Turn­ing back the clock

The So­ci­ety for the De­cel­er­a­tion of Time is de­ter­mined to push the slow agenda.


SIXTY-one-year-old Uwe Kliemt jumps up from the grand pi­ano to per­form a min­uet step. “See how speed masks the work’s true char­ac­ter?” he asks the au­di­ence. “Only when I slow down, can I truly hear it. Only then does it touch me.”

Night has fallen on the small Aus­trian ski re­sort of Wa­grain, nes­tled deep in a val­ley ringed by moun­tains. The hourly toll of church bells is the only sound to dis­turb the si­lence of the moon­lit night.

Kliemt, a mu­si­col­o­gist from Ham­burg in Ger­many with salt and pep­per beard and pierc­ing blue eyes, is one of dozens of thinkers and busi­ness­men gath­ered here for the an­nual meet­ing of the So­ci­ety For The De­cel­er­a­tion Of Time.

For him, speed in clas­si­cal mu­sic, he says, has be­come “a dogma to the detri­ment of the beauty and mean­ing of the orig­i­nal works.”

And that is why, he says, he “re­fuses to give in to the cult of speed, which so many peo­ple as­so­ci­ate with vir­tu­os­ity in mu­sic.”

Born 20 years ago at Aus­tria’s Kla­gen­furt Uni­ver­sity, the think tank now boasts 700 mem­bers in Europe, North and South Amer­ica – aca­demics and artists but also en­trepreneurs, ther­a­pists, lawyers and even politi­cians.

‘Salary­men’ throng Tokyo’s sub­way sys­tem daily, part of a go-fast cul­ture in speed-driven Ja­pan where the word is coined for death through over­work.

All are con­vinced that the speed­ing-up of our way of life is shap­ing the fu­ture of mankind, and that it is ur­gent to turn back the clock.

Each in their own lives has worked to slow down, in or­der to “re­think our skewed re­la­tion­ship with time” and “re­dis­cover a happy, mean­ing­ful life,” says the so­ci­ety’s chair­man, Mu­nich lawyer Er­win Heller.

“Ask the ques­tion: what will I re­mem­ber two years from now of the week I have just lived through, and most peo­ple will say ‘noth­ing’,” says Imre Mar­ton Re­menyi, a psy­chother­a­pist, teacher and sex­ol­o­gist.

“We should spend at least two hours a day do­ing things we re­ally en­joy – and that is also true for sex,” he adds.

Dur­ing three days in Wa­grain, some 50 so­ci­ety mem­bers – most from Ger­many, Switzer­land and Aus­tria – brought their back­ground and ideas to a high-fly­ing de­bate, in be­tween brac­ing walks, hearty food and stints in the sauna.

Does the cult of speed in mod­ern-day so­ci­ety stem from the crises we face – in global fi­nance or the en­vi­ron­ment – or are the crises them­selves caused by our hel­ter-skel­ter be­hav­iour, asked Di­et­rich Kropf­berger, a JUST half an hour’s drive from Mi­lan, Italy’s fast-mov­ing cap­i­tal of fi­nance, fashion and de­sign, Ab­bi­ate­grasso rel­ishes its “slow” iden­tity.

Signs mark­ing the town lim­its bear the sym­bol of an orange snail with houses perched on its shell – proud sym­bol of Ab­bi­ate­grasso’s link to Cit­taslow, an off­shoot of the quar­ter-cen­tury old Slow Food move­ment.

“Cit­taslow wants to bring hu­mans back to a calmer kind of life, one that is also more hu­man,” says Roberto Al­betti, the town’s mayor.

“It’s not about go­ing back­wards in terms of progress but about agree­ing to sac­ri­fice a lit­tle com­fort in or­der to have bet­ter qual­ity goods.”

The Cit­taslow project – which means slow city – in­volves more than 140 towns of fewer than 50,000 in­hab­i­tants in 20 coun­tries in­clud­ing Ger­many, United States and South Korea.

About half are in Italy, where Slow Food was born first as a protest against fast-food cul­ture, be­fore blos­som­ing into an in­ter­na­tional move­ment de­voted to “good, clean and fair” food.

Cit­taslow’s goal is to fos­ter a sense of “iden­tity and com­mu­nity spirit in the face of the mod­ern world” through a range of en­vi­ron­men­tal so­cial, ur­ban and gas­tro­nom­i­cal poli­cies, says the or­gan­i­sa­tion in a state­ment.

For Ab­bi­ate­grasso, which lies just 20km west of Mi­lan, slow-liv­ing be­gins with trans­port. The town cen­tre is closed off to cars dur­ing the week­end, and even dur­ing Ger­man econ­o­mist.

Art is one way of get­ting peo­ple to slow down and think, es­pe­cially in big cities, ar­gues the Swiss so­ci­ol­o­gist Mark Rik­lin. “Peo­ple stop and smile. By slow­ing down we re­dis­cover the de­tails that make life beau­ti­ful.”

Frithjof Bergmann, 80, a philoso­pher from the Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan who has ad­vised Gen­eral Mo­tors in his long ca­reer but also spent two years liv­ing as a her­mit in the woods, be­lieves it is time for “a new form of work and cul­ture”.

Martin Lieb­mann, a busi­ness­man in his 40s who drove down from Lue­beck in Ger­many on board a Citroen Deesse – “a car for tak­ing the time to en­joy life” – is a pic­ture of con­tent­ment.

His small mar­ket­ing firm is a suc­cess, he takes plea­sures in the hu­man con­tacts, in choos­ing his clients, and he says he has made slow­ing down “a state of mind”.

For him, as for many of those in Wa­grain, the process has spurred a more spir­i­tual ap­proach to life, be­cause, says the lin­guist Karl Auwaerter, “with­out that noth­ing can work, what­ever speed you choose.”

Even high-tech firms, af­ter decades spent driv­ing the ac­cel­er­a­tion of the global econ­omy, are now recog­nis­ing its ill-ef­fects, lead­ing Google, IBM and oth­ers to launch a re­search group into in­for­ma­tion over­load.

Stud­ies by Mi­crosoft and Hewlett Packard in­di­cate mod­ern-day of­fice work with its con­stant in­ter­rup­tions by e-mails, phones, text mes­sages can tem­po­rar­ily slice 10 points off a per­son’s IQ.

Even in speed-driven Ja­pan, where there is a word – karoshi – for death through over­work, the Sloth Club was cre­ated a few years ago to lift peo­ple out of the go-fast cul­ture. “Speed helped the world tip into moder­nity two cen­turies ago, but now it may be driv­ing it into the abyss,” warns the Ger­man philoso­pher Hart­mut Rosa in a re­cent book.

Slow ad­vo­cates see the global eco­nomic cri­sis, caused, in their view, by an ob­ses­sion with fast growth, fast con­sump­tion and fast prof­its, as the lat­est val­i­da­tion of their world­view. – AFP

Slow-liv­ing does not mean rein­ing in eco­nomic devel­op­ment. Ab­bi­ate­grasso ac­tively pro­motes its lo­cal del­i­ca­cies in Italy and around the world, help­ing small busi­nesses like the Gor­gonzola cheese-maker. the week the streets are packed with bi­cy­cles.

While Ital­ian cities are no­to­ri­ously un­friendly to bi­cy­cles, Ab­bi­ate­grasso of­fi­cials once counted 9,000 bikes cruis­ing the streets in a sin­gle morn­ing – in a town of just 32,000.

“It’s like heaven here. The town is calm and beau­ti­ful. I couldn’t live in Mi­lan, it’s too loud, there is too much traf­fic,” says Se­bas­tiano Pet­ti­nato, a re­tiree.

“I pre­fer smaller cities, we help each other out, there are more hu­man re­la­tion­ships. I would never live in Mi­lan or Rome, where you don’t even know whether you can trust your neigh­bour,” adds Lara Man­zoni, a teacher. – AFP

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