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Transferring to the Slow Lane

Slow Living conference focuses on individual transformation

BRATTLEBORO—Three days before crowds lined Main Street in downtown Brattleboro to celebrate local farmers and view heifers resplendent in Mardi Gras beads, a smaller contingent crowded into the Latchis Theatre to delve into ways to create a societal shift to Slow Living.

“What can we learn in the slow lane that we can’t learn in the fast lane?” said Orly Munzing, founder and executive director of Strolling of the Heifers and the Slow Living Summit, in her opening statements June 6 at the third annual conference.

This year’s summit focused on the actions and transformations people need to make to live a slower, more sustainable lifestyle within healthy and resilient communities in a more equitable world.

Issues such as sustainable agriculture, creating a new economy, slow democracy, fostering a sense of place, resilient design, and measuring Vermont’s well-being graced the packed schedule.

Presenters and participants arrived with varying degrees of optimism for the nation and world’s ability to change in time to slow the effects of climate change or fix a perceived broken economic system.

Robert Repetto, an economist and senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, who serves at the World Resources Institute and is the author of “America’s Climate Problem: The Way Forward” (2011) opened the summit.

Jonathan Lash, president of Hampshire College and the former head of the World Resources Institute, followed.

In his presentation, Repetto called for fundamentally and boldly changing economic and political systems.

“Climate change is the mother of all sustainability issues,” he said.

According to Repetto, the world economy will double within the next 30 years, and redouble again in the 30 years that follow.

That’s an unsustainable rate of growth, he said.

Economic growth often rests on “want creation” tapping into people’s primitive emotions, said Repetto. “Drink a Bud Light and the hot chicks will be all over you.”

Often, growth of any kind within the economy or business is considered positive, he said. But who, what, when, where, and how things are created matter too.

Does humanity need “more cars or better public transportation? More processed food or more local food? Better weapons systems or better schools?” suggested Repetto. “You get the idea.”

Repetto said that the U.S. economy produces more than 20 billion tons of waste products per year. The economy stands on “once-through” systems where things are created, often from raw materials, without recapturing waste.

Income distribution also affects Americans’ quality of life, he said.

According to Repetto, studies have shown once a person reaches middle income — enough resources to meet basic needs with funds left over — additional money does not increase happiness.

Yet, he said, in the United States, the richest 20 percent hold half of all income, he said.

Shifting income distribution would reap huge benefits for the bottom 40 percent of the population.

High income also ensures political power, he said, adding that “disproportionate access to political power is a threat to democracy.”

Repetto said system changes should require changes in the tax structure, such as reducing wage taxes and replacing those with a tax on materials and waste.

On the environmental front, Repetto urged for enacting a cap-and-trade system to lower carbon emissions.

He acknowledged that people could easily feel discouraged.

But, he asked, remember the 1970s? Within a few years in that decade, the country enacted powerhouse laws such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

“We all must reach beyond our local community and personal lifestyle,” Repetto said.

He stressed the need for a large-scale political movement that tipped the political and policy scales in the environment’s favor.

“I hope that we can surprise ourselves with what we can accomplish,” Repetto said.

Thinking big

Jonathan Lash, president of Hampshire College, called for large-scale attitude changes necessary to achieve large-scale results.

It took 90 years to abolish slavery, he noted.

When Women’s Suffrage hit the stage in the 1830s, it was considered laughable by many, and it took 90 years before women won the right to vote.

The tobacco industry denied that smoking caused cancer until it could no longer deny the lawsuits.

Changing the economy and confronting climate change will require a comparable level of attitude shifts, Lash said.

“How do we overcome the lunacy of climate denial” and move to the realization that a different way of living is necessary? Lash asked rhetorically.

“I just think we’re coming to the end of denial — and we’re going to get into anger soon,” he added.

That said, Lash remained optimistic.

According to Lash, when he took the helm at Hampshire College, the institution had little to no culture of sustainability. Through empowering students, committing to local food, and the board of directors committing to zero carbon building construction — zero net energy consumption and zero carbon emissions annually — the college is firmly on the path to sustainability.

The closing session on June 7 ended on a high note.

Multiple presenters sat on the stage to sum up aspects of the summit.

In a taped 10-minute message beamed from London, Carl Honoré, the author of “In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed” (2005) and “The Slow Fix: Solve Problems, Work Smarter, and Live Better in a World Addicted to Speed” (2013) said of the participants, “[You are] at the front line of a battle to redefine what it means to be human.”

Honoré, who travels extensively for work, related an experience from a speaking engagement in Spain.

The world perceives the Spanish as relaxed and moving within a gentle flow of life, he said. That stereotype is beyond outdated.

While in Spain, Honoré said, he entered a lavatory. Three Spaniards lined up at the urinals stood transfixed, staring at their mobile phones.

One man was texting with both hands, said Honoré.

“We live in a world stuck in fast forward” to the detriment of humanity’s health, diet, relationships, and communities, he said.

Honoré said he believes people are experiencing a “turning point in history.”

Progress sped life up in the 20th century, arguably with mostly positive results. But the past 10 to 20 years, he said, has seen more harm done than good.

The Slow Living movement, however, provides a counterpoint by building a community of people slowing down to forge more meaningful connections.

People are more complete and human when they are connected, Honoré said.

“The slow philosophy is about finding our better angels,” continued an optimistic Honoré. “The time for change is now. We can make the world a better place.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #207 (Wednesday, June 12, 2013).

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