How slowing down could save the world

Slow Life Movement, Italy, Rose-Marie Caldecott

Photograph by Rose-Marie Caldecott

My mother has this theory that the Italians know the secret to health and happiness, and I’m starting to think she may be right. The Mediterranean talent for a healthy and relaxed lifestyle is famous the world over, but for most of us it is little more than a quaint cultural trait to be imitated only on holidays and special occasions, not to be taken seriously the rest of the time. We like the idea of doing things in a slow, relaxed way in theory, but think of it as being a luxury that we can’t afford in our every day lives. We want to squeeze in our 10 minutes of yogic breathing before dashing off to pick up the dry cleaning on the way to the office, and thus relaxation becomes yet another thing on our ‘to do’ lists, and all the benefits are negated.

Our culture has become addicted to speed, not only in our personal lives, but also on a global scale. Somehow the phenomena of fast food, fast fashion, and a fast work culture have taken deep root, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that these things, and the underlying addiction to speed, is to blame for environmental damage, struggling economies, human rights abuses, and the lingering issue of gender inequality in the workplace. If we could collectively scale back a little, and slow down, the impact would be huge.

In Annie Leonard’s short film, The Story of Stuff, we are told that only 1% of the materials consumed in our economy remain in use six months after sale. Planned obsolescence for complex technology such as computers and mobile phones has become commonplace, having a hugely negative impact on people and the environment, as this documentary shows. A study into the rates of supply and demand by Textrend.org in 2008 shows that in just 28 years consumers have come to demand roughly four times the number of clothes that they used to, dumping almost as much as they buy each year.

Well-publicised tragedies like last year’s Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh drive home the human cost of fast fashion in terms that no one can avoid; most of the people killed in the accident were rushing to get orders of cheap clothes finished in time for unrelenting deadlines. Meanwhile, in the food industry, large corporations farm one crop on great swathes of land, destroying the fertility of the soil before abandoning it and moving on.

The negative impacts of our fast culture are also having an impact on each of us on a more personal level. Hanna Rosin recently wrote an article for Slate about Brigid Schulte’s book, Overwhelmed, and how ‘busyness [has become] a virtue’, describing a phenomenon familiar to all of us; we find ourselves competing with those around us to prove how busy – and therefore important – we are. But this modern level of ‘busyness’ is not sustainable in the long term.

The HR magazine, People Management, recently ran a piece about how stress is strangling businesses, with one in six employees in the UK alone dealing with mental health issues, frequently anxiety and stress relating to their jobs. Gimmicks like the Google office’s infamous ping-pong tables are attempts to solve this problem, and an acknowledgement of the fact that rest and ‘play’ decreases stress while increasing productivity and creativity. Dr Stuart Brown’s research on the benefits of relaxation and play in child development have obvious implications for the importance of ‘down time’ for adults, as well. It seems to me, though, that the kinds of measures taken by companies like Google are mostly nominal, half-hearted attempts to reverse something that needs to change on a much deeper, cultural level to have any real effect.

Ovid quote, take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop, Slow Life Movement

Daily Dose quote from Verily

We need to take all of this seriously on a broader cultural level for several reasons. Put simply, this ‘fast work’ culture is detrimental not only to everyone’s wellbeing, and to the environment, but it is also holding back women. The pace of modern work does not allow enough for breaks and flexible working, and so women find themselves having to choose between having children or progressing their careers. As Ashley Maguire wrote recently, the greatest hope we have for true gender equality in the workplace is to promote more flexible working styles, to normalise breaks and shorter hours, trusting that if work doesn’t invade our every waking minute we will be more productive when we are working. As Ovid said, ‘A field that has rested gives a bountiful crop’; increasing hours doesn’t necessarily increase productivity. It’s not women who need to change, but the culture of the modern workplace.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s infamous essay for The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All’, puts it this way: ‘If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.’ All too often, the uniquely female aspects of our bodies are seen as annoying weaknesses, when in fact the message that is written into our very being – the message that there are cycles and rhythms to life, times of rest and times of work – is one that could have the power to save society and redeem the workplace, not just for women, but for men also.

There is a remedy to all of this, and that takes me back to my mother’s theory; for every fast fashion, fast food trend, there has sprung up a ‘slow’ equivalent in an effort to counteract the damage caused by our fast, disposable culture. The Slow Movement started – that’s right, you guessed it – in Italy in 1986 when Carlo Petrini protested against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome. The time is clearly right to take ‘la dolce vita’ a little more seriously, people.

In his book, In Praise of Slowness, Carl Honoré describes the Slow Movement as ‘a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better.’ Far from promoting the impractical idea that everything should be done ‘at a snail’s pace’, this cultural philosophy is simply about trying to do everything at the right speed. As Honoré himself says, Slow Life is about ‘Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.’

All of this is so much easier said than done, though. When we think of changing the culture all in one go, it seems like an impossibly difficult task. We can’t afford it, we think. To keep our jobs, we have to fit in. To be able to afford clothes, and food, we have to buy the cheapest stuff. ‘Slow living’, when seen this way, seems like an unattainable luxury. But we can’t let the culture hold us hostage like this, making us feel like we don’t have any choice; at the very least, we have a choice about the little things. If people once lived in a more sustainable, healthier way, regardless of how much money they did or didn’t have, we can have hope that we can return to a slower pace, bit by bit. There are some small things we can try to do, no matter how little time or money we have:

  1. Instead of focusing on how busy you are, try to start to recognise and appreciate the spare time that you do have every day; you’ll be surprised by how much of it you have, even when you think you’re insanely busy. Try to enjoy it without feeling any kind of guilt, or like you need to justify it. It is valuable in its own right; there are more important things in life than achievement and efficiency (spending time with people you love, for example).
  2. Try to buy at least one food item a week in a situation where you can talk to the seller about its origin, whether this is by visiting your local farmer’s market, a local farm, or local (non-chain) produce store.
  3. Resist impulse buying your clothes for at last a month (more, if you already don’t shop that frequently). Take a good look at your wardrobe and really use what you already have, save the money you would have spent on multiple, cheaper items, and then spend some time choosing one ethically sourced item. Maybe this means buying vintage, or a socially conscious brands like Bibico and Sseko. Whatever it is, enjoy the process of being mindful of a product’s story and source.
  4. Next time a friend talks to you about how busy and stressed they are, try not to respond with a competitive ‘me too’ story, but listen and be supportive before trying to change the conversation. This can be tricky, because we all feel our worth is being questioned if we don’t come back with our own busy/stressed story in situations like these, but someone has to break the cycle.

If we can be advocates for a truly ‘slow’ culture that doesn’t promote busyness as the highest virtue, bit by bit we’ll all collectively return to an appreciation of quality over quantity. Maybe some of the richer members of society will be slightly poorer in a purely quantitive material goods sense, but perhaps there’ll be a more even distribution of resources this way, and we’ll surely all be far richer in the things that really matter in life. You see, my mother was right; the Italians knew the secret the whole time.

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For more on this subject, I’ve written another post about it recently, here.

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