Take away the death, the sickness and the financial hardship and who wouldn’t want to slow down, asks Victoria White
The end of further lockdown restrictions on Monday, June 29, will see many of us moving back up to speed from a slower pace of life.
I DON’T want to speed up again. It’s a common complaint, as we face on Monday the almost-complete end of lockdown, though for the most part it’s a complaint quietly made.
More than 1,700 lives have been lost and a quarter of all businesses have had to close for an extended period. Some will never reopen.
Many who are jobless now will never get their jobs back.
Many people have suffered appalling loneliness and stress, particularly those living alone.
There is a less told story, however, about the people who loved the lockdown.
An Irish Times request for lockdown stories this week elicited eight positive stories and no negative ones. On May 18 in this newspaper, Suzanne Harrington put it better than anyone when she asked who would want “normal life” back if it involved, “stressful commutes, then paying strangers huge amounts to spend the day with our tiny children as we spend the day elsewhere earning the money to pay them, and to pay for our overpriced housing and our overpriced lives, as we create wealth for others.” We have had an opportunity to see what a slowed-down life is like and many of us loved it.
Take away the death, the sickness and the financial hardship and who wouldn’t want to slow down?
We can’t have the well-being without the speed, goes the argument. Yes we can. As Harrington says, the people who are telling you that you have to go back to your old ways are the people who stand to profit from it.
These same people have kept their volume so high for the last few decades that in the developed world, we have not been able to hear ourselves think.
Suddenly, there was quiet. We thought.
Though Michael O’Leary’s peppy advertisements for flights to the Med are enticing, I get the feeling a good few of us also hear the trap opening: run, borrow, spend, collapse. A lot of us have found out we don’t need to do that to feel good about ourselves.
That’s not surprising as our modern lives are a temporary aberration from the “steady state” in which human societies have lived for most of time.
That “Great Acceleration” really took off in 1900, according to an important new book by Oxford geographer, Danny Dorling, “Slowdown: The End of the Great Acceleration - and why it’s good for the planet, the economy and our lives” which is available in print and to download from Yale University Press.
He says the Great Acceleration was coming to an end long before Covid-19. A lot of the noise capitalism was making was an attempt to distract us from that truth and a lot of the political upheaval in the US, the UK and elsewhere results from a failure to come to terms with The Great Slowdown.
Though he sees the beginnings of the Great Acceleration in Northern Europe around 1656, it took off from 1900 as people in many parts of the world “migrated to cities, became taller and cleaner, better educated - but perhaps greedier”. One of his central arguments is that disruption causes a high birth rate because parents fear their children will die and they need their help to survive themselves. British colonialism was thus a great accelerator and their invasions disrupted entire societies some of which later suffered swingeing cuts in IMF programmes in the 20th century. He considers the falling birth rate throughout the developing world as a symptom of normalisation and calls it “The Great Slowdown”. With the Great Famine in 1845 - which Dorling calls “the single most momentous demographic event in the history of the British Isles since the Black Death” - Ireland suffered a different sort of disruption under British “laissez-faire” expansionism.
I would argue that our relationship with fertility ever since has had far more to do with The Famine than with the Catholic Church. Does anyone really believe that many Irish people were so innocent that big families were forced on them by the lack of contraception?
No. They were living in an empty country, the population of which had halved in nearly-living memory and it was our instinct to repopulate.
The orgy of the Celtic Tiger was a ritual to end The Famine and we kept having more babies than any other people in Europe despite being richer and better educated. That’s ending now.
Our birth rate has plummeted by a quarter since the Celtic Tiger era and now stands below the replacement rate at 1.8 children per woman.
To be frank, I love a country with lots of babies in it but Dorling argues convincingly that the global slowdown in population increase is a symptom of global development. His graphs show just how fast the increase in global population is slowing down, with the global birth rate now standing at 2.4 children per woman, with the biggest factor in this slowdown being women’s increased access to education.
Some of the latest projections for increase in world population are up to 3bn short of UN projections by 2100, at 8bn. One noted demographer, who was predicting 15bn people by 2030 in the 1970s, now predicts the population will peak at 8bn in 2040 and then decline.
That’s just babies. As Dorling comments, the global environmental crisis has up to now been caused, not so much by the number of people on the planet as by the resource-heavy life-style of the rich world. That’s us. He sees that life-style slowing down as innovation inevitably stalls because nothing can go on forever.
Perhaps there are signs of that slow down here already: our kids listen to the same music we listened to; many shopping centres, notably the massive Dundrum Town Centre, were already seeing declining profits before Covid-19; house prices were down nearly 20% from their peak before Covid-19 and are unlikely to surge again.
Despite this, we wonder if our kids will ever be able to afford a decent home. Both we and they know they are unlikely to be wealthier than us, while we were mostly far wealthier than our parents.
This realisation is causing political shocks all over the developed world but if slowdown is properly managed, it’s alright for us to be “steady”. It’s necessary, on a global level, to avoid our destruction.
Dorling sees this slowing and steadying world as wholly possible because it is happening anyway. The necessary corrective is redistribution and that includes managed migration to make up for the falling birth rate. The most equal countries are the steadiest. Class, writes Dorling, is a way of dealing with scarcity.
Smaller families, fewer possessions, and far fewer flights ... Dorling sees our lifestyle slowing down on a global scale. He suggests we avoid environmental disaster by “thoughtfully” accelerating the current economic slowdown, while accelerating redistribution.
I hope that when the Green Party’s votes are counted tomorrow, the members will have voted to help steer in this country what Dorling calls “the end of capitalism”.