What do sex, journalism, architecture and religion have in common? They’ve all recently been absorbed by the Slow Movement. With uncharacteristic rapidity, the movement has expanded beyond food, fashion and travel over the last decade – and it isn’t just about literally slowing down. As the ‘slow’ prefix grows increasingly ubiquitous, the question of what it actually means is becoming harder to answer.
The Ancient Greeks had two words to talk about time. Chronos is clock time, measured in seconds, minutes and hours. It means much the same as the word ‘time’ does now. Kairos, on the other hand, is a trickier, more seductive concept. It is time measured qualitatively, a moment of indeterminate duration in which an event of significance happens. Kairos is often used to describe moments of perfection, where one briefly steps outside of the passage of time. The early proponents of the Slow Movement sought to reintroduce kairos to the world, suggesting that a hasty, meticulously-planned life forecloses the possibility of these moments of perfection.
In typically Greek fashion, both were personified. Chronos was a wizened old man carrying a scythe and an hourglass, a forerunner to the Grim Reaper. Kairos was a handsome young man with wings at his heels, the back of his head shaved so that no one could grab his hair and hold him back. Once the opportunity of a perfect moment has passed you by, it’s gone forever.
Carlo Petrini, an Italian journalist, launched the Slow Food movement in 1986 as a protest against all that is mass-produced and unethical in food. If Petrini is the father of the Slow Movement, then Canadian journalist Carl Honoré is its midwife. His 2004 book In Praise of Slow explored the growing, organised backlash against fast living. “Slow doesn’t mean doing everything at a snail’s pace,” he explains. “It means doing everything at the right speed. That implies quality over quantity; real and meaningful human connections; being present and in the moment.”
Practically speaking, the ‘slow’ prefix is not just a change of pace but also attention paid to processes, ensuring they are ethically and ecologically sound. Slow food and fashion is locally sourced, with profits going back into the community. Slow travellers leave no environmental trace, and seek to interact meaningfully with local people.
Why has the Slow Movement struck a chord with so many? US research shows that we have, on average, five hours more free time per week than we did thirty years ago, but we feel busier than ever. Many urbanites’ free time is now scheduled just as rigorously as their professional lives, divided between social obligations, exercise and the time-sink of the internet. At work the drive to speed up is overpowering – ever-advancing technology means we can work almost anywhere, and rarely have an excuse to be offline. Klaus Schwab, president of the World Economic Forum, concluded that “we are moving from a world in which the big eat the small to one in which the fast eat the slow.” Academics now speak of ‘time-poverty’ as a modern malaise. The physical result is that we no longer use our free time for necessary rest. But there’s a deeper toll: racing through life distracts us from asking big questions about ourselves: am I happy? Is my life how I want it to be?
So perhaps it’s no surprise that the considered, responsible lifestyle offered by the Slow Movement, as well as the word ‘slow’ itself, has proven such a draw. The principle has now been applied to a dizzying diversity of fields. Slow Medicine is a rallying point to promote alternative therapies, medical conservatism and natural death movements. Slow Education seeks to deprioritise grades and exams, instead helping children learn how to learn. Slow Parenting advises against over-managing your children’s time, instead giving them time to be bored, to explore and self-discover. Honoré is in on that one too, his first book after In Praise of Slow was subtitled ‘Rescuing our children from the culture of hyper-parenting’. While the applications of these ideologies vary, they share a desire to concentrate on the process, rather than the final outcome.
One of the more curious permutations of the Slow Movement is Slow TV. Launched by the Norwegian Broadcasting Company in 2009, these programmes can last up to twelve hours uninterrupted, showing a slow process in its entirety. Previous episodes have followed a train from Bergen to Oslo, watched logs burning on a fire, or traced the knitting process ‘from sheep to sweater’. One episode, charting a cruise ship’s 134-hour journey up the country’s west coast, was watched by more than half the population of Norway. Viewers can engage on any level, focusing meditatively on the slow progress or having the show on in the background. The success translates, too: Netflix and Amazon Prime have recently acquired Slow shows, while BBC Four’s All Aboard! The Country Bus, which showed two hours of a bus trundling around the Yorkshire Dales, was watched by almost a million Brits.
Though they all bear the ‘Slow’ moniker, these movements largely operate independently. One organisation trying to bring them all together is Cittaslow, which promotes a holistic Slow Life. Towns may apply to be Slow Cities if they meet 72 environmental and infrastructural requirements, which generally aim to make places friendly, community-orientated and ecologically proactive. The Cittaslow label marks a city as a space which prioritises its residents’ happiness over progress for progress’ sake, and may boost tourism. There are currently 228 Slow Cities internationally, five of which are in the UK: Aylsham, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Llangollen, Mold and Perth.
Attractive as it may seem, the Slow Movement is not without its detractors. Cittaslow has been challenged as a top-down organisation masquerading as a grassroots movement, while its policy that only towns with fewer than 50,000 residents can qualify may dissuade bigger cities – often those most in need of slow principles – from getting involved.
If the Slow Movement wishes to have universal appeal, it needs to present itself as an affordable alternative. Buying food from farmer’s markets is invariably pricier than supermarkets, while ethical fashion often fetches eye-watering prices. Slow life pulls in the opposite direction to the dominant Western principle of market expansion (faster, cheaper, more), and it remains to be seen whether the two can co-exist. Living Slow in the West will always involve a tricky compromise, sometimes even an ironic paradox (watch Honoré breathlessly rush through the details of Slow in a 17-minute TED talk). It’s worth noting that while we struggle to live slowly in a fast world, many of the movement’s principles – closer interpersonal ties, a slower way of life, locally-sourced food – have long been realities across much of the developing world.
Given its popularity, it’s also inevitable that the ‘slow’ label has been co-opted by big business. If you visit the website of The World Institute of Slowness, which claims to be a think tank, you’ll quickly see links to SlowConsulting® and SlowBrands – to ‘help you zig when the world zags and build real, lasting equity.’ There’s something uncomfortable, albeit unsurprising, about a lifestyle movement that promotes wellbeing used to make money. There’s a danger that ‘slow’ will become little more than another marketing buzzword. Maybe this has already happened.
In its unadulterated form, the Slow Movement is about a desire for connection. Connection to people, to places, to food, to the world around us. It can be a tonic for increasingly atomised urban living. But many of its principles – patience, quality over quantity, ethical responsibility – are just common sense, perhaps forgotten in the breakneck passage of life. Some may be comforted to know there are many others out there fighting the same battles, or may feel enlightened by these simple mantras. But none of this is new information. Have we forgotten the tortoise and the hare?
image courtesy of medium.com/@kristw/how-long-could-the-hare-in-the-tortoise-and-the-hare-sleep-fe82a36bc644