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Slow Living: A Paradise Lost?

Do you frequently feel rushed? See the appeal of the Slow Movement? You are not alone.

A harried White Rabbit from Carroll and Tenniel’s Nursery Alice (London: Macmillan, 1890), digitised by the British Library.

To give an example from just one country in the world – a country that, incidentally, scores high in the happiness indexes: the Dutch, too, live a stressful life. Their national institute for social research reports that they have difficulty combining work, care, education and leisure. Many always feel behind schedule.

When under such pressure, it is not uncommon to envy one’s ancestors’ slower-paced lifestyle. Because this is often said: that the culprit of our stress is the acceleration of modern life. Before the arrival of smartphones, cars and steam engines, of highly regimented work hours and the capitalist fear of wasting our time, we kept a considerably lower pace. And even if we are aware that the trade-offs of going back in time may include having a more repetitive job, fewer possessions, fewer modern conveniences and a more limited social circle, we sometimes crave that old-life simplicity.

But has stress really become normalised only recently? I try to answer this question in an article for web magazine The Low Countries. The article looks at the diaries of four travellers from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Based on my research into these and related texts, I argue that many people were in fact already anxious about their own efficiency even before the Industrial Revolution. They had ambitious schedules and constantly felt they needed to catch up with their own rushed lives. Interested? Please read on on The Low Countries.

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Coffee cups: a ‘circular economy’

It’s labour day! I think you may at least have earned a cup of coffee by now.

My employer organised a Sustainability Week this year. At the start of the week, I received the following cheerful message:

The University offers a discount of 20p per drink to anyone who brings their own reusable mug […]

Throughout Sustainability Week you can […] pick up your own reusable cup from any University or SU cafe, or from the Zero Waste Shop in the Students’ Union, for only £5 (£6 for a large).

I’ll leave aside for the moment the fact that my employer is trying to seduce me to hand some of my hard-earned wages straight back over to them.

But we can recognise in this e-mail a message so many companies are sending us these days. A message which performs a clever bit of PR. We are invited to feel good about replacing our disposable cups with a lasting one. But who was it who gave us the disposable cup to begin with?

Alanthebox via Wikimedia Commons.

Within the span of only a few years, coffee joints across Britain and in other rich countries have replaced ceramic drinking ware with paper and plastic cups. Not just for take-away orders, as had been the case for much longer,* but for customers who ‘sit in’ as well.

When travelling to see family for Christmas this winter, hands frozen, I had difficulty finding a place where I could have a nice sit-down to the tinkle of a warm cup of cappuccino on its saucer, instead of a hasty bite in a soggy piece of cardboard. There was one such place left in the entire station: a commiserating passer-by pointed it out to me as she saw me protesting at another coffee counter.

The sensual pleasures of hot beverages aside – and they are of eminent importance – there is also an ecological side to this story, not to mention the economic side.

As to the ecological side, my employer’s message itself already informed me of the following:

Of the 2.5 billion single-use cups used in the UK every year, only 1% are recycled.

And the makers of my own reusable travel mug (which I of course speedily procured) explain how I am helping to remedy this:

The outer thermal insulation layer of [the reusable cup] is made from used paper coffee cups. Every one of us throws away 350 paper coffee cups each year on average. By switching to [this reusable cup] you save these from landfill and contribute directly to the recycling of the used coffee cups that slip through the net. (company website)

And so, I am now the proud owner of

One great cup made from 6 rubbish ones. (product leaflet)

It is these and similar data which not only the sellers of travel mugs use (and I don’t blame them, in as far as they operate independently from the coffee sellers), but the PR-departments of cafés bombard us with when urging us to carry around our own durable cups. We must be very bad people do be doing this to our planet (to be sure, I think we are – but that’s stuff for another post).

Yet such durable cups form a solution to a problem that was never there to begin with. Or rather: they form a solution to a problem that was created only recently by the coffee companies themselves, and in full awareness of creating it; the same coffee companies who are now making us feel guilty for the paper cups they introduced.

For of course, coffee bars’ own old-school ceramic cups had no larger ecological footprint than the ones we now carry around with us. On the contrary: professional whiteware lasts far longer than the average plastic or bamboo travel cup you buy on the high street.

So let us move on from the ecological story to the economic one:

If Adam Smith were still alive, he might have said: what we see here is yet another marvellous example of how economic incentives – getting 20p off your coffee – stimulates moral behaviour and benefits society as a whole.

Karl Marx, on the other (quite visible) hand, might call it yet another marvellous example of the owners of large companies shifting the responsibility for their resource depletion onto the individual consumer and worker (and most of us are both).

Now Adam Smith was a clever guy, but he does not seem to always have been very precise in describing where the benefits go. Not only is it now the customers’ responsibility to buy a cup, previous to visiting a coffee joint; they also have to carry it around in their bags (leaky and all) and do the cleaning (of their bags, too), a cleaning which is both economically and ecologically less efficient than professional cafés can do it.

Here it may be good to remind ourselves that labour performed in rich countries makes up the largest part of the cost of anything we buy, far greater than coffee beans or hot milk. Therefore, companies can save a fair bit of money through such measures. What this also means, is that the costly labour which is now performed for free by coffee consumers, would otherwise have provided jobs for people.

All this while not so long ago, it used to be a customer’s reasonable expectation that a café would take care of all this. What business are cafés in, if not that of bringing us cups of coffee? So, to look at it in terms of money instead of work: half the product that we used to get when we gave two pounds to a coffee seller, is now provided by ourselves. Instead of coffee and cup, we now just get coffee. We only still get half our money’s worth.

And all it took for coffee companies to convince us to donate them a pound every time we buy a hot drink, was a few years of making us drink from paper cups, plus some clever guilt-tripping.

We are a forgetful people.

 

* though not always! A century or so ago, people would bring their own vessels to filling points. Of course, those vessels were not filled with American barista coffee, but with water, soup, or potatoes.

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Killing time with cauliflowers

I have been reading essays by the nineteenth-century writer Vernon Lee. In some of these essays, the reader gets the uncanny sensation that Vernon Lee, despite dying back in 1935, knew all about TV shows and Instagram.

Nicolas Raymond, Green cauliflower, CC-BY-3.0.

I am standing on a railway platform. Waiting for the train to arrive, I look around me and see people absorbed in their screens. This image, so familiar to many now, helps us understand what Lee was on about when she wrote:

The fear of boredom […] encumbers the world with rubbish, and exhibitions of pictures, publishers’ announcements, lecture syllabuses, schemes of charitable societies, are pattern books of such litter. The world, for many people […] is like a painter’s garret, where some half-daubed canvas, eleven feet by five, hides […] the Venus in the corner, and blocks the charming tree-tops, gables, and distant meadows through the window.

Art, literature, and philanthropy are notoriously expressions no longer of men’s and women’s thoughts and feelings, but of their dread of finding themselves without thoughts to think or feelings to feel.

That’s easy: the daubing artists and performers of Lee’s day are the celebrities of today – we want to know what they get up to – and her publishers’ announcements and lecture syllabuses are our click-bait – we like to be distracted, and hate to miss the talk of the day.

There’s much more to Lee’s essay, however. It is not just a critique of mindless consumption. It is also a critique of mindless production: of plodding on unthinkingly, or under the powerful bane of status anxiety. She continues:

So-called practical persons know this, and despise such employments [bored art – or bored web browsing] as frivolous […]. But are they not also, to a great extent, frightened of themselves and running away from boredom? See your well-to-do weighty man of forty-five or fifty, merchant, or soldier, or civil servant; the same who thanks God he is no idler. Does he really require more money? Is he more really useful as a colonel than as a major, in a wig or cocked hat than out of it? Is he not shuffling money from one heap into another, making rules and regulations for others to unmake, preparing for future restless idlers the only useful work which restless idleness can do, the carting away of their predecessor’s litter?

Stevepb, Coins, CC-0.

In short, this work, too, though ‘practical’ and ‘productive’, is undertaken ‘to kill time, at best to safeguard one’s dignity’.

So what’s with the rush, the frenzied activity?

The quick methods, the rapid worker, the cheap object quickly replaced by a cheaper – these we honour; we want the last new thing, and have no time to get to love our properties, bodily and spiritual.

According to Vernon Lee, still writing in the 1890s, this emphasis on churning out cheap products fast creates self-asserting and aggressive people. And this is where the cauliflowers enter her essay:

Such persons cultivate themselves, indeed, but as fruit and vegetables for the market, and, with good luck and trouble, possibly primeurs: concentrate every means, chemical manure and sunshine, and quick! each still hard pear or greenish cauliflower into the packing-case, the shavings and sawdust, for export!

All effort revolves around tangible products, concrete deliverables:

So long as this be placed on the stall where it courts inspection, what matter how empty and exhausted the soul which has grown it?

Vernon Lee’s critique sounds familiar. Stripped of its uplifting elegance, it is printed in our newspapers. It is murmured at birthday parties. And do we not often think it ourselves?

Every period in history, it seems, has its critics of mindless production and consumption. Each epoch, complaints about the social rat race are renewed, and the boredom is deplored that masquerades as meaningful activity.

By quoting Lee’s essay, however, I do not want to say that we got it really bad this time round. Nor that the issues raised by Lee are of all times and therefore inconsequential, and we should stop sulking.

Rather, I want to say that she gives funny and subtle expression to a set of structural issues that almost all of us grapple with in our lives, to do with stress, status and self-worth, with an information overload and with the imperative to work. She also offers us the foundations of a solution. But for that, you will need to find the leisure to read the entire essay ‘About Leisure’.

Or study this painting:

Vincenzo Catena, Saint Hieronymus (early 16th century). Now in the National Gallery, London, no. NG694. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

The quotes are from Vernon Lee’s essay ‘About Leisure’, published first in 1897, in Limbo and Other Essays.

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How to sell a sad thing

Sad things can be funny. But sad. But funny.

Here’s something spotted a while back by my partner. A bag of peanuts containing peanuts…

… as well as…

… the same volume of air.

Then we found this unbelievably cool DIY mural in a shopping centre:

… which made me worry a little about the people who wrote it.

And a little later, I ran into a street scene in our eminently postindustrial city, equally to do with the world of buying and selling:

It’s always good to assure potential visitors of Sheffield that, whatever we may look like from the outside, we do have Total Quality Within.

 

Photos taken by JHMS.

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Labour day: a fairy tale

Once upon a time, in a country across the sea, there was a king. The king was in a bad state, because all the money that he made from selling bread to his subjects was spent on his subjects’ wages, so that there was no money left on Sunday for himself and his ministers to eat raspberry cake. On this particular day, all they could afford was plain cake, and when the young heir, who had been taking tea in the nursery, entered the great hall and asked: ‘Daddy, where are the rahbries in my cake?’, the king’s heart broke in two.

So the king gathered his ministers, and the first minister said: ‘sell more bread’, but there was only so much grain the king’s farmers could grow in a week, and only so much flour his millers could grind, and bread his bakers could bake. Then the second minister spoke, and he said: ‘stop paying wages to the people’, but the king had tried that, and noticed that the people had stopped buying his bread. Besides, there had been a lot of shouting in front of his palace and his roses had been trampled on; in short, the whole business had been very unpleasant. But then two new ministers stepped forward. They had only just arrived at the court, but the king had heard they had greatly helped out a befriended head of state with his wardrobe.

The two ministers stepped forward and announced they could take away all the king’s worries. All he had to do was run a lottery. Everyone who worked for him would enter the lottery: their ticket came instead of their wages. Each Sunday, the king would have to draw a winner and that winner would receive a fifty-fold weekly wage and could loaf about for an entire year if they so chose.

So that evening the king issued lottery tickets, and everything worked splendidly. The whole week long, his subjects worked away diligently, and the king still saved ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine weekly wages in one week. The winner of the lottery came to the palace – but rather than trample on the king’s roses, he shook hands with him. Meanwhile, the rest of the people mustered fresh courage for the following week’s lottery.

And everyone in the kingdom lived happily but on average very shortly.

 

The drawing is by Queen Victoria, of her son Albert Edward (1843), and now in the UK Royal Collection RCIN 980062 (reproduction from Wikimedia Commons). Unnecessary to add that Albert Edward was not the prince in the fairy tale; Victoria’s drawing is used purely because it offers such a beautiful illustration to the story.

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The forefathers of our populists

Populist politicians are nothing new. And I am not talking about the 1930s. Populists have existed since the beginning of representative democracy, if not longer. This was brought home to me once more as I was reading a story from the nineteenth century.

The story is from the book Familie en kennissen, ‘family and acquaintances’. It was written by one of the few historical Dutch authors who are still read in schools today: Piet Paaltjens. Piet Paaltjens is famous for his ironic verse. But under a different name, the same author – a vicar in everyday life – also wrote sentimental tales in the accessible style of Hans Christian Andersen. His name: François HaverSchmidt. His stories have long been out of print, so I was happy some years ago to stumble on a second-hand copy.

This story, that shows so presagiously the workings of populism, is about two men who share the same house: a cobbler, who lives in the basement; and the owner, a man of independent means who dabbles in poetry. He lets the basement to the cobbler, and occupies the rest of the house himself. He is known throughout country to be a ‘great man’.

Illustration by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht for the third edition (1893). http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/have010fami01_01_0004.php

In 1893, the story was illustrated by Jan Hoynck van Papendrecht.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is primarily great for his great inheritance and his great political acumen. After a period of liberal hospitality and generosity towards established leaders of the national Church, he lands in a powerful ecclesiastic position. Next on his list is parliament.

First and foremost, [the great man] was great in his popularity. He was friendliness personified towards all. He not only lifted his hat for every unknown lady with a sweet face, but he even shook hands with all kinds of ordinary folk, stroked the children on the street under the chin – sometimes by accident also their nannies – and greeted the wharf loafers and layabouts by name. ‘They are people too,’ the great man used to say, ‘and we are all children of the same big family.’

On the day he is elected as a member of parliament,

several grocers put out their flags; he had stolen their hearts by making familiar conversation with them on their doorsteps. One of them had even had the text ‘the man of the people’ pasted on his banner in gold paper letters.

Yet men of the people are often better at telling the people what to think, than at listening to the people.

Not long after, one man from the ‘people’, a small cobbler […], was in The Hague, where he had a petition to make […] in the interest of his sister’s children, and on that occasion, [near parliament,] he met the representative of the people, who was in the company of several distinguished gentlemen. At first, he thought that the gentleman looked him sharply in the face, but he must have been mistaken, for one moment later the gentleman passed him at an inch’s distance, engaged in busy conversation and without even the slightest greeting.

It does not become clear in the story what political programme the great man adheres to, but it does not matter much either. His voters do not choose him on the basis of his ideas – they do not choose him on the basis of the way he proposes to solve their problems – but because they believe he embodies ‘the people’. His political programme can be very flexible therefore. And once he is elected, he no longer needs to acknowledge individual members of the people, or attempt to solve their problems.

Cover of the edition digitised by the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren. http://www.dbnl.org/tekst/have010fami01_01/

Quotations are from ‘Een groot man en een goed man’, on p. 14 of the third edition of Familie en kennissen (Schiedam, 1894)

Images are from the edition available in the Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren.

 

 

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Christmas reading: The Bottom Billion

This Christmas, I finally got around to reading a book that shook the world of international development almost ten years ago: The Bottom Billion, based on research by Paul Collier plus a host of collaborators.

Paul Collier argues that instead of seeing poverty as the problem of the 5 billion people who live in developing countries, that is, countries that are substantially poorer than for instance the United Stated, South Korea or Luxembourg, we should focus on the 1 billion people living in the poorest countries in the world.

The book offers a number of strategies that the international community can follow to tighten the growing gap between the 5 billion that will be ok, and the 1 billion than might not be. These strategies are designed to curb the existing problems the bottom-billion countries suffer from: unceasing military conflict; the possession of natural resources, such as oil, which profits are spoiling the reliability of their politicians and the soundness of their economical investments; the absence of infrastructures through which they can reach potential markets for their products; and bad economic policies and bad governance.

Much of the book’s research was convincing to me. An important limitation, however, seems to be its exclusive focus on countries-as-a-whole. Problems are identified as residing in national governments; solutions in the relations between those national governments (‘international relations’), and especially in interventions by the wealthiest states, e.g. the G8 or, nowadays, the G20.

To be fair, this book is aimed at readers living in those wealthy countries (referred to in the book as ‘we’). So the focus on international relations is not altogether surprising. Still, the book makes the assumption that as soon as the economies of the bottom-billion countries will take off, everyone in those countries will sufficiently benefit from this. In other words: as soon as state-level statistics will be all right, everyone in those states will be all right.

Collier leaves you curious about the dynamics within the countries at risk of ‘falling behind’. What happens between their citizens and their national and local governments? Can we feel reassured, once the national government of a bottom-billion country has secured a good tax income? How will the grown wealth of the country as a whole, reach all parts of the population? This bottom billion that we should be concerned about – is that the entire populations of the 58 (mostly small) countries that he mentions? Or is it, rather, large chunks of a far greater number of countries, including huge countries like India and Mexico?

One of the global game-changers over the past years has been the fact that wealth disparities between countries have for the first time since many centuries been falling. At the same time, however, inequality among citizens within countries has in many countries been on the rise since the 1980s, and especially since the crisis of 2008. For this reason, I would have liked to hear more about intra-national politics in Collier’s book.

Another question raised by the book’s emphasis on economic growth is the question whether the economy of a country can ever be big enough, or whether it will always need to grow further. Will the bottom-billion countries have to grow until the people in them will have reached a certain living standard? Or until they have reached a nominal income comparable to the wealthier countries? Will it help if the growth of the wealthy countries slows down (which has happened after 2008)? Or is the global aim everlasting growth? But then again, is this even theoretically possible, considering the limited amount of soil and other natural resources on the planet? Without giving his readers a rough idea about where these issues fit in with his development theory, some important parts of his story remain unconvincing.

Still, I was pleased to see that Collier’s ideas have not been standing still since the publication of The Bottom Billion. Whereas in the book he writes a little derisively about ‘sustainable’ or ‘pro-poor growth’, in his later popular publications he is not afraid to speak of ‘inclusive’ and even ‘sustainable growth’.dsc04609 One cruel irony that I cannot resist sharing: have a look at the banner which the publisher has placed right across the cover image of a child soldier.

Two critiques of Collier’s book that raise similar points as I have tried to do here, and which come from specialists in the field, are by A. Sumner and Michael Lipton.