Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Slowing down fast lives

Until recently, I used to like to always be on the move. I would try to do as many things as possible in a day...coffee with a friend at eight am...work from nine am to six pm...play football from six to eight..shower and dinner until nine-thirty...beer at ABC until eleven...Fleetwood after that...

I would like to think, though, that what I was indulging in was innocent and not materialistic, but rather just because I wanted (and I still do) to spend my time with as many people as possible. But viewed differently, maybe I just wasn't spending enough time with those that really mattered to me. Things have changed over the past couple of years. I feel as if this experiment-turned-way-of-being has made me more aware of everything around me, made me more present, made me happier.

Then again, I see the same sort of attention deficit all around in this culture. But this deficit, this lack of appreciation, is one that has significant negative ramifications on those around us now, and those far away from us, in space and in time. We are leading fast lives, now, as Professor Rob Nixon calls them, fast lives that are "outsourcing the costs" to the "never-will-haves" and future generations.

Over the past couple of days, I was fortunate to talk to, and listen to, Rob Nixon, the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin. (Now that's an honorific title if there ever was one.) He presented the Lora Heberle Lecture of the year (with Amrita winning the Heberle Award for Outstanding Achievement in Critical Writing!), and titled his talk, "Slow Violence and The Environmentalism of the Poor"...
In an age that venerates the instant and the spectacular, how can writers turn slow-moving environmental calamities into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment? What are the imaginative and strategic challenges of exposing the forces of slow violence that inflict incremental environmental damage? This talk connects an analysis of slow violence to a vision of sustainable security with a focus on activism in the global South.
I will write more about what Professor Nixon talked about over the next few days, but a particular paradox of time struck me. Our ever quickening lives, filled with minutiae, upward mobility, tweets, and instant Youtube videos on our iPhones are causing large-scale, but slow violence. This is violence and injustice that manifests itself in chemically-caused cancers, climate change, hypoxic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, the leaching of toxic material into groundwater and land from landfills. I instantly think of the incinerator at the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant when I hear the word slow. Click on the image below and just look at the eerily slow effluent being emitted from the smokestacks.


Much of my thinking for the past two years has been about time and its dimensions--about legacy, about appreciation of the present, about concern for the future. But, as Professor Nixon pointed out, the atrocities that are being committed suffer from the "drama deficit" of being incremental and slowly evolving. This is in contrast to other events such as bomb blasts and exploding oil rigs, violent and dramatic acts that are bounded in time.

It is time to slow down.

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