Environmental gains and social losses? Critical reflections on the sustainability potential of telework
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Hynes, M. and Rau, H (2014) Environmental Gains and Social Losses? Critical reflections on the sustainability potential of telework XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology Yokohama, Japan, 13/07/2014- 19/07/2014
Anthropogenic climate change and its environmenmtal and social consequences are of increasing concern worldwide. Approaches that advocate a 'greening' of current economic and social systems through technological innovation and development tend to dominate policy responses, especially in resource-intensive sectors such as transport. This position is labeled as shallow Ecological Modernisation (EM) thinking whereby technology is preceived in (over)optimistic terms, with limited evidence of challenges to contemporary growth-centric models of development, production, and consumption that cause climate change. Work takes up a considerable portion of people's lives whilst travelling to and from work has become a key feature of everyday mobility in many development and developing countries. A significant contributor to Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, transport in its current form is deemed to be unsustainable. In a European context, telework - an arrangement that enables employees work from home - has been suggested as a virtual mobility option with the potential to reduce the 'consumption of distance' associated with regular commuting. Given its emphasis on the application of technology to solve environmental problems, the uncritical promotion of telework constitutes a prime example of shallow EM thinking. Despite the prominence of EM thinking in climate policy and practice, theoretically informed empirical explorations of its implementation and impacts remain incomplete. Drawing on a multi-method investigation of telework in the Republic of Ireland, this paper finds current EM thinking amongst decision-makers to be shallow and largely reflective of neo-liberal environmentalism, contributing little to curbing the consumerist impluses of contemporary economic models and lifestyles. The environmental benefits of telework are also questioned, as is the rationale for existing teleworking schemes. This paper further asserts that actual and potential environmental gains can conflict with potentially negative implications for fairness, equity and well-being, with teleworkers shouldering a substanial social burden arising from technology-aided changes in work practices.