Collectively, we spend just 45 minutes a day on the activities that cause the most pollution

Why do we feel stuck in our efforts to solve the great sustainability crises of the 21st century? Between the pressing need to successfully mitigate climate change while making progress toward the human-based Sustainable Development Goals, the challenges of the Anthropocene we now live in can seem insurmountable.

However, despite the central role of human action in creating sustainability solutions, there has not been a high-level, comprehensive understanding of what the global human population is doing in precise, numerical terms.

We provide such a perspective by charting the global human use of time, drawing together multiple sources of data to provide interdisciplinary perspectives on fundamental aspects of human behavior and experience.

Our results show that solutions to sustainability crises are physically very much within reach if people are given the right political and economic incentives.

A Study of People’s Time

As researchers with expertise in Earth systems science, our work seeks to align the study of humans with approaches used to study the rest of the Earth system. One way to do this is to quantify the full breadth of human activity in units of time in terms of their physical outcomes.

Time is a solid measure because it is a universal and physical quantity; all eight billion people around the world have the same 24 hours to devote to a variety of activities.

The activities we choose to engage in, how much time is spent on each, and the technologies involved continually shape our planet, societies, and subjective experience of life.

Understanding the big picture

As, at a glance, the global carbon cycle provides a big picture of how and where carbon moves around the Earth, we set out to create a bird’s-eye view of what humanity is doing at the dawn of the Anthropocene.

By combining and standardizing a diverse set of data on how people spend their time, drawn from national time-use surveys, economic statistics, childhood education metrics, wearable sleep-measuring devices, we get a picture of what humanity as a whole does on an average 24 within the hour. period: World Human Day.

The most immediate observation is that, globally, the vast majority of time is spent on activities that we classify as directly human-centered.

The average person on Earth spends about seven hours a day on activities such as socializing, using media, eating, and exercising.

In addition to nine hours of sleep and 1.5 hours of biological and health needs, the average person on Earth spends about seven hours a day passively relaxing, socializing, consuming media, eating, exercising, playing games, and practicing religion. Meanwhile, education and research fit neatly into an hour.

We also identify a set of activities dedicated to the governance and management of our societies and economies. Administration, law, finance, commerce, banking and bill paying problems occupy one hour. Another hour a day is spent commuting and commuting.

Less than four hours a day

In total, there are just over three hours left in which we intentionally change the Earth and our environment. Almost three-quarters of this time goes to our food system and the improvement of populated areas.

The remaining time in the last 45 minutes of the average human day, where resource extraction, manufacturing, and construction occur, comprising the most environmentally hazardous aspects of industrial civilization. In fact, the extraction of all materials and the entire energy supply, including the extraction and processing of all fossil fuels, takes only six minutes.

With only half an hour in construction and production, this 45 minutes is a strikingly low figure for the sourcing, expansion and maintenance of the built environment for an activity responsible for the production and consumption of about 70 gigatons of material per year. It highlights the efficiency of modern industry and its power of influence.

In comparison, only one minute is spent on waste management.

two people in safety gear walking through an outdoor factory
Only about 45 minutes of the average human day are devoted to activities that determine the bulk of our planet’s impact.

Using our time

Our results do not suggest that material extraction and energy provision are trivial activities. They still represent billions of man-hours a year and support the functioning of our modern civilization.

But the time involved is relatively small when considered as part of everyday human existence, compared to the same amount of time we collectively spend cleaning our homes and doing the dishes.

In this context, it is possible to imagine changing the composition of these activities to a relatively large extent (say, building renewable energy systems rather than continuing to extract fossil fuels) without disturbing the general patterns of human life.

Naturally, this will require major economic and political incentives, but there is clearly a time frame for this.

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