Introduction: Take your time
Take your time, citizen. Let’s walk together towards the thought of sustainability. Why no hurry? Because the endemic factor of a crisis that has us thinking in terms like “sustainability” (i.e. how long can we keep this up?) is a way of thinking that caused the problem we’re trying to solve. We will not solve it with the same way of thinking. The sustainability movement is neither a righteous one, nor a necessarily ethical one. It is an admission that what we’re doing is not working.
We cannot be citizens with ideals without time to reflect. Time to consider that we are moving at a dangerous pace. We acknowledge our selfishness and fear to one another, think about it and decide that, although having everything to oneself is great, sharing is also valuable. Although resentment sometimes boils inside, carefulness and sympathy could be better for the long run. And now we’re at a crossroads about slowing down. Noam Chomsky isn’t the first scientist to admit that “we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology.” But this is only true if we slow down and give ourselves time to read them and time to think. How else will we learn to remember what others have to teach? We have a head start when it comes to wisdom. If we were moving more slowly, we would have more time to consider life’s meaning.
Sustainability is a recent ideal but surely belongs with big ideas like freedom, democracy, equality, openness and transparency. Sustainability is originally a forestry term for the maximum harvest before cutting becomes an ecological disaster. Now sustainability has come to stand for socio-political reform and compromise between corporate profit and an environmentalism already pleaded for by Romantic poets like Byron and Goethe, American naturalists like John Muir and Aldo Leopold and 1960s activists born from Silent Spring. Until we take the time, citizens – that’s it, yes, take our time – we’ll keep steaming past what we have been told many times before by the thoughtful among us.
Our current lifestyles
I became excited reading the guidelines for submitting this article. I even got frantic. Reflection tells me I am part of the problem: I am free-market hard-wired, blue collar, (leftover) Protestant industrious, ambitious and too concerned about what others think. It even comes across in my writing. The editor asked that I pace my sentences so that my form didn’t argue against message. I write like I’m rushing. The problem, it seems, strikes to the core of how we are and think, the way we approach problems and how we manage ourselves and our enterprises so we can live together. Our fast-paced lifestyles are making us sick. Sustainability becomes the only way out.
A citizen without ideals is just a subject. Ideals anchor our lives. But for a citizen to have ideals connecting her to the abstract body of all citizens there has to be a link to the everyday, an answer to the question of whether what we’re doing matters. The reality of sustainability is that it entails doing much less of what we have been doing. We need to get used to less doing and slower doing. Civilisation is a community with agreements. At some point we decided to be a “we” and not to compete as individuals isolated from one another. Most of what makes us human was present when this archaeological decision happened and it is what made us civil. Members of the group can pop in and out and still be treated civilly. In order to live together, we agree on things we have thought through together. Now we need to agree to do less and to do it slower. This will be difficult.
We have internalised beliefs about production and productivity that make it difficult for us to reflect upon our actions – we believe that if we are not doing something, we are being unproductive.
Like me, it could be we are all stuck in a cycle of poor form and not just poor content. How we have been doing what we have been doing is unsustainable. We are doing it at breakneck speed. Before we can make sustainability an ideal and not just an office buzzword, there is a logic to go through. It begins with our competitive spirit. Whether we are competitive by nature or not is actually not as noteworthy as our ability to talk about it.
We have internalised beliefs about production and productivity that make it difficult for us to reflect upon our actions – we believe that if we are not doing something, we are being unproductive. Sustainability can make us reflect about this way of thinking. If sustainability is the realisation that we do too much, it is also a critique on competitiveness. More and faster go hand in glove. To frame the behaviour we might change to become more sustainable and less likely to do ourselves in with too much too fast, we citizens can consider two outcomes that the fast-paced, super-connected and quarrelling world consistently produces:
- We are increasingly competitive: we are in a rush for more, faster, better, bigger or smaller technology; this all in shorter and shorter terms. Success comes at others’ expense. There is a loser in every competition, who is our fellow citizen. At work, in class, in social circles, in our own country and across borders. Once one of us is trying to beat the clock, the other is either left standing or is “free” to join the race. Tests are timed and it is our hours that are paid. It is implicit peer pressure, professionally and personally. It is neurotic and compulsive because the goal is to come out ahead of the other guy, not to reach any particular destination. Our goals become the inextricably connected “more” and “faster”. And once corporate teams form, selfishness knows only the bounds set by others.
- In our rush, we miss hard-won wisdom: we either remain ignorant of things we speed by, or we reproduce poorer versions of extant thoughts instead of improving them. Thinkers throughout the ages have set down marvellous, beautiful and true guides for us; maxims about human nature we agree upon as citizens, as communities and as societies. Some are philosophical and make the head hurt; others sleep in the mouths of common, old people until a foolish youngster trips a wire. These maxims tell us how we should regard ourselves, how to behave towards one another. They deal with love, politics, work, child-rearing, fear, eating, health and travel, among other things. There are independent evolutions of such maxims across cultures. Before the printing press, and even up through the epoch of card catalogues, redundancies were understandable. No longer. Yet the inadvertent plagiarism of existing good ideas is astounding. Any self-help book, blog or vlog that comes up in the simplest Google search paraphrases Lao Tzu, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Rosa Luxemburg, Einstein, Gibran or Charlie Chaplin – just weakly and poorly.
Although it is impossible to highlight just one author or one source as an example, Aurelius is useful to illustrate the value of measured reflection about the way we go about our business: “How is my soul’s helmsman going about his task? For in that lies everything.”
There are no easy answers here; Aurelius is just asking us to think. Philosophers school us in the good life, which is a life of reflection. And the keystone is thinking for oneself. Wisdom is never predicated on mindless obedience or discipline. Wisdom is egalitarian and duty free. Reflection, however, requires space to reflect. Reflection takes the kind of time that is not on a clock face, but instead is similar to dream time. It is done when needed, not when one can find time on vacation or on a coffee break. Reflection is not on a schedule and neither should we be. When do our citizens have the space to reflect?
What reflection can offer
Instead of putting a tag on what to make better and how to be better, what about a long look at our purposes? Our other cherished ideals of democracy and equality are ways of thinking, not projects or policies with finitude. So too it must go with sustainability. A type of thinking the thinker can think to the end of the thought. A patience to try slower, tardi ways. If a multitude of actions got us into a mess, might the childlike logic of fewer actions at least be a start? Or actions done at a more measured pace? We have clearly done too much. So, do less and do it more slowly. Let’s create an atmosphere where the thinker has no pressure to be a speedy doer. Thinking, not just doing, should be cherished; daydreaming awarded and constructive idleness lauded. No more valuing any and all work by telling ourselves and others that at least it is a job. No good reason for doing something means it ought not be done. Why pull knots tighter, when we know they are tied wrong? And if it’s being done at all and has worth and value, take the time to do it properly.
? We have clearly done too much. So, do less and do it more slowly.
I see paranoia that the world might atrophy under such slowness. I do not know whether the fear is of an idle self, having nothing to do, or whether that self just does not want to do anything for anyone else. Whatever the fear, the world will always have inventors, fighters, prophets, activists, entrepreneurs, leaders, explorers, geniuses, artists. Those individuals guide us and give us hope. My hope is that you are one. But back to what we know in this: would we not be better off producing less, farming less, working less, running less? A new start by stopping and thinking.
Conclusion: a slow citizenship, a more reflective citizenship
Civilisation requires thinking. Thinking is the most civilised knife in the drawer. And thinking is not the same as doing. Yet we fill our lives with doing. It is time to put the thought back into thinking. Paul Bloom responds to this poignantly in a samharris.org interview that reminds us to stay on track as a civilised society:
Mature moral decision-making involves complex reasoning, and often the right thing to do involves overriding our gut feelings, including those that are hardwired. And some moral insights, such as the wrongness of slavery, are surely not in our genes.
Our economic, political and social fidgeting has us on clean-up. What else is there to do, when the only thing we know will make nothing worse is doing nothing? Just for a second. Can we raise the threshold of our collective, nervous discomfort by practicing stillness? What are we actually endeavouring to do? What are we trying to make more of? What do we need more of? Are we incapable of doing nothing? Is that why there is so much? Is stillness so deafening? Do we really get bored or is it a cultural thing? We are a society where multi-tasking is still a manager-valued tool even after research shows it is for scatterbrains and Orwellian, make-work bureaucrats. We cannot keep falling back on excuses like “it is human nature to be competitive and efficient”. Especially since civilisation is nothing but a long slog away from instinct-driven behaviour.
Slow, or tardus, is a word for a mental deficiency that captures the anxiety regarding non-productivity, inefficiency, and reflection present in our culture. I imagine the person who came up with those connotations was a rat race jockey. A person stressing about the next thing on their list that likely does not include citizenry. A citizen has responsibilities, and a citizenry has responsibilities to its citizens. This is a plea for citizens to be measured in their actions and a plea to protect citizens from speed and from the rushing of others in order that they might enjoy the freedom of a sane and pleasurable pace. If you cannot slow it down, you are part of the problem like I am. But I will try less, if you try less too.Tags: Commentary