Can You Go S..L..O..W..?

The Slow Movement

In 1986 as the rest of the world rushed frantically about its business, gulping down Big Macs on the fly – two all beef patties special sauce pickles lettuce tomatoes on a sesame seed bun – a small group of Italian foodies led by culinary writer Carlo Petrini, armed themselves with bowls of penne pasta doused in marinara sauce and took to the streets of Rome in protest against the opening of a McDonald’s beside the historic city’s famed Spanish Steps.

It was one affront the gourmet group just could not stomach, so to speak. The renegade Italians fought back against the gigantic quintessence of everything they found wrong with the fast food/fast life world. Outside the Golden Arches these pasta-armed rebels, tongue in cheek, called their humble dish “Slow Food,” and offered it to passersby as a savory alternative in a gastronomic showdown with the Big Mac. Though no one realized it at the time, the little demonstration was a first attempt to slam the brakes on our time-sick, run-away world.

Three years later Slow Food, which adopted the little snail as its symbol, became official as delegates from 15 countries endorsed its manifesto which proclaimed, in part, “We are enslaved by speed and have all succumbed to the same insidious virus: Fast Life.” Homo sapiens, it decreed, must rid themselves of speed or face danger of extinction.

Slow Food identifies itself as an eco-gastronomic organization. Their mission is to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions, and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes, and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. The organization supports fresh, local, seasonal produce; recipes handed down through generations; sustainable farming; artisanal production, and leisurely dining with family and friends, not to mention the pleasure so derived. It boasts a membership of 85,000 in 132 countries.

In 2001 the New York Times Magazine named Slow Food as one of the “80 ideas that shook the world (or at least jostled it a little),” and in January 2008 Carlo Petrini was named by British newspaper, The Guardian, as one of the “Top 50 People Who Can Save the Planet.”

Slow Food, with its emphasis on easing up and reconnecting, set the stage and agenda, ushering in the all-encompassing Slow movement. Slow is no longer confined to the kitchen or dinner table, but now includes every slice of life.

Today we find Slow Cities, Slow Travel, Slow Design, Slow Schools, Slow Home, even Slow Work. Organizations and websites abound. The Society for the Deceleration of Time with 700 members conducts research, publishes papers and organizes symposia. The Long Now Foundation promotes long term thinking, striving to provide a counterpoint to today’s “faster/cheaper” mind set and promotes “slower/better” thinking; slowLab is a network of designers, architects, and artists who employ a slow, holistic approach to creative thinking, process and outcomes.

Websites such as Slow Movement.com, SlowDownNow.com, and Slow Planet.com, help time-bedraggled refugees come to terms with, and begin to implement a slower, more relaxed pace.

The “slow” of the Slow movement, however, is not time-based; it is a philosophy, a way of life. Author Carl Honoré , In Praise of Slowness, sums up the movement in one word: balance. He writes that “despite what some critics say, the Slow movement is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. . . . On the contrary, the movement is made up of people . . . who want to live better in a fast-paced, modern world. . . . Be fast when it makes sense to be fast, and be slow when slowness is called for. Seek to live at what musicians call the tempo giusto – the right speed.”

Slow Living

The movement is about re-establishing connections to the things that once added value to our lives – friends, family, and community. While we are often quick to give lip service, it is these very things that we sacrifice, shove aside, as we speed through life racing to complete the endless must-do lists.

We have overscheduled our lives, writes Bill Quain, author of Time Poverty – How to Achieve More by Working Less. We’re exhausted, stressed out, and dread another day, another month, another year of our frenzied existence. Yet, he adds, we’re part of the most productive, most efficient workforce that ever inhabited this planet.

We have technology at our fingertips, convenience foods to prepare, entertainment in our living rooms, and 24-hour access to the world via the World Wide Web. We are doing everything at the speed of light. We have voicemail, e-mail, instant messaging and downloadable movies. We don’t have to wait for anything. (Nor, I add, are we willing to.)

Honoré writes of his elation at discovering “The One Minute Bedtime Story,” a book of condensed classic fairy tales compiled for time-pressed parents to quickly and efficiently dispense the nightly bedtime ritual of reading to their children. He admits feeling guilt in retrospect, and tells of the deep soul-searching it triggered as he began to contemplate where his time-driven life was taking him.

More and more people are arriving at the same soul-searching and deciding it’s time for a change. That change might come in the form of downshifting, making a conscious decision to live a simpler life. It may mean saying no to extra hours at work, or accepting a position with less responsibility, changing jobs to reduce a long commute, or even finding lower paying but more rewarding work.

The first International Downshifting Week was held in April of this year. Its organizers offer a simple action plan for those new to the concept: plant something in the garden to cultivate and eat; eliminate three non-essential purchases; cut up a credit card and focus on living within your means; book a half day holiday from work to spend entirely with the one you love; cook a simple meal using fresh, locally sourced ingredients and enjoy it together at the table; and tonight turn off the television, turn on the radio, play a few games and talk.

“Seachange” and “treechange” are terms that are now in the vernacular describing a growing trend of individuals abandoning fast-paced city living to take up residence in more leisurely seaside villages or rural areas. It is predicted an estimated one million Australians alone will make such a move over the next three years.

Before pulling up roots and relocating, though, it might be advisable to start…well, slow. More people are pausing to take a deep breath and learning to connect with the inner self. Through mindful awareness and regular meditation they are learning to be in the present moment, rather than constantly focusing on what’s happening next, tomorrow or next year. Jon Kabat-Zin, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts says, “Mindfulness is a certain way of paying attention that is healing, that is restorative, that is reminding you of who you actually are so that you don’t wind up getting entrained into being a human doing rather than a human being.”

There is a growing interest in slow exercise, as well – regimens that slow the body and still the mind are both calming and physically beneficial. Yoga and Qi Gong, which includes martial arts like Kung Fu and Tai Chi, help to improve balance, strength, posture and rhythm, as well as clear and settle the mind.

Walking, too, can be meditative and conductive to a slower frame of mind. In fact, Slow Cities, first begun in Bra, Italy, emphasize less traffic in favor of more walking and biking, and city planners are redesigning suburbs to include more pedestrian traffic.

Simple, old-fashioned reading, as in Slow Books, is another way individuals are slowing down and taking a break. Reading for the pure enjoyment of it may seem indulgent in our time-crazed world, but regular reading can lead to reduced stress levels, along with increasing creativity, inspiration, and motivation – not to mention providing entertainment, and an occasional good, hearty laugh. Reading broadens one’s perspective and opens the mind, leading to greater compassion and understanding.

In step with the movement, too, is recognizing and re-establishing our connection to nature and the outdoors. Holed up in centrally heated and cooled homes, offices and cars, we seem to have forgotten that we are as much a part of the environment as the trees, the earth and the other creatures that inhabit the planet. We feel separate and different from what’s “out there,” but our lives and our bodies are still guided by the natural rhythms of nature – sunrise, sunset, the moon and its cycles, the seasonal changes. In times past, cultures honored and celebrated the natural rhythms and cycles of the year with festivals and celebrations. Individuals are restoring that sense of harmony with nature by hosting meals and other events with family and friends on special occasions like the equinoxes, and solstices.

A strong sense of community is an essential part of the movement, which encourages individuals to adopt a bio-regional lifestyle – living with an awareness of the ecology, economy and culture of the community one lives in, and making conscious decisions to support and enhance these features. The focus is on local production of goods and services for local use, and when production can’t meet local needs, a source is sought from the next level out – as close to home as possible.

Think global; act local, and Start in My Backyard (SIMBY) are Slow movement mantras. They refer to the need to keep a big picture view, but to focus on individual action in the community to foster economic, social and cultural growth. The aim is to support businesses to accumulate wealth, and to make the community more creative, inclusive and sustainable. In a thriving, healthy community local people build organizations and partnerships that interconnect businesses with other aspects such as skills and education, housing, health, social connectivity and the environment.

Individuals shop at locally-owned stores and shops rather than large chain retailers, or national or multinational outlets, and they support companies that are socially and environmentally responsible which have outlets nearby. Banking is encouraged at institutions, preferably locally-owned and managed, that invest in the local community.

The community’s environment is respected and protected, as well. Citizens minimize waste, and are knowledgeable about where waste goes, how it’s processed or disposed. The same is true for household water, which is used sparingly, and household electricity with alternative energy sources being used where possible.

Getting to know and support neighbors is an important tenet, as is becoming directly involved with the education of children – both one’s own, and the community’s.

Slow Travel

Slow Travel is a mind set, not a destination, says Slowtrav.com. It’s not about filling the days with endless sights, guided tours, or a thousand snapshots. It’s about enjoying the journey, traveling by train, boat, barge, even bike or foot, and enjoying the changes in the terrain and scenery as they roll pass. Slow Travel is picking up on the small things that make a place unique, but are often overlooked when we’re in a rush to get to the “must-sees” sites; it’s connecting with the locals and getting a flavor of what life is like living there.

There are usually two components to Slow Travel. The first is spending at least a week in one place, usually renting a house, cottage, apartment or house-swapping rather than staying in a hotel or bed & breakfast. It’s more comfortable as one can spread out, and it allows the traveler to live like a local, shopping at the local stores, or eating at the same café several days in a row. The second component is seeing what is nearby using the “concentric circles” approach. Travelers explore an ever-widening area beginning from their base, or home site, discovering what is close and nearby instead of dashing off on long day trips to tourist sites.

Following the guidelines of Slow Travel changes the travel experience. By “living” versus just “staying” at a destination, one experiences a location more intensely, and establishes a deeper connection to the unique culture of the plate and its place.

There is no doubt the Slow movement is growing, embraced by those disenchanted with a world seemingly out of control. And while Fast remains in the driver’s seat, Slow continues to gain momentum. It may not be for everyone, but it might be worth including on our Must Do list. If for no other reason than forcing us to slow down long enough to see where we’re going – who knows, we might discover we like the view.

Author’s Note: This appeared in the August 2008 issue of Change Magazine.