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Slow is the keyword

Feb 9, 2014 : 21:49 IST
Fast food, fast cars, fast living... modern culture is an advocate of life in the fast lane. The mantra seems to be faster, quicker, better, more. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed intimacy, friendship or neighbourliness for a more impersonal way of accelerated living. Isn’t it about time we gave ‘slow living’ a thought, wonders Colin Todhunter.

‘Live life to the max’. You’ve heard or seen the slogan. It’s a mantra that encourages us to live life in the fast lane. Do not take it easy or take things slow, but skydive from a plane, bungee jump off a high bridge, or canoe through white water rapids. This obsession with living life quickly, to the ‘max’, is associated with fast cars, fast food and fast living.

Modern culture is an advocate of speed. If something is slow, it’s boring, tame or dull. We now witness a culture that is oriented towards quick thrills, immediate gratification and rapid success. The advertising industry is partly responsible for creating and fuelling this mindset. But it’s a much deeper malaise. From urban planning and transport systems to the food industry and beyond, ‘fast living’ cuts deep and affects almost every aspect of life.

Many of us may look back to former times when the pace of life seemed slower, people tended to reside close to where they were brought up, and transport meant going by foot or bicycle. Everything was closer at hand, whether relatives, friends, markets, school or work.

The fast life

Today, just look around. What do you see? In terms of distances, things are more spread out, yet they are more interconnected. The distances between, and the world itself, have been shrunk. Whether it’s instant communication via the internet and cell phones, or mass transportation systems, speed is the glue that narrows the gaps. Metro transport systems are being extended or built, huge concrete flyovers cut through neighbourhoods and separate communities from one another, and employment is being centralised in out of town business parks or city centre office blocks. Speed and high-energy living have become an essential fact of life. In the process, our communities have become disjointed and dispersed. We have sacrificed intimacy, friendship or neighbourliness for a more impersonal way of accelerated living.

In the virtual world, friends, possibly half the world away, are made and ‘defriended’ at the drop of a hat (or the click of an icon). Likes and dislikes are but passing fads. Meaningful social activism has been trivialised and reduced to the almost meaningless clicking of an online petition. It’s more convenient and quicker than taking to the street.

And, in the real world, where ‘clicking’ just doesn’t cut it, how to physically move from A to B as quickly as possible dominates the modern mindset — how to get to office, the airport, to your kids’ schools, the hospital or the shopping mall, which are increasingly further away from home. Many now appear to spend half their lives in transit in order to do what was once achievable by foot or by bicycle.

It’s all become a case of how to eat fast, live fast, consume fast, text message fast, Facebook fast and purchase fast. Speed is of essence. And it seems that the faster we live, the greater our appetites have become. The mantra seems to be faster, quicker, better, more. In a quick-paced, use-and-throw world, speed really is addictive.

But there is a heavy price to pay for living fast. We are using up the world’s resources at an ever greater pace. Where do the materials to make the cell phone or flat screen TVs originate from? What about all of the water to irrigate the massive amounts of grain and land required to feed the animals that end up on the dinner plate as the world increasingly turns towards diets that are heavily meat based? What about the oil that fuels the transport to get to those malls, to ship the food over huge distances, to fuel the type of petrochemical agriculture we have come to rely on, or the minerals which form a constituent part of the endless stream of consumer products on the shelves? High energy, accelerated living takes a heavy toll on the environment and, if we are honest, on ourselves, in terms of our health and our relationships.

We now hear a lot about the ‘BRICS’ countries being on course to overtake the West in terms of dominating the world economy. We hear a good deal about the merits of a type of economic development that mirrors what we have seen in Western nations over the past couple of centuries or so.

But, if the type of high energy living outlined above is what human progress and social and economic development rests on, then we may be heading for a crunching, painful slowdown much sooner than we think. If it does occur, however, it will be a type of slowdown that will not be of our choosing. It could well be catastrophic as current conflicts intensify and new ones emerge over diminishing resources, whether water, oil, minerals, fertile land or food.

Life in the slow lane

Before that happens, indeed to prevent it from happening in the first place, we need to slow down. We need to think about ways of ‘slow living’ that are not based on endless consumption or high energy inputs.

The term ‘slow living’ was popularised when Carlo Petrini protested against the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant in Piazza di Spagna in Rome in 1986. This reaction against fast food sparked the creation of the Slow Food movement. Over time, this developed into other areas, such as Cittaslow (Slow Cities), Slow Living, Slow Travel, and Slow Design. Geir Berthelsen and his creation of The World Institute of Slowness presented a vision in 1999 for an entire ‘Slow Planet’ and a need to teach the world the way of ‘slow’.

What was Carlo Petrini actually originally arguing against? What is fast food? Fast food is food that is grown quickly, eaten quickly and prepared quickly. It is convenience food of dubious nutritional quality that fits in with the belief that ‘good life’ equates with fast living. It is food that tends to rely on petrochemical pesticides, fertilisers and national and often international transportation systems. Food that is chemically processed and which relies on hormones, steroids and other similar inputs in order to ‘speed things up’ in terms of crop or animal growth and delivery to plates that may be half a world away from where it is produced. It is nature speeded up, but also nature that has been contaminated and distorted.

On the other hand, slow food tends to imply food that is grown or produced locally and with minimal bio-chemical inputs. It tends to rest on the sourcing of local foods and centuries’ old traditions and ideally sold by neighbourhood farms and stores, not by giant monopolistic retailers that are integral to the fast food industry. Slow food also implies more nourishing and healthy food and food that places less strain on water resources and soil and which does not pollute or ultimately destroy either body or environment as a result of chemical residues. The promotion of slow living and slow food arguably adds a certain impetus to the organic movement.

Slow food is also associated with lower energy inputs. It is less reliant on oil-based factory-processed fertilisers/pesticides and oil-based transportation across lengthy distances, not least because it is organically produced and locally sourced. It depends how far the concepts of slow food and slow living are taken, but in their ultimate forms, both can arguably be best achieved via decentralisation and through communities that are more self-sustaining in terms of food production/consumption as well as in terms of other activities, including localised energy production via renewables or industrial outputs such as garment making or eco-friendly house building. In this respect, slow living extends to remaking the communities and relearning the crafts and artisan skills we have often lost.

For some, slow living may merely involve attempting to purchase eco-friendly products or trying to lead a lifestyle that leaves a lower carbon footprint by ditching the car and using public transport, for instance. But, as already implied, urban planning and the ‘local’ might also be the key to slow living in a wider sense. No need for fast cars if work, school or healthcare facilities are close by. Less need for ugly flyovers or six lane highways that rip up communities in their path. Getting from A to B would not require a race against the clock on the highway that cuts through a series of localities that are never to be visited, never to be regarded as anything but an inconvenience to be passed through en route to big-mac nirvana, multiplex overload or shopping mall hedonism.

Instead, how about a leisurely, even enjoyable walk or cycle ride through an urban environment free from traffic pollution or noise, where the pedestrian is not regarded as an obstacle to be honked at with horn, where the cyclist is not a damned inconvenience to be driven off the road or where ‘neighbourhood’ has been stripped of its intimacy, of its local ‘mom and pop’ stores, of its local theatres?

The slow dream ina fast world

It sounds good. So good in fact that in our high-energy ‘fast’ world, we are often encouraged to embrace slowness and to cherish it. Take the tourism industry, for instance, which puts slowness on a pedestal and sells the dream of the slow life to those trapped in a fast world. Think of all those brochures tempting you to visit some tranquil beach paradise or serene ‘queen of the hills’ town up in the mountains. Brochures that portray life in destination nirvana as slow paced. The locals are easy going and genteel, food is slow, travel is slow and living is slow, or so the reader is led to believe.

Having jettisoned the slow life for a life of fast living on the hamster wheel, we now seek out the slow life through tourism. The trouble is that when you arrive at your beach or hill station destination, all is not what it appeared to be when you glimpsed it online or in the brochure at your local travel agent shop. With more and more people seeking out the slow life for two weeks of respite, destination slow suddenly became a complete mess. Instead of genteel locals, pristine forests and refreshing air, what you experience is sprawling hotel complexes, endless buses and taxis clogging up the place along with thousands of other tourists.

And the locals — they abandoned the slow life once mass tourism arrived and jumped on the bandwagon of fastness to rent out their rooms at inflated prices, to open restaurants serving fast food that caters to fast tourism. The slow mindset suddenly became abandoned in the quest to make a fast buck from the tourists, and before you knew it, six lane highways arrived and urban sprawl sprawled even further across the once-pristine hillsides or beaches.

But that’s what fast living does. It corrupts and destroys most things that get in its way. It recasts everything in its own image. Even ‘slowness’ has become a bogus, debased commodity sold to the fast living, fast consuming masses.

What can be done?

So, what can we do in a genuine attempt to live life in the slow lane? What can we do on a practical level that does not result in the debasement of slow living? Is slow living nothing more than the dreamers’ mandate for taking us all back a century or two?
For many advocates of slow living, it is about living better in a fast world. It is not necessarily about dragging the world backwards. For others, however, slow living comprises a wide ranging cultural revolution that challenges many of the notions that underpin our consumption patterns, industrialisation or advanced capitalism. It all depends how you regard the concept.

But slow living is nothing new. From Buddha to the social philosopher Ivan Illich in the 1960s and 70s, the philosophy has always been around in different guises and has been accorded many labels. Whether it is anti-globalisation, environmentalism, post-modernism, the organic movement, ‘green’ energy, localisation or decentralisation, these concepts and the movements that sprang up around them have embraced some notion of slowness in one form or another.

In India, the Navdanya organisation is wholeheartedly against the destruction of biodiversity and traditional farming practices and communities and presents a radical critique of consumerism, petro-chemical farming and Western agribusiness. The views of Vandana Shiva, Navdanya’s founder, are well documented. Shiva advocates a radical shift of course from the one the world (and India) is currently on. Navdanya has even opened a Slow Food Caf in Delhi.

Although challenging the seed patenting and monopolistic pratices of agribusiness is based on a radical and coherent philosophy of which ‘slowness’ forms a part, the movement towards a different and slower world can take many forms.

On a general level, slow living might involve improving the quality of life by merely slowing down the pace of living. In urban planning, for example, it may mean pedestrianising urban spaces and restricting motorised traffic, especially car use. In many European cities such as Copenhagen, for example, cycling is encouraged by offering the public the free use of bicycles. And visit any Dutch city to see that cycling is a predominant mode of transport, which certainly makes a positive contribution to the easy going ambience.

In the UK, in part as a response to traffic congestion and the negative impacts of motorised transport on communities, there is a movement to ‘reclaim the streets’, to hand them back to local residents who feel a need to claim ownership of their communities and public spaces which have essentially been hijacked by commuters or large corporations.

Slow living often appears to be an almost catch-all label. It may entail slowing down in order to develop some kind of spiritual connection with one’s inner self. It might also involve opting for more environmental-friendly products while shopping, living in more eco-sensitive housing, developing small cottage industries or just generally leading a ‘greener’ lifestyle as a consumer.

But, whatever it may or may not be, the concept of ‘slow’ or slow living has in some quarters succeeded in shrugging off the negative connotations often associated with it. Slowness is not the bad boy that popular use-and-throw, quick-fix culture portrays it as. Slowness should be embraced — in whatever way and whatever form you deem fit.

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