This saying from the book of Ecclesiastes, hearkening to a reflective, paced concept of time, couldn’t contrast more with the mad chaos of today’s world. As we live whirlwind lives, constantly striving to beat the clock, wanting to do as much as possible in as little as possible a time, we lose our sense of wonder and appreciation of things that grow slowly, and take their time to bear fruit. In our neoliberal capitalist systems, any activity that doesn’t generate money as quickly as possible is antithetical to the values of our age. In this world view, we exist so as to consume, and that is our ‘value’. We are reduced to consumers, nothing more.
No wonder, then, that our planet faces an unprecedented ecological crisis as we enter the 6th mass extinction in our planet’s history.
It is difficult to summarise the huge changes witnessed in the world of today. Within the span of two generations, our population has tripled, global average income has grown over 4-fold, and the human imprint on our planet has expanded beyond comprehension. In what is often called “The Great Acceleration”, the last 70 years have without doubt seen the most transformative and profound changes to our planet, and to humanity’s relationship with the natural world. These dramatic changes can be seen in graphs: find literally any measure of human activity (be it GDP growth, agricultural productivity, deforestation, biodiversity loss, pollution) and you will observe exponential growth over the same period. It is both astounding, amazing, and deeply worrying.
Let’s face the facts: in a world with very real ecological boundaries, we cannot keep going at this ever-accelerating pace. We are analogous to a train heading to a cliff edge; we need to find a way to slow it down, to stop it, and to perhaps reverse track. It is hard, but it isn’t impossible. Our survival – Earth’s survival, depends on it.
Slow living and slow ecology
As counterintuitive to us as it may seem, born and bred in a world where slowing down is seen as the paragon of either privilege, luxury, or laziness, we need to start looking at the natural world around us for inspiration. Just as nature takes time to establish itself, grow, heal, and thrive, so we too must embrace the slowing down of human activity. Our life support systems simply cannot handle the intensification of human activity – breached thresholds are expressed in accelerating climate change and ecological breakdown.
While we cannot force nature to speed up, we also need to stop forcing ourselves into such an accelerated pace of life. It is no wonder that our affluent and fast-paced lifestyles are also contributing greatly to stress, mental health crises and overall dissatisfaction in life. We face a breakdown in our communities, too – we barely have time for ourselves, let alone for others. How is that of benefit to anyone? After all, we still have hunter-gatherer bodies, thrown into this artificial, often sterile human space that we inhabit. We, too, need to slow down, lest we lose track of who we truly are.
This need to slow down our lives can take many forms. We cannot remain mere consumers, ever seeking products that provide brief satisfactions. We need to view intensification as a moral hazard, not as an asset. A slower life is possible, and must become a goal we all need to seek. This would have multiple benefits to ourselves, our communities and our natural environments.
In his article on slow ecology, the journalist George Monbiot says that the best gift we can give to the living world is “time, and lots of it”. We cannot pretend that if we uproot an old tree and replace it with 10 new saplings it is a “net positive”. How can one replace the gentle and delicate biosphere created as a tree matures over decades, if not centuries, nourishing a landscape and an entire food chain? Our methods of pricing such ecosystems is so primitive, so careless. There is no substitute for ancient living things, or indeed any other keystone organism within our environment. We also need to stop pretending that the ‘human way of doing things’ is best. Evidence clearly shows that, left to rewild naturally, undisturbed spaces become ecological hotspots harbouring great complexity. That complexity – built slowly, over time, moulded by time and circumstance, is what makes an ecosystem resilient and capable of surviving the ages, including the climate change we are facing today and in the coming centuries.
Respecting nature, respecting ourselves
Indeed, there is a ‘season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’ – we need to give things time, and let nature take root. This applies to both the human and natural spheres – we cannot keep on pretending that our current way of life is the best way to live, or that the way we treat nature as a ‘service provider’ is remotely respectful to our collective biology. ‘How’, you might ask ‘do we fight the system?’. It starts by choosing to live a slower life, no matter what others may say. It starts by leaving consumerism behind, and focusing on what lasts and matters more. It starts by rejecting a fast-paced life which leaves no time to reflection and wonder. It starts by choosing to step off the train heading for the cliff edge.
I invite you to read this beautiful poem by Mary Oliver:
When I am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
Indeed, that is the lesson we need to learn – to not hurry through the world, to walk slowly, and to bow often.
Dr John Paul Cauchi