Taking It Slow: The Environmental Case Against High-Speed Life

Kate Soper on Our Modern Obsession with Efficiency

Acceleration in the sense of ever faster travel, exchange of information, and production and distribution of goods and services has been integral to the development of capitalism over the last two and a half centuries. We have come to associate speed with efficiency, and it remains at the core of our understanding of progress. It would be thought bizarre for research teams and industrial designers to seek approval for their innovations on the grounds that they would allow us to do things at a slower pace. Those who opt to travel more slowly than they have to are often still regarded as mildly eccentric. Success in the rat-race as in athletics is about arriving first, and the faster one achieves this, the more it is acclaimed. Except in some less instrumental activities or, in Kant’s phrase, “purposeless purposes” (artistic creation and enjoyment, sex, play, conversation, slow-bicycle racing and so on), we come up against an insistent pressure to reduce the time spent, and we are expected to greet technology as a welcome aid in doing so.

Nowhere over the last fifty years has the technological contribution to time saving been more dramatically in evidence, and enthusiastically seized upon, than in the sphere of communication. This has primarily been due to the increasing computing power of silicon chips (which has doubled around every eighteen months since the mid-1960s). Some people are excluded by reason of age or illness or disability, or simply disinclination, and can feel marginalized because of it, but most have adapted quickly to the fast processing of information and the billions of electronic exchanges via social media, email, texting and Internet browsing this permits on a daily basis. Users have also, of course, become extremely dependent on digital technology, and spend more and more of their lives engaging in some form of telemediation.

In 2018, four billion people around the world spent on average six hours a day online (a total of one billion years). In the UK, those aged between fifteen and twenty-four check their phones every six to eight minutes. Two in five adults first look at their phone within five minutes of waking up. For those aged under thirty-five, the figure is 65 per cent. Similarly, more than a third of adults (60 per cent of those under thirty-five) check their phones five minutes before lights out. More than two-thirds say they never turn their smartphone off, and 78 per cent say they could not live without it.

High-speed online access has clearly become essential to vast numbers of people and transformed their time expenditure. What is less clear—indeed it can only be a matter of speculation—is how far being online is experienced as the best use of time, or as better than doing other things. Searching, checking, buying and communicating online saves time in many respects, but it also entices you on to further unintended searching, checking, buying, and communicating. Not everyone, we know, is happy with the dominance of the smartphone in their and others’ lives: according to the Ofcom report whose figures are cited above, more than half (54 per cent) admit that connected devices interrupt face-to-face conversations with friends and family. More than two in five (43 per cent) say that they spend too much time online, while a significant minority claim they feel more productive offline and are distracted by having constant access to the Internet. Email, the most commonly used tool for communicating in the workplace, gives rise to similar laments about overload and distraction. Its very rapidity causes problems. Messages, often imprecise, quickly pile up, and time is wasted reading unnecessary communications and sorting out confusions created by careless words.

High-speed travel evokes comparable tensions and contrary responses. We have got used to ever-faster modes of transport and we often revel in them. Speed is convenient and can be exhilarating. However, our enjoyment of it is relative and historically mutable. Writing in The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837) of a horse-drawn chaise traveling at fifteen miles per hour, Charles Dickens describes fields, trees and hedges rushing past “with the velocity of a whirlwind.” Many car users today regard a limit of twenty miles per hour as restrictively slow. Advocates of speed may seize on this relativity to decry attempts to slow us down: going slow, they may say, no more “naturally” corresponds to human needs than going fast. But the passage from The Pickwick Papers also shows our adaptability, and therefore the ease with which we might adjust to a different tempo and come to prefer slower travel as quite exhilarating enough. Road capacity and considerations of safety will in any case impose limits on speed; as will congestion, which sometimes means that slower means of transport (biking or even walking) get you across towns and cities faster than motorized vehicles.

In the case of the bicycle, there is also the more metaphysical consideration that it provides a machinic prosthetic that gratifies the interest in going faster while remaining ecologically benign. As Martin Ryle has suggested, it “embodies as well as queering machine culture, with its new appetite and capacity for speed.” The cyclist’s velocity is a correspondingly paradoxical affair, involving the pleasures of going both quickly and slowly. Freewheeling is a “uniquely lazy mode of going fast.” Approximations to such pleasurably sustainable paradoxes of velocity might perhaps also be claimed in the case of a number of other non-motorized modes of transport such as sailing or skiing or skating or horse-riding. But what is peculiarly distinctive to cycling, Ryle maintains, is that it both “mirrors and subverts the general condition of bodies caught up in machine assemblages”:

In cycling the relationship between body and machine is symbiotic. Riders are subject to rhythms that they themselves create and sustain. Pedaling, they impart them to the bike, which translates them into its own forward movement; but these rhythms comply in the last instance to the cyclist’s will. This is why the first riders, manufacturers and advertisers sought to convey the pleasures of bicycle riding in images of bird-like flight and centaur-like celerity, which suggest an extension of human powers within a new, integral and still-organic being.

*

At present, however, jet-propeled flight and cars—the least sustainable ways of traveling—still command almost all investment, and are regularly represented as an essential aspect of contemporary life. The lack of adequate, affordable public transport and of safe provision for other ways of getting about makes daily car travel seem unavoidable to many workers. In Britain, commuters who use the train (to which there is no practical alternative for many rush hour journeys into large cities) face ever-rising fares, and these are already among the highest in Europe. They will not find the seating space, designated areas for children, recycling facilities and ample bike storage that make train travel attractive elsewhere in Europe and Scandinavia. Given the unreliability for which several privatized rail franchises have become notorious, they may not find a train at all.

In the case of the bicycle, there is the more metaphysical consideration that it provides a machinic prosthetic that gratifies the interest in going faster while remaining ecologically benign.

For holidays and short breaks, the pressure to make the most of time off from 24/7 work makes quick getaways and short journey times desirable. The plane is often the only feasible way to get to and from distant destinations within the time frames that constrain most holiday makers. I discuss this pattern of inter-dependencies, both a consequence and a cause of the general speeding-up of life, below. The environmental consequences are obvious and from that point of view, the plans to expand London’s Heathrow airport are, as Green MP Caroline Lucas has said, “unforgivable.” If they go ahead, future generations will surely not forgive the perversity. As campaigners point out, you cannot agree to limit aviation emissions to 37.5 million tonnes annually by 2050, then put Britain on course to reach 43 million by 2030 and 73 million tonnes later in the century (an amount equivalent, according to Greenpeace, to the total output of Cyprus). Or you can, if commerce is always allowed to trump moral duty—which is why those who regularly fly (and the most affluent 15 percent of Britons take 70 per cent of the flights) are also incurring their own pressing debt to the future. The challenge is twofold: to provide greener ways of reaching distant places, and to encourage slower travel to places nearer home. Here too, hedonist arguments can reinforce environmental ones.

Even for some longer journeys, flight is not the only option, since train travel can be as quick, especially when time taken getting to and from airports is factored in. Trains are carbon emitters, and they are expensive. But a journey from London to Paris by train instead of plane cuts emissions per traveller by 90 per cent, and an ecological pricing and taxing policy could make the train cheaper for this and similar journeys. The environmentally preferable alternative is also more pleasant and interesting. Fields and hedges, rivers and hills, villages and towns, even if they flash past, offer “images of nature and culture that restore something of the visual and existential delight long associated with travel. What we glimpse reminds us that to speed along is to miss something, and this might entice us to go slower next time.” To judge by the enthusiasm that has greeted the website run by “The Man in Seat Sixty-One,” which provides information on rail and rail-ship transport throughout the world, long distance train journeys are increasingly sought after, for their pleasures as well as their greener credentials. Nonetheless “going local” must be at the centre of the cultural shift required to make holidays greener—all the more so if, enjoying a less work-dominated life, we take more holidays in future.

The CO2 emissions caused by the growing aviation industry are compounded by those long associated with cars and road freight. Vehicle emissions in the European Union have barely changed over the last decade and the industry will exhaust its carbon budget within five to ten years unless there is a radical shift, according to scientists at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). Vehicle emissions also constitute the most important source of toxic air pollutants in industrial societies. Most of the world’s population (90 per cent) is now affected by toxic air, to which some 7 million early deaths are attributed annually. Children especially suffer, with 300 million now living in areas where toxic fumes are six times above international guidelines. Hybrid and fully electric cars will be less polluting, but the electricity they use must be generated, the batteries wear out and must be disposed of, and like all cars they use large amounts of plastic in their construction. What is more, they are dystopian in protracting the car culture with its dangers, congestion, ugliness and dominance of space, rather than moving us beyond its mindset.

Road traffic is responsible for bringing a premature and horrific end to the lives of many road users. Some 40,000 people died in traffic accidents in the USA in 2017, and almost 1,800 (of whom 26 per cent were pedestrians) in Britain, where there were also nearly 28,000 serious injuries. A recent report by Dr Rachel Aldred shows that in Britain, children in socially and economically deprived areas are disproportionately likely to be involved in road traffic accidents, even though their parents are less likely to own cars. Road vehicles also destroy the lives and habitat of living beings other than ourselves, at a time when the World Wildlife Fund is advising us that the current rate of loss of ecosystems and wildlife is no less threatening to our future than climate change. Cars may not be the major cause of wildlife loss, but they certainly don’t help, and being inside a car screens us from the damage they cause.

That same screening compromises and reduces the aesthetic pleasure of travel. Speeding along in a car, you see some of what you travel through, although the restricted frame of windscreens and car windows limits even visual pleasure. You are debarred from other sensory engagement, confined to what Alex Wilson, in his study of the making of the North American landscape, called the “motorist’s aesthetic.” The designers of the great American “scenic” national parkways, Wilson explains, “have created an essentially visual experience, one that has ruled out taste, touch and smell; for which landscape becomes an event in “automotive space”, and is comparable in its one-dimensionality to the view that is had in aerial photography.

In the process, the designers of the scenic routes have literally instructed their users in the “beauties” of nature by promoting some landscapes at the expense of others, by removing whatever bits of it were deemed unsightly, and by restricting all activities incompatible with the parkway aesthetic.” Modern media have further added to the sense of “nature” as something primarily seen, because so much of the experience of it now comes in virtual form: it is a matter of watching it on TV or on a computer screen, often as seen from the air or a motor vehicle, and this marginalizes sounds and cuts out the contribution of smell and touch altogether.

The CO2 emissions caused by the growing aviation industry are compounded by those long associated with cars and road freight.

By contrast, where proper provision is made to walk or ride or cycle, one is able to enjoy sights and scents and sounds, and the pleasures (and benefits) of physical activity, and experiences of solitude and silence, all of which are denied to those who travel in more insulated and speedier ways. Slower methods of travel, as Wilson has suggested, allow people to enjoy a synaesthetic rather than voyeuristic experience. No one could rely exclusively on these modes of transport, but more could be done to encourage them, especially for short journeys, than is presently the case (a quarter of car trips in England are of less than two miles). The obstacles to regular cradle to the grave biking could readily be overcome through committed and imaginative provision.

Alongside London’s velodrome in the capital’s Olympic Park, which reinforces the cultural tendency in Britain to represent cycling as a niche sport and test of endurance, we need segregated space in the streets for everyone’s everyday cycling. Instead of speed-rivalry on the indoor circuits and mangled riders outside on the roads, why not well-lit multi-lane tracks, with cover for those who want it, cycle rickshaws and electric bikes for the too young and less able, showers and changing rooms and cafés at regular intervals on cycle tracks? Schemes like this look utopian, but would cost very little compared to the infrastructure needed to provide for continuing mass car use—especially if one factors in the economic and social gains of better public health.

*

Speeding traffic kills communities as well as people. Research has shown that the higher the traffic volume, the less time people spend outside—and the less likely they are to know their neighbors. Parents’ fear of accidents has made streets no-go areas for their children, and this has had a serious impact on children’s play, denying them many of its pleasures. In 1971, 80 per cent of British seven- and eight-year-old children went to school on their own; today it is virtually unthinkable that a seven-year-old would walk to school without an adult. As Mayer Hillman has pointed out, we’ve removed children from danger rather than removing danger from children—and filled roads with polluting cars on school runs. In the past, children were free to escape from adults for significant periods of time, and to forget their cares in the moonlit ludic time-space so evocatively summoned in the nursery rhyme, “Girls and Boys come out to play / The moon doth shine as bright as day ….”

Today, whether in the country or in the city, they are seldom released from either the nervy surveillance of their elders, on the one hand, or the predation of drivers encroaching on them with their motorized vehicles, on the other. They are left with little choice: they are vulnerably exposed to traffic, confined indoors or stuck in cars themselves.

It is not only children who suffer. For most of human history, as the Living Streets campaign has pointed out, in addition to children’s play, streets also comfortably accommodated the full range of human activity: they were places for socializing, public meetings, entertainments, demonstrations. Today they have become traffic corridors, cutting swathes through local communities. The priority in the design and classification of most roads is how much traffic they can carry. The use of streets as social places has been largely overlooked, as is the fact that on many streets—particularly local high streets—there are far more people on foot than in vehicles. Roads and side turnings are widened and pavements narrowed to speed up the traffic. Barriers are erected to stop people crossing where they want. The lighting and street signs are designed for people traveling at speed. The overall result is an ugly and intimidating environment that discriminates against people on foot.

Since urban space and road systems have usually been organized around the expedition of vehicles rather than pedestrians, parks and precincts are often the only spaces available for relaxation and recreation. “Public” shopping-mall areas (often privately owned and policed) also provide some protection from traffic, but here “disreputable” (non-shopping) elements are under surveillance and regularly moved on. Nor is much comfortable seating supplied lest non-shoppers take advantage.

Streets, then, need to be reclaimed for the people who use them most. As the Living Streets Manifesto puts it:

Why should walkers behave like vehicles—always keeping on the move? The only right enshrined in the Highways Act is to “pass and re-pass along the highway” and it’s a sign of the times that most words we use to describe stopping in the street should have negative connotations—“loitering,” “lingering,” “hanging about.” Our streets are as much for leisure as for work, places to chat to neighbors, read newspapers or to watch the passing scene. Living Streets need nooks and corners, benches and walls where people can pause and pass the time.

Urban design and policies are belatedly beginning to recognize something of this, with cities and towns in Europe and elsewhere introducing imaginative green changes in the use of space. In some cases, inhabitants as well as town planners are taking the initiative. In Seoul, for instance, a four-lane elevated expressway that between 1973 and 2003 took 170,000 vehicles a day into the city centre, has been demolished and replaced by a long riverside park with 1.5 million trees, a cycle way and a festival venue by the Cheonggyecheon river that was long buried under the road. Traffic chaos was predicted, but residents have adapted, with many more now traveling by subway. Buried rivers have also been restored in Seattle, New York and Sheffield.

The Guardian recently featured images of a number of cities, including Addis Ababa, Bogota, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo and Fortalezza in Brazil, where drab and dangerous urban intersections had been transformed into colorful pedestrian-friendly areas. In Europe and Scandinavia, Freiburg im Breisgau has progressively pedestrianized since 1971, and is now largely car-free. Giethoorn in Holland, Nürnberg, Málaga, Seville, Siena and the Cinque Terre towns, Dubrovnik, St. Petersburg, Växjö, Malmö, and Copenhagen are among many other cities and towns that have become largely traffic free, at least in their old towns or more central areas. In Britain, some progress has been made in reclaiming streets from motor traffic and in some cases reducing speed limits, but it has not been remarkable, and the 20 m.p.h. limit is seldom policed and routinely ignored.

Urban design and policies are belatedly beginning to recognize something of this, with cities and towns in Europe and elsewhere introducing imaginative green changes in the use of space.

More exceptional, perhaps, are the changes that have recently come about in Doncaster, a working-class town surrounded by motorways and retail distribution centers, including a mammoth Amazon fulfillment centre on its outskirts. Doncaster is being reclaimed by councillors and local activists for a human-friendly “artisan economy.” The former three-floor BHS store has become “Flip Out,” a trampoline park; part of the town once dominated by a car park now houses a theatre and arts venue; and in 2020 a new “Cultural and Learning Centre” will open with a library and town museum. In the words of Rachel Horne, organizer of “Cultural Crawl” (in which cafés, pubs and other venues cooperatively host music, poetry and exhibitions), and co-editor of the new Duncopolitan what’s-on magazine,

We’re trying to create a different way of living. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d be clinically depressed, in a job that I hated—like a call centre. There’s not many other jobs here—so it’s like, “Make your own job.” … Donny is a working-class town, but that doesn’t mean we’re idiots. It doesn’t mean we’re not really creative or that we can’t have a stake in what happens in the town centre. You can see the hunger for doing something different that’s here, if we’re just given the chance to make it happen. … Call centres and warehouses are the modern pits. But it doesn’t mean that those people in there aren’t really creative. It’s just a job. … I don’t really think we need the stuff we buy. I think we’ll find new ways of occupying the space and the council need people like us to do that.

*

Perhaps the most prized and seemingly irreplaceable advantage of fast travel is the ease with which it delivers us to far-flung holiday and conference destinations and allows large numbers of people (though always in global terms a tiny minority) to enjoy tourist experiences confined a century ago to the wealthiest elites.

It is difficult to dispute the pleasures of holidays abroad or the life-enhancing aspects of encountering other spaces and cultures. Increasingly far-flung trips are taken in quest of that kind of difference, although unfamiliarity can also be experienced much closer to home: the hilltop towns of lower Normandy and the bogs of north Mayo, to take two examples, have no exact parallels in Britain. Exotic trips are all too likely to be exploitative both of the environment and of local workers servicing the tourist industry. Companies providing eco-tourist experiences keep quiet about the contradictions of encouraging influx into areas hitherto “untouched” by the tourist trade.

These organizations also seem particularly adept (as indeed they need to be in order to survive) at suppressing the role of long distance air flight in creating the “threatened and fragile” environments that they invite their customers (often referred to as research or conservation “volunteers’) to come and help protect. The first and last step in these itineraries, it goes without saying, is an international flight, and many also require further domestic flights to reach their chosen outposts of civilization. The journeys that bring tourists to watch tigers in India or polar bears in the Arctic are major contributors to the climate change that is eroding the habitat of these threatened animals.

The environmental impact of many long-haul journeys is all the greater when these trips are short. This means that the visits themselves happen with greater frequency and enjoy a higher take-up rate because less time off work or school is needed. This escapist holiday culture of long distance short breaks is another instance of the interlocking forms of consumerist provision required and provided in a high-speed, work-intensive culture. Regular weekend breaks from Britain to New York and Scandinavian and European cities are seen as essential to sanity. The journey there and back, measured in time taken rather than miles covered, is just a way of reaching the holiday location. “Escaping,” it is rather unthinkingly assumed, cannot take place unless you travel a long way. Even schools are organizing trips that encourage pupils to think no significant experience or excitement can be had without spending hours in an airplane cabin only to be deposited in some faraway part of the globe.

We may well wonder whether trips of this kind give the sense of timeless immersion in a different environment with a different rhythm that once made holidays such objects of anticipation and nostalgia—particularly for children. The extreme contrasts to ordinary life presented by holidays in distant and culturally unfamiliar locales may even militate against the surreal and dream-like experience that can accompany a removal to somewhere closer to home yet still strangely different from normality. Proust’s Marcel scarcely travels very far from Combray to his holidays in Balbec, where the “tourist experience” is hardly very dramatic or sublime. However, the subtle shift in what constitutes the routine and the familiar makes for a rare and entrancing experience. The days—all the more, perhaps, because each is similar to the next—merge with one another in a way that will yield memories of their beauty and exceptionality. It is not so far, either, from Lübeck to Travemünde on the Baltic (two or three hours by horse carriage, in the later nineteenth century). But for Thomas Mann’s little Hanno Buddenbrook, it is the removal to an utterly different world of delight:

We may well wonder whether trips of this kind give the sense of timeless immersion in a different environment with a different rhythm that once made holidays such objects of anticipation and nostalgia.

Everything—the smell of the freshly washed table-cloth when the waiter shook it out, the tissue paper serviettes, the unaccustomed bread, the eggs they ate out of little metal cups, with ordinary spoons instead of the bone ones like those at home—all this, and everything, enchanted little Johann. And all that followed was so easy and care-free—such a wonderfully idle and protected life. There was the forenoon on the beach, while the Kurhouse band gave its morning programme; the lying and resting at the foot of the beach-chair, the delicious, dreamy play with the soft sand that did not make you dirty, while you let your eyes rove idly and lose themselves in the green and blue infinity beyond. There was the air that swept in from that infinity—strong, free, wild, gently sighing and deliciously scented; it seemed to enfold you round, to veil your hearing and make you pleasantly giddy, and blessedly submerge all consciousness of time and space.

It will be said that Proust and Mann are recording the holidays of the privileged bourgeoisie—which, of course, is true: those from poorer families than Marcel or Hanno would certainly not have shared in their holiday joys. But that is beside the point in this context, since local holidays need be no more expensive than the trips to distant resorts that many families now take. (Where these do prove cheaper it will be because of budget flights and reliance on poorly paid local labour.) Long distance travel no longer guarantees anything very novel in the way of experience, since the global village has brought homogeneity as well as accessibility. Today, James Clifford has suggested, “an older typography of travel is exploded. One no longer leaves home confident in finding something radically new, another time or space. Difference is encountered in the adjoining neighborhood, the familiar turns up at the end of the earth.”

__________________________________

Post Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper

From Post Growth Living: For an Alternative Hedonism by Kate Soper. Used with the permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2020 by Kate Soper.

Kate Soper
Kate Soper
Kate Soper teaches philosophy and cultural theory at the University of North London. Her previous works include On Human Needs, What is Nature? Culture, Politics and the Non-Human and, with Verso, Troubled Pleasures.





More Story
On the Dark American Nostalgia of Cheaper By the Dozen Welcome to Lit Century: 100 Years, 100 Books. Combining literary analysis with an in-depth look at historical context, hosts...