Not So Fast: The Argument for Slowing Down in Virtually Every Aspect of Life

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The Boston Globe

Not So Fast: The Argument for Slowing Down in Virtually Every Aspect of Life

by
Don Aucoin

A group tours Waltham Fields Community Farm after a reading on alternatives to agribusiness, including such Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms. (Photos By Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)

Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh had big plans for his trip to Utah last month.

He was going to be in Salt Lake City to talk at a Unitarian conference about the importance of slowing down to examine the spiritual implications of food choices. Afterward, Millspaugh figured he and his wife, Sarah, would hit as many tourist sites as possible.

But at the last minute, he decided to take his own advice: The Millspaughs, who are co-ministers of the Winchester Unitarian Society, narrowed their vacation itinerary to a single bird sanctuary and a couple of national parks in Moab.

“When I spend more time in fewer places, and allow myself to have a deeper encounter rather than checking off a checklist of places I’ve visited,’’ said Millspaugh, 35, “I develop a profound awareness of why it was on my list in the first place.’’

While Millspaugh’s conference talk touched on, among other things, the principles of the “slow food’’ movement, when he scaled back his vacation, he was joining another fledgling movement: slow travel.

Slowing down, an idea that might have sounded downright un-American not that long ago, is - you should pardon the expression - gathering speed. Slow food and slow travel are part of a broader slow movement that has expanded to slow cities, slow parenting, slow homes, slow marketing, slow reading, slow transportation, slow craft, slow art, slow energy, slow math, slow science, even slow money.

“There’s no question that it’s got a foothold in the US,’’ said Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist whose two books, “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed,’’ and “Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children From the Culture of Hyper-Parenting,’’ have made him a quasi-spokesman for the whole idea. “It’s on the cultural radar.’’

The popularity of slowing down could stem from its implicit challenge to the assumptions that undergird the rat race. After all, when more than seven million Americans have lost their jobs since December 2007, bringing the total number of unemployed to 14 million, the idea of the rat race loses some status.

That doesn’t mean that for a nation that’s always been in a hurry, it will be easy to get the iPhone-tapping, Kobe-beef eating, SUV-driving, jet-setting, status-obsessed speedsters to hit the brakes. Americans have operated on the principle that faster is better from the Industrial Revolution to the assembly line to the Jet Age to the Internet to the BlackBerry.

Against such ingrained habits, the slow movement says, essentially: slow down and live better. Honoré calls it “a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better.’’ He emphasizes that does not mean shifting from the fast lane to the breakdown lane, but rather finding “the right speed’’ for life’s tasks, and “living life rather than rushing through it.’’ The slow movement urges changes in lifestyles and workplace habits that move away from multitasking, competition, and compulsive consumerism. The end result, advocates say, will be better physical and mental health, and more social interaction that can tighten bonds between individuals and their communities. The movement’s guiding precept is this: Savor experiences rather than marking them off your mental checklist before racing on to the next thing. “Once you get this simple idea in your head,’’ Honoré says, “it affects everything you do: sex, parenting, exercise, travel, design, food, medicine, you name it.’’

Slow food, for example, means taking the time to prepare meals with fresh food from local sources rather than gobbling fast-food or having rare sea bass shipped from halfway around the world, and then taking the time to appreciate both the taste of the food and the companionship with family and friends. Slow parenting means that mom and dad let their kids be kids rather than turn childhood into a pressurized competition on the fast track toward academic success. The design principle of slow cities can be summarized as more open space, fewer cars, more pedestrians. Slow money’s aim is to, in the words of the Brookline-based Slow Money Alliance, “reconnect investors to that in which they are investing and to the places in which they live.’’

“A year ago people would have just laughed, saying there is no such thing as money that is too fast,’’ said Woody Tasch, chairman and president of the alliance, a network of investors and entrepreneurs who support small, independent, local enterprises.

But now, Tasch said, investors are listening, not laughing. “I’ve been thinking about this for 30 years, but I’ve never had the opportunity to talk about it in public and have it so immediately understood,’’ he said.

The chastened national mood has some slow advocates hoping Americans will turn their backs on the culture of acceleration. “We have been living a very fast life, and it certainly has come back to bite us, with the economic blowup of the past year,’’ says Willow Blish, a leader of Slow Food Boston. “That has made people rethink their lives a little bit more.’’

“This is a crisis triggered by people going way too fast,’’ Honoré says. “Everyone was charging along in a stampede, in pursuit of fast profit. And look at the apocalyptic mess it’s landed us in.’’ The idea, he says, that “progress equals acceleration’’ was already under assault from many younger people who are seeking deeper meaning in their careers and questioning the old notion that he-who-dies-with-the-most-toys-wins.

But not everyone is eager to jettison the hare and emulate the tortoise. Wasn’t it the actress and author Carrie Fisher who wryly served up our de facto national motto? “The trouble with instant gratification is that it takes too long.’’

“The historical record shows that people have never opted for slower,’’ says Stephen Kern, author of “The Culture of Time and Space: 1880 to 1918’’ and a history professor at Ohio State University. “The logic of history is driven by speed. And when the economy gets bad, people are doing things as fast as possible because faster is cheaper.’’

Even some analysts sympathetic to the broader goals of the slow movement question whether it can ever fully take hold in the United States. “For some people it’s not going to feel good at all. It will be, where’s my BlackBerry? said Bella DePaulo, a visiting professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara. “I think the slow movement folks will find each other and do their thing and mostly be ignored by everybody else.’’

Or maybe “everybody else’’ will see more people slowing down and feel tempted to join the crowd.

Blish, 37, a Pilates instructor and nutritional consultant, says a growing stream of people are tapping into the resources provided by Slow Food Boston, including sessions on how to preserve food from harvest, how to make jam, how to prepare Neapolitan cuisine from scratch, and how to make tomato sauce and salsa. Millspaugh, the minister, has found an eager audience in hundreds of congregations across the country for an “ethical eating’’ study guide that illustrates how changing to a “slow’’ approach to eating can align with their values by, for example, embracing organic food and cutting down on “resource-intensive’’ food types like meat. Tasch says a “slow money’’ approach that created investment strategies for valuable local institutions could benefit renewable energy projects, education programs, and even the struggling newspaper industry.

Internationally, the slowness movement is likewise gaining adherents. Geir Berthelsen, founder of the Norway-based World Institute of Slowness, said more corporations in Europe are asking his advice for ways to change how their workplaces function. “The financial crisis is a consequence of a fast society,’’ said Berthelsen. “Too much in the window, and nothing in the stockroom. The focus has been on the end product, not the process.

“In a fast company, they are in a firefighting mode. They are reactive; they don’t have time to think,’’ said Berthelsen. “You will have people being creative and inspired if you take away the short-term focus.’’

For all its emphasis on slowness, the institute is quick to spot an opportunity: It is branching out beyond its think-tank origins to launch “Slow Production,’’ whose stated aim is to “bring about change within the world of producing goods, foods, and services for people’’ and whose hallmarks are billed as “transparency, simplicity, consciousness.’’ This fall, Berthelsen said, the institute will introduce “Slow Coffee’’ in the United States.

As for Millspaugh, he says his go-slow approach deepened his vacation experience in Utah, and taught him this lesson: “I see more and experience more when I see less, in a way.’’

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