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Can Large-Scale Telecommuting Save The Environment?

by Neal Litherland 5 months ago in Climate · updated 4 months ago

Probably... So of Course Businesses Are Fighting It

It feels like 2020 was a year of unmitigated disaster, filled with nothing but doom and gloom. However, while the pandemic was terrible (and is far from over at time of writing), some of our efforts to mitigate it had further-reaching effects than we expected. All you had to do was scroll through social media some time in the past year to see posts of people marveling at clear-running waters usually choked with detritus, or posting pictures of clear skies in places like Los Angeles, to get a sense of the visible effects that everyone staying home for a while had on the environment.

While total lockdown isn't a long-term solution, 2020 made it clear just how many of our jobs could be done from home if we chose to. Not only that, it made it really clear just how big the effects that could have on the planet are in an immediately visible way... so why don't we just do that?

The Technology is Already Here

And social norms aren't far behind.

According to the Revelator, in 2017 roughly 5.2 percent of workers in the U.S. worked from home. That doesn't sound like a lot, but that's still about 8 million people or so. However, University of Chicago research suggests that the amount of jobs we currently have in the U.S. that could be done from home is probably closer to 37 percent... or roughly 50 to 60 million people who could feasibly have a commute to their kitchen table instead of the office.

That's a lot of people, but what sort of impact would that have on the environment? Glad you asked!

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that we managed to actually switch all these jobs that could be done remotely to remote status. 2017 had about 683 billion miles driven just by people commuting to work. If we let everyone who could work from home actually work from home, it would cut 219 billion miles a year off that number. Even assuming occasional trips to the office for meetings, or less-than-full capacity, we could realistically still cut 164 billion miles driven by commuter vehicles a year.

And what would that do? Well, it would reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from cars (one of the bigger sources of pollution in America) by 66 million metric tons of CO2 per year. That's far from the only benefit, though. Fewer miles driven means less demand for gas, which would reduce oil costs (as we saw with oil prices plummeting during stay-at-home orders). Fewer cars on the road reduces traffic accidents and fatalities, as well.

The benefits of working remotely extend beyond just the effect of cars, though. With fewer workers coming into the office, less overhead is required for heating, lighting, etc., which saves businesses money. Not only that, but as Indeed points out telecommuting tends to result in better health for employees (the major reason it's been such a big deal the past year and change), increased productivity, better morale, and an increased work-home balance.

So Why Are Businesses Trying To Force People Back To The Office?

Yeah... I'm gonna need you back here ASAP.

As mentioned above, basically every business study acknowledges that remote working has positive effects on employee productivity and morale. Going to the office sucks, and most of the time people would rather sit in their own home, drink coffee out of their own cups, and just get their work done without the distractions of the office. They can focus on completing their tasks without worrying about their boss stopping by their cubicle for a chat, or their annoying co-worker who just wants to go on and on about their kid's soccer tournament, which means tasks get knocked out pretty quickly.

So why are so many businesses so resistant to keeping the current work-from-home solutions in place? Especially when it's actually increased their morale and productivity during such a trying time?

In a word, capitalism. In two words, though, power dynamics.

The Work-From-Home Future is Destroying Bosses' Brains lays out the basics. Because even though remote working is good for the business, and good for employees, it actively reveals the lies and waste of so much of our office cultures. That meeting really could have been an email, it turns out. Not only that, but this experiment in large-scale remote working we've been forced to conduct has made it abundantly clear that middle-managers are one of the positions we've insisted are necessary, but who it turns out are largely pointless and redundant. If we just leave the workers alone, it seems, they'll do their work without someone looking over their shoulders the whole time.

There are other reasons, of course. Remote working also gives employees freedom and autonomy in ways many of them have never had before, and that makes it harder for management to crack down on worker behaviors through rules and dress codes, or forcing people to look like they're busy when, in fact, there's nothing for them to actually do. It allows them, as several horrified bosses have said online, to work part-time hours while getting full-time pay (because a surprising number of jobs really don't have 40 hours worth of work to complete in a week), or even worse it lets people work on their own businesses and side hustles while they're supposed to be dedicating all their time and effort to their employer.

Social Changes Can Have Huge Impacts

Now, to be clear, remote working on a large scale isn't going to heal the planet overnight. It's something that's going to help, but it's just one patch on the quilt. We still need to end fossil fuel use, massively rein in industrial pollution and emissions, stop wasting huge amounts of energy, etc. However, we have literally spent the past year field-testing this solution. We scrambled to get it in place, and we've seen with our own eyes the massive, positive effects that it has. This isn't some fresh investment of time, money, and energy we have to make... we literally have it in our hands right now.

And if the fact that we have a solution that will make us more efficient, happier, healthier, and more environmentally friendly, but that we might screw the whole thing up because of ass-covering, self-important corporate culture that's absolutely terrified of easing up its white-knuckled grip on our lives doesn't make you mad, then I don't know what will.

Your Internet Traffic Can Help Plant Trees!

And we all need to help as best we can!

If you are struggling to find some way you can help the environment, there is something you can do today! Ecosia is a search engine that uses the profits earned from people who use it to plant trees in areas that desperately need reforestation. It even offers regular updates and reports so that you can see what sort of progress your Internet traffic is going toward helping.

It takes roughly a few hundred searches to plant one tree. So ask yourself how many times you regularly look up random facts, check movie times, look for cool art, or any of a thousand other things. How many trees can you plant per year? Per month? Or even per week, if you're a dedicated search engine user?

There's no sponsorship attached to this call out, I just want readers out there to know that, while we need to actively tear down the systems that pollute the planet, we can often keep more than one ball in the air at a time. I've switched to Ecosia, and I'd suggest you do as well.

Would You Like To Know More?

This is the first of a series of pieces regarding the solutions we have available today to help make serious, meaningful change in our world regarding the damage we're doing to the environment. Because we don't need some sci-fi technology to do it... we just need to use the tools we have available right now.

So check out my full Vocal archive for more!


Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

Twitter: @nlitherl



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