Is there time
to slow down?
As the world speeds up, how cultures define the
elastic nature of time may affect our environmental health
By Rhea Wessel |
Special to The Christian Science Monitor
January 09, 2003
MANNHEIM, GERMANY - At the start of a new year, with
resolutions fresh on the drawing board, how we gauge time - as individuals and
as a society - seems more pressing.
Yet often a culture's sense
of time is so ingrained that few people consider it in a broader context until
they come smack into contact with people who tick at a different speed and
operate under different
"Our beliefs about time are
some of the most basic we hold in life," says Allen Bluedorn, the author of
"The Human Organization of Time" and a professor of management at the
University of Missouri-Columbia.
An exhibit in Mannheim,
Germany, called "All the Time in the World: Of Clocks and Other Witnesses of
Time," serves as a catalyst for considering the speed at which we live our
lives and how this has developed over the ages.
Anthropologist Edward T.
Hall defined two broad cultural approaches to time. Polychronic people, he
said, are involved with many things at once, while monochronic cultures
emphasize doing one thing at a time. Monochronism was a learned product of the
Industrial Revolution but seems almost a natural form of time because of its
prevalence in the Western world. Northern Europe and North America tend to be
monochronic, while Mediterranean cultures and Latin America are polychronic.
South and Southeast Asia are considered polychronic, but Japan is
monochronic, and China is somewhere in between.
Polychronic people change
plans frequently, consider schedules as goals instead of imperatives, and focus
on relationships with people. Monochronic cultures emphasize the opposite.
People stick to the plan, emphasize promptness, and are accustomed to
Professor Bluedorn's work
draws on Hall's thinking and has documented cultural clashes caused by
different time conceptions. In 1908, for instance, the Russian team showed up
at the Olympics in London 12 days late because it was using the Julian
calendar, while the Olympics were scheduled on the Gregorian. And, in at least
one case, a European army missed its rendezvous on the battlefield because of
different understandings of time, Bluedorn says.
more contemporary, example is the story of American and Mexican bankers who
discovered they both had different definitions of the workday, Bluedorn says.
The Mexicans worked into the evenings when the American team wanted to go home.
After several meetings were set for 7:30 p.m. and the Mexican team arrived
late, the two compromised. The Americans agreed to extend their workday and the
Mexicans agreed to show up on time.
Our imbedded polychronic
and monochronic notions mean that many cultures that appear the same actually
have deeply ingrained differences. Even among their Western capitalist
counterparts, Americans have a reputation for being shallow because they form
"friendships" quickly and appear to fail at enjoying the slower pleasures in
life - such as long meals and walks.
Haste makes waste
Wolfgang Sachs, an expert on technology and the environment at the
Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Energy, and Environment in Wuppertal, Germany,
cites some of those differences. He believes that the American psyche is at
grave odds with the realities of the 21st century, particularly environmental
realities. The endless pursuit of time-saving innovation is based on the
frontier mentality, he says, which promotes the belief that there are no
boundaries within time, space, or the natural world. Dr. Sachs says this
attitude is outdated, and its prevalence causes Americans to ignore their own
impact on the environment.
Sachs has shown through his
work that as speed increases, the amount of resources used rises exponentially.
A car that consumes five liters of fuel at 80 kilometers an hour will need 20
liters to go 160 km an hour.
Sachs promotes a slower
lifestyle as personal choice and national public policy. We must decide how
much speed is enough and learn to live with dignity within those boundaries, he
argues. To that end, he has spoken out against high-speed trains in France and
Germany, saying that the extra speed is not worth the cost. And he has
questioned the introduction of budget airlines in Europe, which encourage
people to travel farther for shorter time periods.
ecological crisis can be read as a clash of different time scales; the time
scale of modernity collides with the time scales which govern life and the
earth," Sachs says. Every year, the industrial system burns as much fossil fuel
as the earth has stored up in a period of nearly one million years.
In recognition of the high costs of hurriedness, a group in the
United States is organizing Take Back Your Time Day, an event on Oct. 24
designed to start a national discussion about the American time famine. John De
Graaf, a primary organizer and author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming
Epidemic," says the date is set nine weeks before the end of the year to help
Americans visualize how much vacation their European counterparts enjoy. On
that day, the average European could take the rest of the year off.
Mr. De Graaf says his group isn't against work. Instead it is
striving for a better balance between time spent working and that left over for
community endeavors, families, creativity, and living light on the land.
Doing nothing as an ecological virtue
have made the conscious choice to collect "time" affluence instead of material
affluence, Sachs has a ready idea on how to spend that time: Do nothing.
When you do nothing, you
experience the time it takes to study, care, hope, grow, have friends, or
paint, Sachs argues in an essay called "Slow Is Beautiful."
If you stay
home and read a book, you avoid driving somewhere and burning limited fossil
fuels. You decline to buy packaged consumer goods at a store that is as well
lit as a football field, and you omit a trip to a fast-food restaurant, with
all its waste in production, delivery, preparation, and serving. When you're
not in a rush, you're more likely to recycle, reuse, buy used, and do it
With the American focus on personal efficiency and
productiveness, doing nothing can be a countercultural activity. And it may
take a cultural shift for doing nothing to be seen as valuable.
'All the Time in the World' runs through March 30 at the
State Museum for Technology and Labor in Mannheim, Germany. For more