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13 Aug 2008 06:00
As the economy lurches towards recession and fuel prices shoot through the roof, even TV’s Top Gear car show presenter Jeremy Clarkson has thrown in the towel.
The TV host and patron saint of speed now recommends driving more slowly to save petrol.
Across Britain, planes, trains, ferries and buses have cut their speed to conserve fuel.
Motorists are doing the same, or leaving their cars at home altogether.
This national downshift is usually reported as bad news, but perhaps there is a silver lining. The economic slump and soaring oil prices might just be a long-overdue wake-up call.
Our obsession with speed means that we race through life instead of actually living it.
Our health, diet and relationships suffer. We make mistakes at work. We struggle to relax, to enjoy the moment.
And of course living in fast-forward also takes a toll on the environment.
Yet even before the price of oil began to reset Britain’s metronome, the roadrunner culture was coming under review.
Four years ago, my book, In Praise of Slow, chronicled the worldwide trend toward putting on the brakes. That trend is now known as the Slow Movement.
The word “slow” has become shorthand for a better way of doing everything.
We all laughed when Sting boasted of marathon tantric romps, but today couples of all ages are flocking to workshops to learn the joy of unhurried love-making.
There is even an official Slow Sex movement.
Millions more are tuning their bodies and minds with Slow exercise (yoga, t’ai chi, Pilates) and Slow medicine (reiki, acupuncture).
With more than a million entries on Google, the Slow Movement is mushrooming. Britain now has eight official “Slow Cities”, from Ludlow in Shropshire in the west to Diss in Norfolk in the east, which put quality of life ahead of making a fast buck. Enthusiasts of Slow design and Slow fashion use ethical and green materials to make objects that lift the spirit and last a lifetime rather than one catwalk season.
Slow travel now rivals the fly-from-London-to-Barcelona-for-lunch culture.
Advocates savour the journey, travelling by train or boat or bicycle, or even on foot, rather than crammed into an airplane.
Children are part of the Slow Movement, too.
Cities across North America now hold special days when all extracurricular activities and homework are cancelled to give kids time to play. Harvard University has published an open letter praising the virtues of doing less and relaxing more. Its title: Slow Down.
The Slow Revolution is even gathering steam in the office. To help staff recharge and think better, companies are setting aside quiet places to relax.
With giants such as Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft underlining the pitfalls of being “always on”, firms are imposing speed limits on the information superhighway.
Think e-mail-free days or phone blackouts on the weekend. A senior executive at IBM signs off every email with this rallying cry: “Read your mail just twice each day. Recapture your life’s time and relearn to dream. Join the Slow email movement!”
Of course, you can take this deceleration thing too far.
Slower is not always better.
Certainly no one wants to spend more time on the orbital motorway or wedged into a middle seat on a budget airline flight.
Slow means doing things at the right speed—sometimes fast, sometimes slow or sometimes choosing not to do them at all.
So will the economic downturn boost the Slow Movement?
It clearly will not end our speedaholism overnight.
People are already chafing against the new deceleration. Motorists who drive more slowly to conserve fuel now face blaring horns and rude gestures.
Remember also that we have been here before.
The oil crisis in 1973 sparked talk of cultural deceleration, yet once the price of fuel fell again, the world veered straight back into the fast lane.
But things are different today.
The environmental threat is more urgent than a generation ago.
And our culture of hyperactivity and hyper consumption is clearly backfiring.
Most of us are yearning to reconnect with our inner tortoise.
A hundred years ago, in a manifesto that could double as a press release for Top Gear, the Italian Futurists declared “that the splendour of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath . . . a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Winged Victory of Samothrace.”
Today, that sounds so 20thcentury.
Sure, speed can be wonderful, but most of us now understand that doing everything in a hurry is bonkers.
Anyone who still doubts this should try attending a speed-yoga class or a drive-thru funeral.
The economic slump brings a much-needed moment to pause and reflect on our addiction to speed.
It can remind us that GDP growth need not be the only measure of success, that one way to enrich a journey is to slow it down.
I feel more optimistic now than when I first wrote In Praise of Slow.
The Slow Revolution will take time, but it is coming.—
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