Wednesday, 6 June 2007

The Bishop's got a point

Now that the exams are over, I can at last get back to the 'real' world and start reading the papers again (after all, what kind of Politics student needs to be up to speed on current affairs?!). In today's Guardian (well, G2, to be pedantic), there was a review of Do Nothing to Change Your Life by the Bishop of Reading. His basic point is that we are all going way too fast; life is losing its purpose and spiritual side because everything, from technology to shopping is based on speed. Life therefore - and this is where my Marxian paraphrasing takes over - becomes more mechanical, people are alienated from their true nature and human misery ensues.

What is the solution? The Right Reverend suggests a number of simple solutions which are designed to make someone's day go slower and thereby make them feel more relaxed and at peace. The ones listed in the article include:
  • Making tea with tea leaves instead of bags
  • Brewing coffee with self-ground beans
  • Baking our own bread
  • Getting out of bed and sitting still for three minutes, doing nothing

All of which make perfect sense. You don't have to be a raving leftie to have noticed that, even relatively speaking, people today are more miserable than before. Maybe it's just a generational thing, maybe it's part of the national spectacle of understated melancholy, but it seems that not a week passed without a survey claiming that depression and mental health cases are at new peaks (then again, you could put most of that down to the garish new 2012 logo - too 80s to say the least).

But here, my love affair with The Guardian hits a pothole. The second half of the article was a cynical slur on the Bishop's suggestions. Though not to the point of utterly rejecting good Christian reason, the author's stance was quite flippant:

"...As I munch my toast and sip my coffee it occurs to me that the bishop means well, but nothing would get done at this pace. For a kick-off, it would have taken God more than six days to create the universe, and what would that have meant? He wouldn't have got Sundat off, that's what."¹

The problem is not the tongue-in-cheek dig at the creation myth or the flippant dismissal of God as somehow being bound by the constraints of time as we are (when in fact he created time). To take issue with these would be to miss the point and make myself look stupid. The point is that Mr. Boggan is adopting the easiest, and laziest, fall-back position of the secular, modern age - what 'men of God' (for want of a better term) say is fine as an idea, but it doesn't have any practical ramifications for our society. So often the wisdom of such people is rejected without a second thought because people either like the speed at which life goes, or would see the alternative as detrimental. The latter case brings to mind The Road To Serfdom by Friedrich von Hayek, which broadly states that any system which does not favour the market leads to the reversal of human development.²

The modern age was based on the ideas of progress, a linear path (originally a liberal one) from feudalism and simplicity to Modernity, the goal of all humans. Speed, first in transport, then communications and so on, became the bulwark of trade and the spread of ideas. Three hundred years later, post-modernism and events have done their fair share to damage - though not destroy - these metanarratives. And yet we still cling to the idea, embodied in contemporary globalisation, that going faster is the best policy. And yet, as so often in the past, speed is the factor which tends to bring humanity to its knees. Financial crises, from the Great Depression (1929-35) to the Asian Crisis (1997), are caused, at heart, by the ability to rapidly move capital in and out of economies - one decision can lead to rapid growth (or, as liberals call it, 'happiness') or deep recession which creates unemployment and misery. Train crashes, computer viruses, stockmarket slumps and traffic jams - all are the result of humans trying to go too fast.

There is a more ideational side to this as well. Not only is speed harmful (to a great extent) for economies and the environment, it is also - I would argue - against human nature. We all like to do things that don't involve expending too much energy - people vote but switch off as soon as the results are in. But there is a fundamental difference between being efficient (or 'quick') and being fast. If we place being speedy at the top of our list, we are prone to make decisions without considering their consequences both for ourselves and others. Look at globalisation - by desiring to do things quicker (by dismantling (wholly unfair) trade barriers), we are compromising our environment at an exponential rate.

Taking time out from the rat race, whether to make time for God or just to give ourselves a break, is no bad thing. It does not means that we should reverse every characteristic of our society, even globalisation itself, and in doing so fulfil Hayek's prophecy. In certain cases, this may not go amiss - though in spheres like economics, new solutions are needed rather than resorting to classic state protectionism. In general, humans should take the Bishop's advice - put the flux of life on hold, and use the time wisely.


¹ Steve Boggan, 'Slowing down is harder than it looks', G2, 6 June 2007, p.3 - available at,,2096243,00.html. Accessed on June 6 2007.

² Friedrich von Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (Routledge, 1944) - summary available at Accessed on June 6 2007.

No comments: