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Slow is beautiful

I went to my local mall yesterday for a coffee and some food to go: Indian, Italian, Chinese. The place was pretty quiet. Some shops had closed. A few new ones had opened. Fewer people milling about. Fewer tables in the food court, not all occupied.

The food sellers tried to upsell me and I went along. Dress was pretty casual. Yes, it’s summer but there was a different vibe. I asked about retail traffic, the walk-throughs. It was on the way up, a bit, I was told, after the lockdown.

The economy has slowed – mostly. Many of the exceptions are high tech. Those crafty billionaires who bet on a different future and nailed it. Young guys like the Shopify crew – new Canadian icons. The already branded who have diversified: actors, athletes, entertainers. The top-of-the-shop always have options.

Resource extraction has slowed. Fewer smokestacks popping up in most places – the “dark satanic mills in the poem” by William Blake. Fewer cars on the roads. Less of the frantic twice-a-day commute.

What’s going on? The haloed metric of GDP does not include the externalities of planetary destruction. This is not some imagined future. This is now. The polar icecaps are melting and so is the Arctic tundra. In the oceans plastics are ascendent. Fish stocks are in trouble.

Yet the economic slowdown brings benefits to human society and to the planet at large. It turns down the dial on pollution, habitat loss, the mass extinctions (the Anthropocene), global warming. Some say the planet is fighting back.

There are bright spots. Renewables are booming. Digital can streamline pretty much anything. I had a great call with my GP today. Then she emailed me a document. Digital (tele)medicine is becoming routine. In many cases it works better. (I didn’t drive and then sit in a waiting room.) This streamlining should make more time for those who really need an in-person visit.

People who grew up in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s have straddled two worlds. The first Earth Day, in 1970, can be used as a marker. Even Richard Nixon, so unprogressive in many ways, signed the Clean Air and Clean Water acts in the 1970s. We can longer feign ignorance.

For many, the pace of daily life is slowing. They are working at home. They may have lost their jobs. They have been staying at home to avoid the virus. There are downsides, to be sure. But the giant machine of the world economy was designed for the industrial era, for national competition. Now there is only one world. (All that ethnic food I bought a few metres apart at the mall.)

The pandemic has showed that medical research and distribution of new vaccines can move at a pace that was impossible just a few years ago. Often, digital processes replace the need for transportation and offices – you name it.

The world is a mess, but it is perhaps a better mess than we could have imaged 50 years ago. A mess that we can adjust on a global scale. We have a lot of tools if we decide to use them.

In recent decades our lives have not been that complicated, although it didn’t seem that way because our nervous systems were in hyperdrive. Stress hormones flooded our systems. Everything seemed possible but nothing was enough.

It was unsustainable, not just for the planet but for its inhabitants. Nature is forcing us to slow down. We have more time to think. What do we want? How do we want to get it? Most important, what are our values?

Are we in this together – or not? It’s one world now, baby.

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