Coronavirus: what we can learn for the future

For climate’s sake!

Lorenz Erdmann, foresight researcher at Fraunhofer ISI.
© Fraunhofer / Philipp Horak
Lorenz Erdmann, foresight researcher at Fraunhofer ISI.

We’ve forgotten the art of doing nothing. Yet researchers say that only a slowdown will bring greater sustainability.

Modern life is all about using time efficiently: writing a couple of messages while waiting for the train, checking emails while riding the train to work, taking care of the grocery-shopping online. Unused time is wasted time. Smartphones, various apps, delivery services, online commerce, the joys of multitasking – all are supposed to save us time. But instead of being happy about all the extra time, more and more people are complaining about having less and less of it. In a survey by the Allensbach Institute in 2019, 26 million German people said they didn’t have enough time.

“The paradox is that, in spite of all this time-saving technology, people’s subjective impression is that there’s less and less time available,” says Lorenz Erdmann, who heads the business unit for Futures and Society at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI in Karlsruhe. This so-called rebound effect in the use of time was first described by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa in his 2005 work on the acceleration of time. According to Rosa, the time saved is not used in order to make time for other things such as relaxing or seeing friends. Instead, it is invested in even greater productivity.

With the result that lots of people today feel like they’re a character in MoMo, the world-famous children’s novel by Michael Ende: the faster they work, the less time they have – a rat race that becomes faster and faster, and from which there is apparently no escape. “Life just keeps on getting fuller and fuller,” Erdmann agrees. Together with partners from TU Berlin and Leuphana University Lüneburg, he is seeking to empirically test Rosa’s thesis and investigate what impact it has on society, the economy and sustainable consumption.

Most people want to sleep, relax, do some exercise

Erdmann and his colleagues are developing a simulation model that is fed with data from studies on time use by Germany’s Federal Statistical Office, and with information on CO2 emissions, diet, mobility, digital media, e-commerce etc. Another key source of data is a representative survey conducted for the project Time rebound, time wealth and sustainable consumption (ReZeitKon). Erdmann und his team wanted to find out, for example, how people spend their time, how much they suffer from a lack of time, what and how they consume, and what they would do if they had an extra hour per day at their disposal. The most common answers to these open-ended questions paint a picture of a drained society: sleep, relax, read, exercise, meet friends.

The survey was carried out in February, before the coronavirus pandemic put Germany into lockdown. The virus created whole new opportunities for the project. “The coronavirus caused a system failure, and we had to change our daily routine,” says Erdmann. “Suddenly, lots of people had lots more time.” The team therefore decided to carry out a second survey. They wanted to find out what people were doing with this newly won time. Initial results show that sleeping and relaxing are no longer top priorities. Instead, home repairs and gardening are the most common responses.

Do we have a problem with suddenly having nothing to do?

“It’s not that simple,” Erdmann says. “We all have our daily routine, and it’s not so easy to suddenly change it. There are events in life that open up a time window. That’s when routines get shaken up and reconstituted. The coronavirus could well be such a window.” But not for everyone. Erdmann emphasizes that it is important to look more closely at the survey results and differentiate according to demographic, situation and lifestyle. “Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic has a different impact on people with lots of time and money on their hands – those of independent means – than it does on those with little money and little time – i.e., people who are precariously employed, with two children and two jobs, and still barely able to make ends meet.

These people are under substantial pressure in terms of both time and money. If they’re out of work as a result of the coronavirus, they may not be short of time, but they’ve now got bigger money worries. Those with little time but lots of money – high-earning graduates who attach great importance to their profession – have quite possibly noticed a slowdown, but only if they haven’t had children to look after at home.” Our attitude towards time may be in the process of changing. “But as the crisis tapers off, I suspect there will be a powerful tendency to fall back into old ways,” says Erdmann.

Nature’s burnout

Yet that would risk the next catastrophe – the climate catastrophe. Erdmann and colleagues are convinced that the time-rebound effect has major consequences for sustainability. Adrienne Goehler from the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) in Potsdam agrees: “Sustainability requires a slowdown.” A study by Griffith University in Australia shows that people who slow down find it much easier to close the value-action gap on climate change – i.e., the discrepancy between knowing what to do for greater sustainability and actually doing it. At the opening event of last year’s inaugural Munich Sustainability Conference, TV presenter and astrophysicist Prof. Harald Lesch led a discussion with researchers working on the subject of time. Their topic: “Time is honey – a sustainable culture of time and the limits of nature.” There was general agreement that our nonstop society is intensifying the ecological crisis and that our massive consumption of energy and resources, which underpins our accelerated lifestyle and economic system, has now gone beyond nature’s capacity and system boundaries.

Although ReZeitKon has yet to deliver robust results, Erdmann has been able to identify initial patterns on the basis of the available data: “For example, those who say their life is rushed actually use more gas than others for the same number of kilometers. The feeling of having not enough time is reflected in a faster style of driving that uses more fuel. Or people who frequently eat fast-food also opt for the quickest mode of transport.” Hurrying home in the car to eat a microwaved pizza from the freezer or cycling back to a self-cooked meal that’s easy on the environment – a lack of time has consequences for the environment on many levels. Erdmann and his colleagues hope that their simulation model will yield information on a key factor that has been neglected in previous environmental impact studies: how people use the time they save and its ecological footprint.

In modern societies, according to Erdmann, there is a splitting up of people’s own time – i.e., time they can use as they wish – and of external time – i.e., other people’s time and that of external temporal requirements such as shop opening hours or fixed working hours. Depending on the person and their life situation, some have greater difficulties than others with synchronization. Some things accelerate this process, such as the expectation that people should react quickly to emails, while other mitigate it, such as flexible working hours. “When we talk about time wealth, people often devalue their own time, but it’s a vital component. If you don’t take your own time into account, it’s difficult to make good use of other time such as work time, time with children or social time. It’s a key resource.”

From time shortage to time wealth

To help people shift from an acute shortage to a wealth of time, Erdmann and his research colleagues propose various measures: the teaching of time-management skills, training in mindfulness and the piloting of new work-time models. They are also planning intervention studies at schools, in various companies and with members of the public. The idea is to develop a help manual on time and sustainability.

And does Erdmann himself now have more time wealth as a result of his research? “I think I’ve become more aware of what can rob you of your time. I’ve become much more focused in my use of digital media. I’ve switched off the signal for incoming messages, for example, because I don’t want to be disturbed while I’m working. My own time is sacred, and I expect others to respect that. It’s always very tempting to manage time like a savings account. However, unlike money, you can’t hoard time. It just slips away.”