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Rush To Nowhere


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Speed-Up / KEYNOTE

Rush to nowhere: Richard Swift says it's time we slammed on the brakes.

The Titanic and its sad fate have become a metaphor for human foibles and arrogance towards the power of nature leading to disaster. What is less well known is that the White Star Line built the ultramodern Titanic in part to compete in an obsessive effort to break the steamship record for crossing the North Atlantic. The record had passed back and forth between the North German Lloyd Line and the British Cunard Line. After the accident, both George Bernard Shaw and Joseph Conrad wrote in anger about the foolishness of a ship’s captain ploughing into an icefield at full throttle. The enquiry into the sinking of the Titantic identified pressure to keep up with increasingly unrealistic schedules as a cause of the disaster. Criticism of the mania for speed records became common currency on both sides of the Atlantic.

Now that we have Concorde, which also famously crashed, the era of leisurely travel in steamships may feel archaic. But the preoccupation with speed that cost 1,500 lives in the icy ocean that fateful night in 1912 still drives us relentlessly on. Today we see it in the speed-up associated with almost every aspect of life. This is particularly true in the industrial heartland of the global economy. We drive fast cars. We are expected to ‘multitask’ and some people have even come to enjoy it. Children are rushed to grow up. We are under ever-increasing pressure to work faster and faster. Some people work themselves to death. The Japanese have even created a diagnosis for it. They call it karoshi: death by overwork. We gobble fast food – it is the aim of McDonald’s to have a restaurant within four minutes of everyone in the US. We sleep less than we used to. More car accidents are caused by sleepy drivers than by drunk ones. We take energy drugs to keep us going. My favourite stimulant is coffee, but there’s a new range of energy-based soft drinks with names like ‘Jolt’ and ‘Surge’, or Edge2 and Edge2OJ orange juice with caffeine added to keep us ‘up to speed’. Added to this there are lots of pills, particularly amphetamines, and special vitamin diets.

Marx, who admired capitalism more than he should have, called it ‘the most revolutionary’ of social systems

Many people have daybooks so crammed with commitments that you’d have a better chance of getting an audience with the Pope. There is even a new craze for ‘the nine-minute date’, so that singles in a hurry can check each other out. The preoccupation is with control. A whole industry has evolved based on managing time. Drugstore bookshelves are crammed with titles on how you can do this. In his classic study, American Nervousness, George Beard identifies the dread that ‘a delay of a few minutes might destroy the hopes of a lifetime’. There is a macho ethos of speed that goes with it all. It’s like the Mike Douglas character in the Oliver Stone movie Wall Street says: ‘Lunch? Lunch is for wimps.’ It’s an idea that has fortunately been slow to catch on around the Mediterranean. Even some holidays are packaged to rush from place to place.

Time is at a premium. But where are we going?

The modern disaster – the modern Titanic, if you like – is economic development, particularly the mega-project form of it. Dams, roads, highrise buildings, port facilities, airports, pipelines, power-generating stations are slapped up with little thought as to the consequences. Dangerous corners are often cut to meet deadlines. Forests are despoiled. Toxic chemicals pumped into the air. Debt mounts. Local people, on the Yangtse River, in the Narmada Valley, in the jungles of Sarawak, have their lives uprooted. Their protests are studiously ignored.

Some management consultants say that ‘it is better to be 50-per- cent over budget than to be six months late’. Gigantism and speed go hand-in-hand as mega-projects tie even the most remote parts of the world into a global economic web. Globalization is the product of a kind of turbo-capitalism that utilizes technologies to project itself through trade, investment and speculation at ever-faster speeds to ever-farther horizons.

Marx, who admired capitalism more than he should have, called it ‘the most revolutionary’ of social systems. And so it has proved. Dynamic. Aggressive. Technologically innovative. Always thrusting into the future. It is propelled forward at market-driven haste fuelled by competition – or fear of it – and acquisitiveness. The faster capital is turned over, the faster it can realize a profit. The faster that profit can be reinvested, the faster it can expand in its turn. This quick turnover of capital is of course connected with volume – more widgets produced, more energy used, more money in circulation, more infrastructure needed.

‘Mining’ the oceans: lines of tuna waiting to be sold in Katsura Harbour, Japan.
Dean Chapman / Panos pictures

The key to the process is to speed everything up, whether in production, transport, the circulation of money or – nowadays particularly – consumption. Historically this meant a shift towards factory mass-production and away from artisans, who were too concerned with the quality of their product. Then came the evolution of the assembly line, where workers were cued to perform particular tasks at precisely timed intervals. Techno-innovation spurs it on and is in turn driven by it. In our ‘wired world’ billions of dollars can be made or lost in hours. Stock markets are open 24 hours a day. Volatile on-line and day trading have become a norm. It’s like a giant, global Las Vegas.

In production it’s all about ‘just- in-time’ inventory control, downsizing to keep labour lean and quick, computer-driven systems of ‘command-and-control’ and the constant input of data; on the supply of raw materials, capital markets, market conditions, consumer preferences. Slowing up is simply not on the cards. Workers are asked to be endlessly flexible with their jobs and to engage in ‘lifelong learning’ in order to prepare themselves for what the labour market might next demand. ‘Time-wasting’ has been cut to a minimum and all the ‘components’ of production are on site in the ‘three factories’ of the free-trade zones of South China. Young women workers live on one floor, production takes place on a second and inventory is stored on a third. For ‘security’ purposes the women are locked in – factory fires have taken hundreds of lives.

Genetic engineering, the ‘bio-wing’ of turbo-capitalism, is even speeding up the ‘natural’ world. Many crops are made to grow and ripen faster. Turkeys, cattle and other farm animals are fattened at spectacular growth rates through gene manipulation, special feeding programmes and the use of anti-biotics. Industrial agriculture is based entirely on its ability to get products to the market quickly. The consequences for food safety are just beginning to be felt.

As always, advertisements best reveal what is at the heart of the matter. Whether you are selling cars, travel, an internet service, a courier company or the 1,000-channel universe, speed is of the essence. Help people rush through life with as little ‘hassle’ as possible. Make buying convenient. And make it frequent.

The national economies of the West – particularly that of the US – are awash with consumer credit. In addition, turbo-capitalism depends on consumer markets expanding into new areas, like the huge Chinese market. But here, as in so many other areas, speed creates instability, an inevitable contraction in the economy means highly ‘leveraged’ people and companies just can’t afford to pay off their creditors.

What is this time we are so concerned to save through speeding up? Over centuries humankind has measured time in relationship to natural cycles. Planting and harvest times were key markers for agricultural societies. The place of the sun in the sky dictated the tasks and pleasures of the day. Some societies, like the Mayan people of Central America, had highly sophisticated calendars based on everything from a woman’s period to the number of layers believed to exist in heaven. The habits and migratory movements of animals (not only essential for survival but also endowed with religious significance) were crucial indicators of time’s passage. The Trobriand Islanders of eastern Papua New Guinea begin their year when a certain Pacific marine worm spawns. In different parts of Africa, time may be measured by how long it takes to cook rice or how long to fry a locust. You don’t get told what time it is, but what kind of time it is.

With the advent of industrial society we pulled time out of nature. The perceptive social critic Lewis Mumford saw that ‘it was the clock and not the steam engine that is the key machine of the Modern Age’.1 The historian David Landes goes a step further by claiming that the clock ‘helped turn Europe from a weak, peripheral, highly vulnerable outpost of Mediterranean civilization into a hegemonic aggressor. Time measurement was at once a sign of new-found creativity and an agent and catalyst in the use of knowledge for wealth and power.’2

So the imposition of industrial time has had pride of place in the history of empire. The repetitive racist discourse about work-shirking ‘natives’ (slothful, unreliable, no sense of how to plan ahead) repeats the history of enclosure during the late Middle Ages in Europe, when work time was imposed on a reluctant agricultural population. The adoption of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884 as the international standard shaped the first wave of the global economy. Local times and methods of telling time were swept away. The same process continues to this day. It became a condition of Mexico joining the North American Free Trade Agreement that it adopt Daylight Savings Time.

There is a different way to think about time – not as a commodity but as a continuous flow

Some kind of standardized time-telling is obviously here to stay. But the obsession with ‘saving’ time through speed-up, frenetic living and the constant, neurotic measurement of nanoseconds is doing both human culture and the natural world a severe disservice. For what we lost when we pulled time out of nature was a respect for the natural rhythms and ecological balance on which we depend to survive. Our data-based culture has replaced contemplation and critical thought with a narrow, instrumental form of reasoning, no matter how it gets dressed up with cyber-babble about ‘lateral thinking’ or ‘virtual intelligence’. Basic assumptions seldom make it to the table.

There is a different way to think about time – not as a commodity but as a continuous flow. In his fascinating book Faster, The Acceleration of Almost Everything, James Gleick concludes that one should ‘at least recognize that neither technology nor efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost. It is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift in its currents, or you can swim.’3

Flattened by turbo-capitalism: clearcut logging in Oregon, US.
Daniel Dancer / Still pictures

The currents of time-gobbling turbo-capitalism are at the moment threatening to sweep us away as a species if we do not find a way of swimming against them. It is perhaps in their ecological consequences that this is felt most sharply. The unsustainable pace of development is based on the concept of ‘mining’ natural resources. Mining is quicker and provides bigger yields than the more careful process of sustainable cultivation. The consequences: collapsing fisheries, falling water tables, shrinking forests, eroding soils, dying lakes, crop-withering heat waves and species extinction. Mining transforms renewable resources into non-renewable ones.

A clear example can be seen in the sophisticated and wasteful trawler fleets that have so laid waste to the world’s fish stocks that 13 out of the world’s leading 15 fisheries are now in decline. More than a third of the global catch is simply dumped, dead, back into the ocean.4 The way we use, and misuse, water provides plenty of other examples. The worldwide consumption of water has more than tripled since 1950. From the US Great Plains to the Punjab, aquifers have been drained to feed industrial agriculture and its unsustainable yields. In 1995, 92 per cent of the world had relative sufficiency in water, but this is projected to decline to 58 per cent by 2050, when two billion people will be living in a situation of water scarcity.5 Conflict over water rights, particularly where it involves trans-border rivers, is already acute and likely to increase.
Demand for paper has gone up more than sixfold since 1950. The use of lumber has doubled, firewood tripled, adding to the pressure to ‘mine’ (ie log unsustainably) forests worldwide: ‘Another 10 per cent of the world’s forests may be lost by 2050. Almost all the forests in Africa and China may be wiped out. There is a danger of severe loss in Southeast Asia and South America. Old undisturbed forest is in decline almost everywhere.’5

Soil erosion and exhaustion are threatening our ability to produce food. Biodiversity is being lost. Thousands of species are pushed over the edge every year as habitat is gobbled up by development. And while population growth is a factor, the global economy is growing faster (in many places much faster) than population.

Turbo-capitalism is highly energy-intensive. Worldwide energy use is expected to rise 46 per cent by 2010. In places like California the energy grid is so over-stretched that rolling ‘blackouts’ have become commonplace. The highest energy use is in the industrial North, where economies gobble up more than four or five times the energy used in the South. Most of the growth in future will come from a further expansion in the use of fossil fuels.

What does this heavy energy use sustain? The world automobile fleet continues to grow, with its attendant problems of pollution and congestion, particularly in places like China and India. Since 1950 the number of people per car has dropped fourfold. As the hurry-up lifestyle is exported, the US-based fast-food industry is growing at a phenomenal rate. The top-ten chains now operate over 100,000 outlets around the world. There are predicted to be 1.6 billion cell-phone users by 2005 with internet access also showing spectacular growth.6

All of this indicates the spread of the sped-up lifestyle turbo-capitalism needs for the quick turn- over of capital. Its global ‘utopian’ vision is predicated on our ability to drive to the nearest Taco Bell as we chat on our cell phones. The US, with only 6 per cent of the world’s population, consumes about 30 per cent of global resources: extending its unsustainable lifestyle to the rest of the world is a deeply malevolent fantasy.

That is not the full extent of the problem, either. There are many signs that the speed of turbo-capitalism is causing a profound cultural and political disorientation. You can see it in the spate of book titles announcing the end of almost everything: The End of Democracy, The End of History, The End of Sex, The End of the Family, The End of God, The End of Equality, The End of Affluence. Other titles announce the ‘death’ of everything else, from Modernity or the Nation-State to Ageing, Work and – perhaps most tellingly of all – Certainty. Since most of these things haven’t actually ‘ended’ or ‘died’, what they speak to is a rapid, disorienting form of change. People no longer feel the firm ground of institutions or even solid belief-systems beneath their feet. The family, a secure job, public services, personal safety, even meaning itself are all thrown up in the air by turbo-capitalism and its disposable, ‘post-modern’ culture.

Rushing to grow up: a young consumer with a Barbie doll in a Hong Kong toy store.
Julio Etchart / Still pictures

Opposition can easily be undermined when it is shaped more by reaction than by transcendence. An increasingly desperate fundamentalism clings to repressive old certainties in the face of the constant uprooting of beliefs and ways of life. The Left is slow to abandon the industrial dream-turned-nightmare and clings to a politics of ghettoized ‘identities’.

The gravest danger lies in trying to out-race turbo-capitalism. A failure of state socialism was its attempt, and its inability, to keep up with the glitz and the goodies, the missiles and the Mercedes, of its opponent. What we need to put forward is an alternative that is happy to ‘fall behind’, that measures life by slow quality, not fast quantity. It won’t be easy. As a species we have never really chosen to slow down. The habits of speed are deeply ingrained in all our psyches – particularly the urban ones. The love of the rush is real enough. But the stakes are also pretty high. The iconoclastic scientist Stephen Jay Gould points out with wry wit: ‘If we continue to follow the acceleration of human technological time so that we end in the black hole of oblivion, the earth and its bacteria will only smile at us as a passing evolutionary folly.’7

There needs to be a playfulness in our resistance to the time-gobblers. A clear refusal, a kind of ‘time guerrilla warfare’. After all, whose time is this any way? The writer Douglas Adams caught the flavour of refusal: ‘I love deadlines. I love the sound of them as they whoosh by.’ The Cuban writer Paul Lafargue, in his pamphlet The Right To Be Lazy, opposed the preachers of work-dogma and called for a three-hour working day. And that was back in 1880. Dance, festival, contemplation, laughter, riot, love, are all part of a nascent culture of ‘go-slow’ we must surely embrace. A conscious movement to slow down everyday life is starting to take hold – see the ‘slow-activism’ directory in this issue. After all, the world’s fastest animal, the cheetah, lives for just 15 years, while the lugubrious tortoise can keep going for 150.

There is an old sundial in an overgrown garden I know well. It says on its face: ‘Measure only the hours that are serene.’ A tall order. But this too has to be part of our resistance. For what we do with our time is in the end what we do with our lives.

1 Jeremy Rifkin, Time Wars, Henry Holt, New York, 1987.
2 David Landes, Revolution in Time, Harvard University Press, 1983.
3 James Gleick, Faster: the Acceleration of Almost Everything, Vintage Press, New York, 1999.
4 Lester Brown, ‘The Acceleration of History’ in State of the World 1996, Worldwatch Institute, Washington.
5 Ian Pearson, The Atlas of the Future, Routledge, London, 1998.
6 Newsweek, 7 August 2000.
7 Stephen Jay Gould, ‘Scale Models’ Forbes ASAP, 30 November 1998.

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New Internationalist issue 343 magazine cover This article is from the March 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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