We Need to Slow Down to Save the World

Slowing down in our daily lives could be the key to saving our planet.

Our world is hurting in more ways than one, anyone can see that. In order to do our part in helping to heal our relationships with each other and with our home, it’s important that we address the issues standing in our way.

I’ve spent years studying environmental issues, the ethics of consumerism, division of domestic labor, leisure, and the slow living movement. One thing I’ve learned is just how interconnected these issues are, and how privilege plays a role in each of them. In order to make a real effort to promote change, we need to first ask: how do we create a world where everyone can afford to slow down, where rest is not earned but accepted as a necessity? And how do we need to change our lifestyle to accomplish that?

Slow living isn’t just for the wealthy few

Slow living — that is to say a life of rest, leisure, and dignified labor — should be accessible to everyone, not just to an elite group of enlightened wealthy people.

There’s a reason the concept of “intersectionality” has become such a buzzword in social and environmental justice circles; we live in community with one another, an interconnected ecosystem, and every instance of greed and injustice has far-reaching knock-on effects. As Wendell Berry wrote in his 1972 essay Think Little, “The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities… We would be fools to think that we could solve any one of these problems without solving others.”

In recent years, the uncomfortable fact that many people living in poverty rely on fast fashion has become an important part of the conversation on sustainability and conscious living. It doesn’t matter to someone with very little money and no shoes that it would actually be a better long term investment to spend more now on a better quality pair if they can only afford the cheap pair that will fall apart within a couple of months. 

Opting out of the destructive systems that keep us trapped in bad circumstances is often hardest for those with the least. As Martin Luther King Jr once said in an interview, “It’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” 

If the lifestyle changes we’re advocating for come with a financial outlay, we need to take care of the people who can’t afford that cost. We’re in this together, and recognizing that we’re not all on a level playing field is absolutely vital to making humane progress.

Justice and our own wellbeing are intimately connected

On Labor Day this year, pastor and author Rich Villodas offered a beautiful reflection on the theology of work, pointing out that “Scripture reveals God at work” as well as at rest before the Fall, and that “We are called by God to labor, not just for a paycheck, but to make something beautiful for the world.” He went on to expand: “Our labor is one of the ways we image God. We are called to create, not be reduced to consuming.”

Human beings are made for dignified work, as well as for delight and rest. Leisure is important not just for our health or other practical considerations (though, there is certainly an abundance of research that suggests a connection between an increase in rest and play and a related increase in productivity and creative thinking), but because, as Josef Pieper points out in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, leisure is also “the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion — in the real.” Leisure is an essential way of coming into contact with the good, the beautiful, and the true, and therefore of being in relationship with God. 

Rest and leisure time are not things that we can earn or deserve; those living on the street without a home are created for the Good Life just as much as a Fortune 500 CEO, and lingering in the last golden rays of the sun on a September evening is a sacred occupation. This is why wealth and gender disparities in leisure time matter so much. 

The call to slow down is a call to grow in virtue

Slowing down to save people and the planet requires self-examination, contemplation, and a good deal of restraint. As many writers and thinkers before me have pointed out, these virtues don’t always easily fit with our consumerist culture.

Limits are necessary if we don’t want to allow greed to take over and lead us to hurt ourselves and others. We were made for the Good Life, but the pursuit of good things without a spirituality that puts the Creator above the created ends up making a god of the created, which ultimately throws everything out of balance. 

It’s not that wanting good things is bad, but rather that we need to learn to exercise moderation. As E. F. Schumacher explores in Small is Beautiful, “enough” is a tricky concept to pin down; in fact the economic model underpinning modern society is one that “pursues ‘economic growth’ as the highest of all values, and therefore has no concept of ‘enough’.” We’re all in danger of becoming slaves to the lifestyle creep phenomenon, where we start thinking of luxuries as necessities, never truly satisfied and always with one eye on getting more than we currently have.

At the heart of it, slow living is about the decision to put limits on ourselves in a world of seemingly limitless potential. More than simply doing things slowly, it means taking time to make intentional choices about how we live, reducing our consumption, and making do with less. 

One heartening recent example of someone choosing to put self-imposed limits on their wealth is the recent story of Yvon Chouinard, the billionaire founder of the outdoor clothing line Patagonia, who gave up the majority of his family’s shares in the company to donate profits to fight climate change.

You don’t have to be a billionaire to make an impact, though; we could start by taking an evening a week out of our busy schedules to mend a piece of clothing, or put up with the inconvenience of a bus journey or lift-share from time-to-time. We can slow down long enough to let our own thoughts catch up with us, to hear the still small voice that is always there, waiting to accompany us in love, when we make ourselves quiet enough to hear it.

Embracing a new way of living

Like any endeavor, slowing down to save the world won’t necessarily be easy, but it is always worth it. The remedies for the problems that concern us, from ecological destruction to human rights abuses, Wendell Berry wrote “require a new kind of life – harder, more laborious, poorer in luxuries and gadgets, but also, I am certain, richer in meaning and more abundant in real pleasure.” 

Schumacher echoes this sentiment: “We must thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new lifestyle, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a lifestyle designed for permanence.” 

Both of these great thinkers push us to approach slowing down as a moral good that challenges us to change our lives in radical ways and to imagine a new way of doing things; if the problems of our world are interconnected, the solutions are too. Change isn’t some inaccessible ideal, but flows naturally when we focus on what we can do to grow in virtue, and strengthen our local communities and personal relationships.

Understanding the need to slow down through a spiritual lens, rather than purely practical one, can keep us from anxiety and gloom. Whether or not the end of the world is this afternoon or in thousands of years, we can choose to keep acting as if our actions matter.

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