This author describes a “slow life” as the intellectual, practical, and spiritual pursuit of
a new lifestyle that goes beyond the present global economic level of awareness.
This is a revised version of a keynote speech delivered at
the 2010 International Cittaslow Assembly of Korea in Seoul, June 28, 2010.
Many of us know that we are living in an age of crisis when we look at global issues like terrorism, conflicts, wars, poverty, famine, oppression, and, of course, environmental breakdown. But that’s not all. We are faced with social, mental, and spiritual illnesses that are so common in places like Japan and South Korea: communal breakdown, alienation, bullying, suicide, violence to others and oneself, hate crimes, poverty, stress, overwork, and so on. I believe that the roots of all of these problems are intertwined.
What does crisis mean? In Chinese, two characters form the word for crisis. The first means “danger” and the second “chance,” or “opportunity.” So, crisis can mean “a dangerous time” and “a time of opportunity” at the same time. Albert Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” But that exactly is the mistake that we have been making. We still act as if we can fix crises at the same level of awareness that created them. So, what is the level of awareness that created all of these problems?
To address this question, I would like first to focus on the notion of wealth.
The environmental crisis is a strange thing. We human beings have steadily been destroying the very foundation of our own existence, the Earth. We are strangling not only our own but future generations’ basis for life. How is this possible? There must be a good reason. Something very strong and attractive is at work driving us to do this.
One answer is the notion of wealth. We somehow feel that wealth is worth everything, worth even the whole Earth, and even more. Why wealth? What does it bring us? Economists never give us answers. They say that how to attain wealth is their only concern, and nothing else. Politicians and economists are never willing to listen to the wake-up calls from scientists and environmental activists. Their excuse has always been simple: dealing with environmental problems would damage the economy. Many have argued that destruction is inevitable and even necessary for economic growth. Some have even argued that economic growth is a requirement for solving environmental problems. These ideas still seem prevalent in places like South Korea, Japan, and many other countries, as well. It is true that South Korea and Japan have both been quite successful in the race for economic growth and in pumping up GDP and GNP. But what is the reality of these wealthy societies today?
There was a time when people could naively believe that creating wealth was not only morally acceptable but desirable, as it would be good not only for oneself but for the rest of the world. However, we are now living in an age of disillusion; we now know that creating wealth often causes serious problems and requires an immense sacrifice that has grown too big for the whole of humanity and the ecosystem to bear.
Mahatma Gandhi said, “The world has always enough for everyone’s needs but never for anybody’s greed.” The current situation, with all kinds of crises - environmental, social, psychological, spiritual, and so on - might be acceptable to those who happen to live in wealthy societies, if they are truly enjoying happy, fruitful, fulfilling lives and feel that their well-being is the fruit of their wealth. But who can be so sure? All of us need to ask ourselves whether we are truly happy. Is our society a happy one? Is this world a happy place? Is this planet a happy planet?
We used to believe naively that those who lived in rich countries were better off and happier than those who lived in poorer countries. This basic assumption or belief, however, has been proved wrong by much recent research. Does this news come to us as a surprise? You may remember this quotation from the Bible: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). The voice of this ancient wisdom echoed through the twentieth century and continues to the present time.
It was nearly a century ago that Mahatma Gandhi started to criticize the ideology of economic growth. To him, the problem was not poverty but wealth itself. But considering how passionately we have been fighting over the poverty issue, we have rarely questioned the virtue of wealth itself. We now need to relearn from Gandhi and start walking the path toward the economics of well-being, instead of the economics of wealth, shifting from the economics of greed to the economics of need, from the economics of possession and domination to those of sharing.
In 2008 a historic presidential election was held in the United States. Forty years before that, Robert Kennedy, who was widely expected to be the next president, was assassinated during his primary campaign on June 6, 1968. About two months before his death, he gave a remarkable speech, criticizing the simplistic adoration of economic growth, questioning what the GNP index can and cannot measure. He claimed that an increase in GNP can only tell us the amount of money spent anywhere in the economy, no matter if it is for good or evil. America, he said, boasted the world’s highest GNP, but this figure included money spent on tobacco, alcohol, drugs, divorces, car accidents, crime, and environmental pollution and destruction. He said, “It [GNP] counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.”
What about now? Last summer, the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the record heat in Japan surely pumped up our GNP and GDP.
Kennedy also pointed out what is not included in GNP: the health of our children, the quality of their education, the joy of their play, the beauty of our poetry, the strength of our marriages, intelligence, integrity, courage, wisdom, learning, compassion, and devotion to our country. These qualities are never included in GNP. Nonetheless, GNP and GDP have been the most common ways to measure a nation’s wealth, and still are.
As all of you know, the P in GNP stands for “product,” and GNP means the monetary sum of exchanges of goods and services. In Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas about the size of Japan’s island of Kyushu, the king coined a witty term, “gross national happiness,” or GNH. It was in the late 1970s that the young king said in a speech that GNH is more important than GNP. The people of Bhutan took this idea seriously. They have been trying to put it into practice for more than thirty years. Bhutan’s first constitution, which was ratified three years ago, includes GNH as its main governing principle. Its principle of state policy in section 2, article 9 declares, “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” You can find the Buddhist worldview and philosophy as the backbone of this idea.
In recent years, GNH has started to attract the world’s attention and has come to represent a challenge to the ideology of economic growth that has not only dominated mainstream economics but captivated the hearts and minds of people all around the world.
Now let us look further at the idea of wealth. It seems to me that the concept is rooted in the origin of civilization and its five-thousand-year history. In other words, the pursuit of wealth is an essential part of civilization.
Thus the nature of civilization requires the setting aside of moderation and temperance and the overcoming of restraints imposed by the natural world. Civilization in this sense represents the “level of awareness” that Einstein was referring to. Isn’t it at this level of awareness that we have been creating so many problems and crises? And yet, at the same level of awareness, we are acting as if we can solve these problems. So, we have to reexamine the very nature of our civilization.
One good way to do so is to look at culture and contrast it with civilization. Culture, as I define it, is a mechanism that integrates into society a system of temperance, moderation, and self-imposed restraints. This should not be surprising to many of you who are familiar with ancient philosophies of the West or East, such as Buddhism and Taoism, or the Stoic school of ancient Greece. Unlike civilization, culture, by definition, is three things at the same time: local, communal, and ecological, and within those limits it always works toward a stationary state where everything is well and just enough: pace, scale, and size that are well and just enough. Culture, as a result, is essentially three things at the same time: slow, small, and simple.
This is where the notion of a slow life comes in. A slow life, by definition, is a local, communal, and ecological life. It is an intellectual, practical, and spiritual pursuit toward a new lifestyle that goes beyond the present global, economic level of awareness. Remember that the idea of eternal growth is an oxymoron; it is an illusory idea.
From “excess” to “well and just enough”: this is the shift that we have to go through. The age of crisis actually is the age of a great shift, and I believe this shift is characterized by resurgence of culture.
A Japanese philosopher of the eighteenth century, Miura Baien, who was not only a farmer and medical doctor in a small rural community but also a brilliant philosopher, said, “What we should be really amazed by is not flowers on a dead tree, but flowers on a living tree.” In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, a leading Buddhist philosopher of our time, “the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.” In a similar vein, E. F. Schumacher, the author of the great book Small Is Beautiful, says, “Nature always . . . knows where and when to stop. Greater even than the mystery of natural growth is the mystery of the natural cessation of growth.” There is no eternal growth in nature. It is as if nature always knows where to stop and how to create a well-balanced state of the “just enough and no more.” That is a real miracle. Schumacher continues, “There is measure in all natural things - in their size, speed, or violence. As a result, the system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, and self-cleansing.”
In contrast, as Schumacher says, modern civilization violates these laws of nature. Its idea of eternal growth recognizes no self-limiting principle and it is unable to balance, adjust, or cleanse itself. In contrast, culture, by definition, is a self-limiting, self-balancing, self-adjusting, and self-cleansing mechanism that equips humans with temperance, the power of knowing when things are well and just enough. If so, the environmental crisis that we are talking about is, in fact, a breakdown of society’s self-limiting mechanism. It represents the loss of an appropriate slowness, smallness, and simplicity. Environmental destruction is actually a problem of cultural decay. Our environmental movement should therefore also be a movement toward cultural regeneration.
In 2000 the book The Cultural Creatives came out in the United States. According to the authors, Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Andersen, “cultural creatives” are the people who are, either voluntarily or not, involved in this movement of cultural regeneration, and I believe that all of you here are also cultural creatives.
In the following year, 2001, I published a book in Japan titled Suro izu byutihuru (Slow Is Beautiful). As you can guess, I was inspired by Schumacher’s famous Small Is Beautiful, whose title came from the following passage: “I have no doubt that it is possible to give a new direction to technological development, a direction that shall lead it back to the real needs of man, and that also means: to the actual size of man. Man is small, and therefore, small is beautiful.”
Humans are small. That is to say, humans live in socially, culturally, and naturally defined communities, bound by space and time. Human life can only be sustainable within biological and cultural communities. I believe that what Schumacher said about space appropriate for humans can also be said about time: the appropriate pace and rhythm for humans. Hence, my book is titled Slow Is Beautiful.
Slowness is essential to each and every culture. Culture is a web of interdependent relationships, ecological, social, and spiritual. In each relationship, there is a befitting pace, rhythm, and tempo: in the soil, air, animals, and plants; the seasons that come and go; the movement of the sun, the moon, and the stars; the ebb and flow of the tides. On this great natural tapestry, human souls and actions embroider new meaning through mythology, festivals, rituals, dances, and songs. Every human community has its own temporal framework. Each watershed and each valley has its own musicality, and that musicality distinguishes its inhabitants from others. Similarly, every human community, every town, is unique. Hence, “cittaslow”; every city is characterized by its own slow pace.
Let me summarize. Why slow, small, simple? It should be obvious by now; because we are now in a big mess. Our civilization with its imperative to pursue wealth is about to collapse. A race to get faster, become more, and grow bigger has brought us to a world full of all kinds of clutter. First, there is spatial clutter. Think about the clutter in your home, our community, our city, and the whole Earth. These are our environmental problems. Second, there is temporal clutter. We are all busy, aren’t we? Why? Because there are so many things to do in the limited time. In our limited lifetimes, we are trying to do more and more. Third, there is psychological clutter. There is a clutter in our minds, in our psyches. There are always so many worries and problems to deal with, and for many people these are becoming just too much.
With so much to do, we are no longer “human beings” but have become “human doings.” Our societies are now what I call “do-do societies.” We used to do things in order to “be,” but now we are alive in order to “do” things. Thich Nhat Hanh said: “We have a tendency to think that action is more important than being. We assume it is a waste of time unless we do something. It is a wrong idea, as our time is for us just to be.”
What shall we do, then? To drop out of the wealth-pursuing game, and to get out of the messy world, I must say, let us be sloths. In 1999 I founded an organization called the Sloth Club. The three-toed sloth, the beautifully slow and peaceful animal living in the jungles of Central and South America, is our icon symbolizing the great shift toward slow, small, and simple. To be a sloth means to subtract. Didn’t we all learn not only addition but subtraction in elementary school? We then must relearn slowing down, scaling down, down-shifting, simplifying, and also relearn how to do less and be more.
This is the Taoist teaching of wu-wei, or “nondoing.” It is only through subtraction that we turn away from the clutter of doing and again become human beings, returning to our true nature.
The real wisdom, I think, as philosophies since ancient times tell us, is to know when things are well and just enough.
At the outset of this essay, I referred to an age of crisis, reminding you that the Chinese word for crisis means both danger and opportunity. Similarly, the ancient Greek term krisis, the origin of the English word, means turning point. According to the Buddhist philosopher and ecologist Joanna Macy, we are now in the age of the Great Turning, which is occurring on three simultaneous levels: environmental movements, anti-globalization and relocalization activism, and personal spiritual awakening.
Is that Great Turning going to save the future of human beings? Macy is not optimistic, but her answer is deeply consoling: “Even if the Great Turning fails to carry this planetary experiment of ecological revolution onward through linear time, it still is worth it. It is a homecoming to our true nature.”
Keibo Oiwa (a.k.a. Shin’ichi Tsuji) is a cultural anthropologist, author, and environmental activist. He lived abroad for sixteen years and holds a PhD in anthropology from Cornell University. Since 1992, he has taught in the International Studies Department of Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama. As the founder of the Japanese NGO Sloth Club, and the author of Suro izu byutihuru (Slow Is Beautiful), he has more than forty publications in Japanese, Korean, and English.
This article was originally published in the January - March 2011 issue of Dharma World.
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