff best in their seminal 2001 book Natural Capitalism. “While increasing human productivity is critical to maintaining income and economic well-being,” they wrote, “productivity that corrodes society is tantamount to burning the furniture to heat the house.”
Despite the fact that some of us are burning our mental, physical and spiritual furniture, we’re at least beginning to realize it. Career counselors and newsweeklies are reporting an up-tick in the number of people who put happiness and fulfillment ahead of income as factors in choosing a career. Freelancing is growing in popularity, particularly in urban areas and among creative professionals like designers and writers. While this doesn’t necessarily imply fewer hours worked (and almost always implies fewer health benefits), it can also mean more flexibility and increased autonomy over what one chooses to produce. In a 2005 survey conducted by the New York-based Freelancer’s Union, 87 percent of respondents cited “a flexible schedule” as a benefit of freelancing, while 71 percent cited a “diversity of projects,” and 47 percent pointed to “more creative control.”
Within the traditional workplace, examples of reform are few and far-between. In fact, it’s more common to hear of employers creating the worst of both worlds by cutting benefits while maintaining inflexible working hours. But there are exceptions. Among the more prominent of these is the outdoor apparel company Patagonia, which gives employees flexible hours to meet recreational or personal needs, offers lunchtime yoga sessions, and allows employees to dress however they please in the workplace.
“We all needed flextime to surf the waves when they were good or ski the powder after a big snowstorm or stay home and take care of a sick child,” wrote Patagonia CEO Yvon Chouinard in his 2005 book Let My People Go Surfing. “We needed to blur the distinction between work and play and family.”
Of course, for those uninspired by any of these alternative approaches to work, there’s always freeganism. After all, the less money one needs to survive, the weaker the temptation is to sacrifice one’s health or principles in order to earn it. Cindi, a New York City freegan who led a group of NYU students on a dumpster tour of Greenwich Village this past November, told them about her conversion to a freegan way of life. “As I got into freeganism,” she said, “I began to realize that this could not only free you from the system, but it could free you as a person as well.”