Re-Pacing and (Self) Renewal Part II

This is the continuation of the discussion started by Jeremy Benstein last week.  The final segment of this discussion will appear here next week.

A critical look at how we experience and structure time in our lives is long overdue. Yes, it’s about time. There are multiple aspects of the role of time in our lives that relate to making the world more sustainable. I’d like to address two of them here: one has already gotten a great deal of press, but the other needs better PR, and will help us understand the deeper messages of sustainability.

The first is simply the rate at which we live our lives: how quickly we consume, deplete, use, or burn up, all the material inputs that our lifestyle demands. The German thinker and activist Wolfgang Sachs writes about this eloquently:

“[T]he ecological crisis can be read as a clash of different time scales; the time scale of modernity collides with the time-scales which govern life and the earth…Every year, the industrial system burns as much fossil fuel as the earth has stored up in a period of nearly a million years. Within a second, in terms of geological time, the planet’s reserves are about to vanish in the fireworks of the industrial age…the time gained through fuel-driven acceleration is in reality time transferred from the time stock accumulated in fossil reserves to the engines of our vehicles…The rates of interest and discount are at odds with the rate of natural regeneration.

Furthermore, the collision between industrial and biological time is most tangible in agriculture…An enormous amount of resources and ingenuity is brought into position against the times inherent to organic beings to squeeze out more output in shorter periods of time. Cows and chicken or rice and wheat are selected, bred, chemically treated, and increasingly genetically modified in order to accelerate their yield. However, the imposition of industrial time on natural rhythms cannot be achieved without a staggering price. Animals are kept in appalling conditions, disease spreads, pollution advances, soils degenerate, species diversity is narrowed down, and evolution is not given enough time to adapt. A host of ecological problems in the area of agriculture derive from the fact that the rhythms of nature are kept hostage for the high-speed economy of our time.”

Both the environmental and the human cost of the blistering pace of modern life have given birth to a number of movements whose main message is simply: Slow down! Reduce the soul-destroying tempo of crazy industrial modern urban life. Rethink the treadmill/rat race lifestyle, and revalue leisure, that is, “non-goal-oriented” personal, family and community time.  Remember that ‘standard of living’ is not only not identical to ‘quality of life,’ but that its blind pursuit can lead in the diametrically opposite direction, systematically eroding the non-quantifiable bases of what we truly value in a good life.

First came the reaction to the gastronomic, nutritional and cultural disaster that is fast food, aptly named the slow food movement, that has spread from its birthplace in Italy throughout the world. Food, though, whose production, preparation and consumption takes place in a larger urban context, is only one aspect of our hectic lives. The emphasis on taking time and investing appreciation in these basic acts that sustain life, has led to a call to change the culture of cities that are the framework of our lives. This spawned the call for slow cities– a movement now with hundreds of member cities worldwide.

Much of this escalating pace of life and work is a function of our economy, with the demand for relentless growth at its core, determining the indices of well-being, and driving the larger consumer culture. This is one of the central themes of this blog.

Thus, the inevitable next step has been taken – a nascent movement for slow money – calling to change how we look at investments, define favorable rates of return, and what sorts of projects with different time horizons contributing different sorts of value, are worthy of financial backing.

Slowing down can bring perspective and breathing space, and help us understand what else needs to change. That first step is indeed to go from worrying about constantly replacing our things, to focusing our attention on re-pacing our very lives.

However, simply slowing our material metabolisms, and our pace of living in general, will not get the job done. As Lester Brown, founder of WorldWatch and currently of the Earth Policy Institute once remarked: “If you’re headed in the wrong direction, it won’t help to slow down. You’ll still get to where you don’t want to go – it’ll just take longer!”

To put it a different way, the impact of quantitative changes is limited. Real transformation is not just about “more” and “less,” even when that means “fast” and “slow.” (For a masterful discussion of this, see Donella Meadows “Leverage Points – Places To Intervene In A System”). The key next step, then, is a qualitative one, changing how we experience and shape time in general.

This is the second, less-discussed aspect of time mentioned above.

Closing the Loop: The Limits of Linearity

Western industrial culture is highly linear in its outlook on time. We see history as linear, marching straightforwardly from the past through the present into the future. Who didn’t grow up with a time line on the wall of their classroom? Likewise, we tend to see our own lives as a straight line, an unambiguous journey from birth through maturation to death.

Our material cultures too have become highly linear, termed the “take-make-waste” model: we extract raw materials of various types from certain places, manufacture consumer goods in other ones, ship and use them all over the world, and of course get rid of all the waste by “throwing it away”  – but of course there is no ‘away’. Even if some things are recycled, they will eventually end up in a dump somewhere, not returning to their source to start over again.

This is another way of understanding sustainability: it’s about closing the loops, designing processes that can continue indefinitely because they do not depend on non-renewable resources that will inevitably be depleted, or continuous inputs of huge amounts of energy.

Take an example from agriculture. In a traditional multi-purpose farm, some of the food grown on the farm would feed the livestock, their excrement would be composted to fertilize the crops, and thus the land would retain its fertility to raise more food and livestock: a closed loop that could go on indefinitely.

In the industrial model, small-scale diversification like that is seen as inefficient. The economy of scale and specialization dominate: mono-cropping large tracts of land in one area, and raising large herds of livestock in another. Suddenly, what was once a “solution” (to a problem that didn’t exist) are now two separate, and serious, problems. Expensive large-scale techno-fixes are needed to deal with all the excrement piling up, polluting waterways and creating greenhouse gases. Moreover, to maintain the fertility of the land, we use greater and greater quantities of highly petroleum-intensive chemical fertilizers, mined and transported from various places on the globe, also contributing toxic runoff, and a host of pollution issues.

While this intensive approach – the post WWII “Green Revolution” – may have produced more food since its inception, it’s highly debatable whether it still does, especially as compared with more diversified smaller scale programs, in both developed and underdeveloped areas, and whether its inherent unsustainability is not a disaster in the making over the long term.

Closing the loops of material processes, agricultural and technological systems as well as product design, is crucial. Nothing can fulfill the minimum definition of sustainability without it. But this isn’t just a technical thing: linearity in our lives is not just about production lines. It is, as noted above, how we experience time in general.

Natan Margalit said it well in this space:

“…whereas the ethos of our times is to move forward unceasingly, in a more sane and inter-connected world there are rhythms. Embracing rhythm sounds simple but it is a paradigm shifting thought – it means that there are boundaries on productivity to make room for other values. When we take time out of productivity we can give it back to community, family, civil organizing, reading, culture democracy. Ecologically and theologically, it means that we consider that we are not owners and rulers in the world, but that we are ourselves a part of larger patterns, and we are bound by rhythms that tie us to the rest of life.”

The rising and the setting of the sun, the ever changing nighttime sky, and the cold and heat, rain, snow and dryness, of the seasons of the year: wonderful ingenious technologies, like electric lighting, air conditioning and heating, and the global food market, have made our lives incredibly comfortable, yet at the same time, distance us from these primal human experiences.

Jeremy Benstein_150Dr. Jeremy Benstein is the co-founder of the Sova Project and the co-founder and Deputy Director of the Heschel Center in Tel Aviv, and director of the Center’s Environmental Fellows leadership program. He holds an A.B. degree from Harvard, a master’s degree in Judaic Studies from the Schechter Institute and a doctorate in environmental anthropology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He works extensively in leadership development and capacity building with environmental activists and educators in Israel, and has lectured widely (US, Canada, England, Italy, Spain, Turkey) on Judaism, Israel, and the environment, including the environment as a focus of shared citizenship between Jews and Arabs in Israel. Jeremy’s interests focus on the interplay of religion, culture and values with questions of sustainability, topics he has explored in his book The Way Into Judaism and the Environment (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2006). He writes a weekly column for the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz.com on the Hebrew language, and is recently remarried and lives with his spouse Annabel and their five children in Zichron Yaakov‫

The views expressed on this site do not necessarily reflect the views of The Sova Project or its founding partner organizations.  All comments on this site are the responsibility of their writers.

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