Have you thought that an extra day in the garden each week would be nice? Well, you're not alone. In fact the New Economics Foundation has suggested just that in its recently published paper, National Gardening Leave.
Here's their opening paragraph:
This pamphlet argues that Britain would be better off if we all spent less time at the office. It makes the case for a new, voluntary scheme to introduce a shorter working week. We call this National Gardening Leave. The proposal calls for adapting a wide range of available spaces for the rapid expansion of gardening, both productive and aesthetic in Britain’s towns and cities.
I want to like this. I really do.
But what's not to like? It's a proposal that proffers an improved economy, a healthier and happier population, and an enhanced environment.
You've got to support your idea with more than "yes-but” statements: you know, the sort of woolly "facts" that might be thrown into general conversation over the dinner table.
“Settled farming…created time for other expressions of being beyond survival.”
So before then, cave paintings drew themselves? And did no one see Bruce Parry’s Tribe, which showed the remarkably relaxed lifestyle of the Kombai hunter-gatherers in Papua?
Small point, maybe, but the statement's been considered worthy of inclusion, setting the scene for the main arguments.
In case you didn’t know, nef (note those hey-we’re-breaking-boundaries lower-case letters) describes itself as an independent “think-and-do” tank that aims “to improve quality of life by promoting innovative solutions that challenge mainstream thinking on economic, environment and social issues."
Check! Theirs certainly isn't a mainstream proposal.
They are, they say, “unique in combining rigorous analysis and policy debate with practical solutions on the ground.”
Hmm. Here's how they present their rigorous analysis on National Gardening Leave.
The cover sports a wood-cut style illustration, reminiscent of book illustrations of the 1950s (ah, golden age). Dropped, slightly unconvincingly into the foreground, are an Adirondack chair (ah, craftsmanship), a steaming cup of coffee (ah, pleasure) and what might be an instruction manual (ah, self-sufficiency). Inside, the text is peppered with cute sketches of fruit.
I’m no expert on think-tank discussion papers. Perhaps they all like to soften their soliloquies with pretty pictures, but already I’m on the alert. The authors are quite blatantly working to create emotions (warm, fuzzy ones) before I even start reading. Shouldn't a good proposal stand on its own merit?
The same warm fuzziness embraces the text. Quotes abound, starting with Cicero’s overworked chestnut about the desirability of owning a garden and a library. Such literary embellishments are enjoyable diversions, but do nothing for the argument.
If they must be used, though, be sensible with them. Following a paragraph in which supermarkets are likened to pernicious weeds that need firm handling to keep them in check, the next chapter opens with Emerson: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not been discovered.” I’m sure Tesco would be delighted.
Moving on, we get reasons why growing is so good for us.
Now, no one’s denying that gardening is beneficial in many ways and the authors, Andrew Simms and Molly Conisbee, are obviously keen to convince. For example, “practical community-based environmental learning programmes, ‘improved young people’s attachment to place, civic engagement, and environmental stewardship.’”
The BTCV found that “nature-oriented programmes for offenders increased the chance of ex-offenders holding down a job, and reduced re-offending on release.”
Not forgetting that “the range of specific health benefits attributable to gardening is extraordinarily diverse, ranging from lower mortality and likelihood of the onset of dementia, to less brittle bones from osteoporosis, fewer problems with blood pressure, heart disease, and a range of conditions relating to depression and anxiety.”
Very commendable, all of it. But exclusive to gardening? “Environmental learning programmes” encompass more than raised beds in a school playground; does gardening in prisons actually reduce recidivism more than, say, catering courses aimed at employment on release? And gardening is healthy, but wouldn’t those results be replicated by going to the gym, taking up rambling, and a host of other activities?
The real proposals
The paper finally, on page 15 (of 20) arrives at its two proposals.
First, a four-day week. I like this idea – always have, since the first day of my first job. It quite possibly would be widely beneficial. It could be organised, either with shorter hours, or by packing five days' hours into four. Actual statistics follow about the outcome of such a scheme in Utah, USA.
Community farms and allotments are proving their worth time and again, especially in inner cities. But the second proposal is specific (and here the bullet hits the big toe); all work places are recommended to establish “growing areas”.
Shared endeavours, like gardening in the work place, have all the benefits outlined above and in particular can reduce stress and increase a sense of joint enterprise, co-operation and shared endeavour.
Ignoring that disgraceful circular argument, have I read that right? They’re proposing a four-day week, then a “free” day, when you go back to work to tend the garden? There certainly won’t be any other time to do it, with five days’ hours packed into four.
Not just Gardening Leave
Of course, people wouldn’t have to spend that fifth day gardening. In fact, the paper says “They could do any number of other things.” Unfortunately, from their opening paragraph, they’ve alienated a large proportion of the population.
Yes, gardening is rising in popularity, but it’s not that popular. Norman Geras, Professor Emeritus in Politics, University of Manchester, has this to say at normblog:
What a cheek. Talk about foisting your own values on to everyone else, as if they're universal or obligatory. A shorter working week is one thing, but having to spend the time saved from work doing gardening could be hellish for some us. You want healthy? Fine, but there are other routes to it.
It’s a sentiment echoed in a number of comments on Andrew Simms’ article in The Guardian.
A wasted effort
In his article, Andrew writes:
Less time in the office, and more time in the garden: add these two good ideas together and we can make an even better one.
Actually, it's a great example of how to ruin two good ideas at once. A four-day working week: worth talking about. More growing space in cities: proven benefits.
But put them together, in the manner of this paper, and you’ve got a woolly, half-baked scheme that irritates a lot of people who might otherwise be on your side.
In fact, you’ve got one of those hazy ideas that comes with the third glass of wine at that dinner party – “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if everyone had an extra day off and grew things with their neighbours…?
More red, sweetie?