William Fajzel, McGill University – The Global Human Day

How do you spend your days?

William Fajzel, PhD student in earth system dynamics at McGill University, examines this question from a global perspective.

William Fajzel, a PhD student at McGill University, studies human activities in the Anthropocene. With a background in economics and Earth system science, his research focuses on bringing together social and physical sciences to better understand the human basis of 21st century sustainability challenges. His master’s laid the groundwork for the Human Chronome project, which he seeks to expand throughout his PhD.

The Global Human Day

Across the Earth, 8 billion people are going about their lives, each devoting 24 hours a day to a range of activities. These daily actions are continually shaping our planet, societies, and experience of life, driving physical changes like climate change, ecological degradation, rapidly expanding technology, and urbanization. Although we know a lot about the details of these activities, there is no high-level, comprehensive depiction of them.

Our work draws together diverse datasets on how people spend their time to provide the first bird’s-eye view of a day in the life of humanity at the dawn of the Anthropocene.

Our results show that, globally, a vast majority of time is dedicated to activities that are human-focused. Along with just over nine hours of sleep and bedrest, nearly nine-and-a-half hours go towards activities such as hygiene, meals, schooling, socializing, and relaxing. The single largest category is passive, interactive, and social activity, at four-and-a-half hours per day.

Interestingly, human travel time is invariant across the spectrum of GDP per capita, clustering around one hour per day. While large differences exist between people, there is little difference at the population level despite widely varying transport technologies and infrastructure.

Importantly, our largest impacts on the planet occur during a relatively small amount of overall time. Provisioning energy and extracting materials (including all fossil fuels) occupies about five minutes. We only spend one or two minutes managing waste. If we are to navigate planetary boundaries and achieve sustainability goals, for example by building renewable energy grids and dealing with plastic pollution, we as a population will have to alter how much time we allocate to these activities. Our results suggest that we have plenty of room to do so without disrupting patterns of daily living.