It feels like there is twice as much life happening in the same amount of time as there was before the pandemic, a by-product of so many things being cancelled and now booked in – with in-person meetings butting up against weddings and family parties, it is like living in a Netflix film at 10x the speed.
I kid myself that this year is anomalous, that at the stroke of midnight on 31st December 2022, everything will go back to the reassuring flow of 1x speed. While that may be true of work gatherings and social engagements, I know it’s not true of our existence. That’s been speeding up for some time: an irreversible acceleration thanks to the rapidity of connections we’re able to make – in human relationships, information and ideas – and the speed at which we are all processing and communicating information. At a deeper level still, the foundations of our existence are changing faster than ever before, particularly along the faultlines of climatic, ecological and technological change.
How can we deal with the feelings of not being able to keep pace with ‘the now’? Not being able to respond fast enough to real-time needs – whether our communities’ health in the pandemic or in the current cost of living crisis – while at the same time striving and rushing to do what we can to prevent disaster in our future? I often feel that sense of urgency ratcheting up my heart-beat, like a tripwire activating my nervous system. I also know that if we don’t pause, we will stay on the same hamster wheel of reactive attention, failing to look at the roots of the polycrisis.
Andri Snær Magnuson, the Icelandic author who wrote the beautiful ‘Of Time and Water’, told me recently that we are living in mythic times (we’ll share our audio encounter with him soon). Andri is seeped in Norse mythology and understands the importance and power of mythos as a passageway into epic phenomena and timescales that are otherwise out of the reach of the human brain. He explained that a child born today will witness an equivalent or greater degree of eco-climatic change than the human race has witnessed in its entire evolution to date. Our minds are incapable of comprehending the magnitude of this. So part of his work is to find words to describe the changes we are living through in ways that register in the human psyche; he argues the words ‘climate change’ or ‘ecological breakdown’ can’t. Instead, he gets people to touch their ankle at the place where the water level would have been on their shoreline when they were children and then where the water level will be higher up their leg at certain points in the future.
To find simplicity within the complex and colossal is an art-form of its own, one that takes great skill. Anab Jain, the founder of Superflux, told us about a piece of work they did creating a beaker of air from the future, based on the extrapolation of existing pollution levels and trends. Government ministers were able to open the beaker and take a whiff of the noxious air. As Anab described it, the air was an artefact from a possible future and they were able to experience that future in their lungs and bodies. Anab also creates artefacts from futures in which we are reconnected within thriving ecosystems of life. She cites scientific studies that show how deeply embodied experiences of the future exist in our systems like vivid memories. All the more potent if we create experiences of flourishing futures and all the more dangerous if the dystopian ones predominate.
In conversations I’ve had in recent weeks – in spaces I’ve been in for New Constellations and in social spaces too – I’ve heard people talk again and again about needing immersive, slower, deeper time to live and work in ways that meet this moment. Bayo Akomolafe says, “the times are urgent; let us slow down” – slow down to make space to discern and comprehend, to feel the water level on our ankles.
I have also been thinking a lot about the tension between urgency and slowness reading Gal Beckerman’s ‘The Quiet Before’ (with thanks to Will Somerville for spotting the resonances and sending it my way). As the blurb for the book says:
“We tend to think of revolutions as loud: frustrations and demands shouted in the streets. But the ideas fuelling them have traditionally been conceived in much quieter spaces, in the small, secluded corners where a vanguard can whisper among themselves, imagine alternate realities and deliberate over how to get there. This… is a search for those spaces over centuries and across continents and a warning that they might soon go extinct.”
Among other things, Beckerman looks at the exchange of letters that paved the way for the discovery of longitude, the role played by charters and manifestos and the percolation of new, heterodox thinking in underground zines circulating in Soviet Russia. He makes a compelling case for how these conversations – gestated slowly and often across distance – contrast starkly to the jack-hammer communication of our social media world. More In Common’s research shows social media is grossly unrepresentative of how the majority of people actually think and feel. Beckerman shows that defining social movements, from post-war decolonisation to feminism, thrive when they are given the time and space to gestate.
So I am asking myself, if we are in this phase of epochal transition (as I believe we are), how can we nurture and make space for ‘the quiet before’? It is a tiny and inconsequential example, but I felt better able to ruminate on and integrate ideas in this slow conversation - which we did like an exchange of audio letters (a format many people have said they like so we will be doing some more) - than through the convention of an interview. I hope the journeys we run provide spaces of shared enquiry too.
In our work at New Constellations, we have the privilege of bringing together groups of very different people to consider the times in which we live, the past we have come from and the future we wish to create together. As well as curating groups of people from different backgrounds, cultures, geographies and generations, we also bring together people who are working at the heart of existing systems with those who are creating new approaches and models that show what else is possible. It’s clear from the groups we bring together that we must focus on hospicing systems that cannot serve our future (the fossil fuel matrix would be one such system, economic models based only around GDP are another) whilst we build the new systems that will. Our recent audio encounters with Farzana Khan and Sophy Banks provide different but complementary perspectives on what it will take to help existing systems let go.
In the processes we hold, I am astonished at the commonality in what people believe we should move away from and what we want to move towards. I recall a recent conversation with john powell who runs the Othering & Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley about his ‘four connections’: our connection to ourselves (including a rich experience of our inner lives), the connection between ourselves and others, the connection between ourselves and mother earth, and the connection between ourselves and something we see as greater than us. He argues that much of our modern malaise is rooted in the rip and rupture of these connections; often all four of them. What are the artefacts of a future in which our systems enable and nourish all four of these connections?
I’m writing this at 21:47 the evening before summer solstice, the night sky lit in baby blue and pastel pink. The spaciousness of the solstice is beckoning. On this hinge moment between the lightest part of our solar year and the beginning of the creep of darkness, I find it helpful to recall that many thinkers see the times we are living through as a moment of transition – for example, Joanna Macy’s work on the transition from the Great Unravelling to the Great Turning. The nature of the urgency feels different when I consider that we are living and working in the quiet before. A time of dense and rich exchange between thousands of different people and many different schools of thought and practice. A much richer hummus that enriches the soil from which more beautiful futures can grow.
Bravo! Beautiful and thought provoking meditation on this pivotal moment in our seasonal and historical existence