Tuesday, March 24, 2020

On the Need to Slow Down

I'm listening!

I wondered yesterday: is it possible that the world -- the environment, the climate, Nature -- has sensed that we need to slow down, and that it has been sending us a message?

In other words, the challenge here is not to save the Earth from being "damaged," but to rescue human lived experience from becoming hopelessly sped up and commodified?

I was on a phone call with a group of environmental activists, and someone shared a reflection entitled, "What Can the Trees Teach Us" by Nichola Torrbett. "As far as I could make it out," she wrote, "the immediate message is SLOW DOWN."

We remarked on the irony that humans have had a very hard time listening to other humans suggest that we need to slow down; the message from the atmosphere has not been able to quite register, either; but now a microscopic bug has seems to be getting through to us.

Later, I reflected on how this has operated in my own life. I remembered a moment, sitting in a train car as it zoomed through the state of New Jersey, realizing that no matter what was happening in my life I always felt better when I was moving.

I remembered an essay in a collection on my shelf, and pulled it down to read again. In 1906, Henry Adams wrote about how life seems always to be getting faster and faster. Looking back on his own time, he observed "[b]efore the boy was six years old, he had seen four impossibilities made actual, -- the ocean-steamer, the railway, the electric telegraph, and the Daguerreotype; nor could he ever learn which of the four had most hurried others to come." (From "A Law of Acceleration")

And today that seems quaint.

When I was a teenager, the big bestseller was Future Shock by Alvin Toffler. I was amused to discover that twenty years later, it became a bestseller in Chinese translation in the bookstores of Beijing and Shanghai. The book is, in a way, an extended updating on Henry Adams' observations: the biggest change is the accelerating pace of change itself.

There was a wonderful show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York a few years ago, about the Futurist movement of the early 20th century. The Futurists sought to make a virtue of this acceleration of society -- with consequences that were partly entertaining and partly terrifying. (See What Kind of Future Comes From Worshiping Speed, Machines, Flight, War?)

I wrote once before about the need to slow down in a slightly different context: talking about the concept that George Orwell wrote about in 1984, "ownlife." That was when I began to see what a huge effort is needed to slow down and choose where to put one's own attention.

For the rest of this year (at least), the pace of our lives will be changed for us. What will we learn from the experience?

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