The Difficulty of Slowing Down

The Great Acceleration has been proposed, with good reason, as the proper kicking into gear of the Anthropocene. Long story short, across virtually all indicators of production/consumption (energy, land use, commodities, and so on), the post-WWII world has hit the accelerator hard. Speaking about it in the past tense is misleading, as all indicators currently show that we are still in acceleration mode. Whether it is air travel, tourism, portable speakers or peanut butter, more of us consume more of it, more of the time. This also means that more of us, more of the time, are busy fashioning out of matter things to be exchanged and consumed. In the plastic language of EuroNarnia, more of us are ‘innovative’.

Whether this phenomenon of acceleration should be considered the exact start of the Anthropocene – the age when human history stumbles, quite drunkenly, into geological history (see these articles for more) – doesn’t really matter in itself. What is of great interest to all of us is the overall phenomenon of a growing population consuming more, more of the time, and the repercussions this has on the relations between humans and the world (which include, of course, relations between humans).

The Great Acceleration can be rendered in numbers of things produced and consumed but can also be seen through other manifestations. For example, Büscher and Fletcher talk about the “intensification of pressure” as the increasing threat from capital expansion into areas where capital is still not the law of the land. They talk about this in terms of nature conservation and the increasing pressure to monetise it and to manage it as a business. But the same kind of pressure is building around the few spaces that manage to exist outside capital exchange. The world seen from its hegemonic core is extinguishing not just species, but any way of life that is related to subsistence, that is to say, that falls outside of consumption as such. Whether consumptions is ‘green’ or not matters little, as long as it is simply added to the already existing pile of material exchange.

Yet another way to understand the Great Acceleration is given in works of critical theory and philosophy, such as Bruno Latour’s magnificent Facing Gaia. There, Latour plots the many ways (of which I have also written here) in which the Anthropocene is driving us crazy. The overall point is that under conditions of acceleration, there is no response or adaptation that is, in a strict sense, sane. Ranging from outright denialism to chest-constricting panic, we are all protagonists on the stage of madhouse earth. The sanest proposals – such as a limit on wealth, a planned degrowth of economic activity, a culture of sufficiency – are at the same time the craziest, from the point of view of what seems possible today.

There are those that propose to cure acceleration sickness by accelerating further. Hyper-modernists of many stripes suggest that the problem with contemporary modernity is that it is not modern enough: we should consume more, while striving to ‘uncouple’ economic growth from environmental impact. I find the idea of uncoupling a textbook example of wishful thinking: sure, it would be great to think up possible technologies that would make something out of nothing, but logically speaking there is no way that material goods can be produced without material inputs. It is a sign of the times that the absurdism of hyper-modernists currently passes for reasonableness.

On the eve of massive world-wise youth-led climate strikes, I find myself stumbling within the delirium that acceleration has produced. I want to slow down but am also conscious of the privileges that are implied in being able to slow down. I am weary of individual solutions to aggregate problems and know that, to be truly effective, solutions have to be formulated within wider political projects. Standing with the climate strikers all over the world, I wish for a politics of deceleration.

The project of modernity is tightly interwoven with the process of acceleration, to such an extent that hitting the breaks also means undoing modernizing forces. Besides the issue that the impulse to modernize is still what most of the world is after, this raises serious ethical questions that have always been there but – stirred by the madness of speed – can no longer be ignored. For example, Dipesh Chakrabarty argues that the issue of a just and equal world and that of anthropogenic climate change are logically separate. In other words, social justice within the current growth paradigm means certain catastrophe in the medium-term, while social justice in a degrowth paradigm (besides being politically out of the question for the foreseeable future) also implies significant human costs, particularly in terms of probable population reduction. Is it, in other words, even theoretically possible to live good quality lives on planet Earth for 10 billion people? If not, then we all have some seriously tough questions to face, no matter how radical our political credentials or how enlightened our preferred political path.

A politics of deceleration, much more so than my own private yearning for doing less, implies a radical reconfiguration of what societies are for. The degrowth paradigm, for example, talks about societies as networks of relations that ensure quality of life, and therefore argues for rethinking economic production in terms of wellbeing and happiness. This also means that one’s ability to live – and to do so with dignity – can no longer be related to work, to economic activity. Despite claims to the contrary, I am not sure that this can in theory be accomplished without a very significant reduction either in overall material exchange, or in human population. Even if we somehow all agreed to consume a lot less, maintaining current population patterns raises thorny issues with respect to all the non-human inhabitants of the earth. For example, they will not be able to adjust to the global warming already in the pipeline by moving elsewhere, because we will literally be in the way.

We Westerners tend to think of ourselves as individuals driven by our own will, though it is much more probable that we are all made of relations, nodes between beings of the world. If this is the case, then what I do is not just a matter of individual choice, but always already related to what everyone else is doing. My desire to slow down is swept into an accelerating world, both in terms of humans busying themselves increasingly and of an increasingly charged (literally more energetic) atmosphere. Slowing down presupposes slower relations between the things of the world. In an accelerating world, deceleration is swimming against the current, hoping for a planetary crash of rhythm that, in all likelihood, would be a tragic loss of world for so many others.

This is enough to make one go even crazier, which re-doubles my desire to slow down, to do less, to make of doing less a political project. I am drawn again to one of my first philosophical mentors, Emil Cioran, a thinker of being much more than of becoming, a thinker of boredom and lucidity that understood better than most the thanatological core of our obsession with doing. For him, the fetish of doing, of action, of keeping busy was one of the fundamental tenets of human life, but also “the mother of all vices”. Coupled with neoliberal modernity, it is an increasingly destructive steamroller. As he wrote in A Short History of Decay, “no one has the audacity to exclaim: ‘I don’t want to do anything!’ – we are more indulgent with a murderer than with a mind emancipated from actions.” Perhaps the most radical thing we can do, in this time of agitation, is to shout, collectively: “we don’t want to do anything! Enough!” More so than any material intensification, that might be a sign of progress.

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