Slow is hot. In recent years, movements have sprouted to explore slow food, slow art and slow family living. It’s a bit hard to fathom what exactly “slow” means in all these contexts. There’s a bit of pro-green living here, anti-materialism, mindful awareness, community-building, all of which loosely adds up to a slowing down in the tempo of life, or at least finding a speed other than high gear. The idea is hard to define, yet also hard to ignore at this moment in time, when so many complex, high-gear economic, medical, education and other systems seem broken.
Curious about the intersection between the recession and rise of slow, I recently interviewed families around Boston for my Globe column about whether their personal budget cuts had inspired slower living. The answer was a resounding yes. Some parents were already trying to simplify, by downshifting kid schedules or getting more eco-conscious, and job losses/pay cuts invigorated these efforts. Others had to cut spending fast, and were surprised by how good it felt to cut back on “must-have” activities, fancy vacations or even hired help. For these parents, slowing down meant depending on their own resourcefulness more than had for a long time. One mom gushed with pride at making her own laundry detergent.
It’s intriguing that for many families, slowing down means stepping “off the grid,” uncoupling from a dependence on complex consumer and cultural value systems. And according to anthropologists such as Joseph Tainter, a collective wish to go it alone is a sign that a complex civilization is crumbling. When highly evolved cultures begin to break down, citizens have little incentive to contribute to the society’s complex systems and infrastructures. Cultivating one’s own vegetable patch becomes more alluring than buying from the big-box market. Could “slow” be a harbinger of a simplification writ large, aka a dark age? Dark ages are messy, difficult, times of cultural simplification – that are often followed by renaissances. It will be interesting to see where “slowing down” takes us now.
Note: This post first appeared on Boston College’s Work-Family Network, where I occasionally blog.