How Work Overheats The Earth

We’re ignoring the laws of physics and going to thermodynamic jail


Image of thermodynamics via Granta Magazine

In physics, ‘work’ is the energy transferred to (or from) an object. Not all energy can be transferred to an object, some is necessarily lost as heat. If we keep doubling the work we do every generation (a 2.3% growth rate), the waste heat boils the oceans in 400 years. Work is thus not something to mindlessly maximize. It’s something that has to be kept in careful balance with the object we live on, ie the planet.

In common language, work is what humans do ‘for a living’ and as Anna Mercury says — citing Blink 182 — ‘work sucks’. It’s not just that work sucks the energy out of you, it sucks energy and resources out of the planet. Mercury says “We don’t need to keep toiling to producing more. In fact, less toil, less work, less production and less consumption are the only way we’re going to continue surviving on this planet.” As Mercury goes on, “To fight global warming, we really need to chill.”

She continues:

In the past few years, various environmental movements have begun rallying people around the slogan, “Do Nothing for the Climate.” The idea is simple: we are killing our planet because we are doing too much. We are working too much, buying too much, producing too much, extracting too much, traveling too much, making too much, and overall, doing too much. The best thing we can do for our planet is to slow down and do less. Consume less and share more.

These are very important points. There is obviously some work that needs to be done, but capitalism seems to have incentives ass-backwards. Under capitalism, raising children or caring for elders is worthless, growing food and making things is brought as close to slave labor as possible, essential workers are overworked and underpaid, and the most highly compensated people are rent-seeking shareholders and bankers. Simply not doing anything and not destroying the environment is, oxymoronically, considered a waste. As the Buddha said:

Viewing the non-essential as the essential and the essential as the non-essential they, nourished on false thinking, do not arrive at the essential.



Indrajit (Indi) Samarajiva is a Sri Lankan writer. Follow me at, or just email me at