thenextwave

‘Slow Sunday’ and social prototyping

Posted in books, emerging issues, innovation, politics, sustainability, time by thenextwavefutures on 3 August, 2008

The ecological magazine Resurgence declared last Sunday to be its first “slow Sunday“. Although it is a relatively small circulation magazine, its proposal has gained some mainstream attention in the Telegraph and the Metro. Satish Kumar, who edits Resurgence, got space in the Guardian to explain the idea. I’ll discuss the slow Sunday concept further down, but it also raises an interesting question about the purpose of ‘days’ such as these. I think that they are a form of disruption which open up different ways of looking at “everyday reality” – in other words a form of social prototyping.

Some other examples of “days” promoted by radical organisations include “car free days“, when urban areas are closed to cars for the day, and “Buy Nothing Day“, run now for several years by Adbusters. Some less radical, too: the Mayor of London’s Freewheel, a day when cyclists take over the centre of the city, in their thousands, has commercial sponsors (and is being repeated this year).

Without getting too theoretical, there’s a whole sociological literature about the way on which our social world starts by being constructed through the habits and routines of social actors, but progressively becomes reified, so that it appears as an external reality. Buy Nothing Day [BND] is a good example of how the construction of an alternative makes visible the social nature of our exterior lives. Adbusters has a long history in which its attempts to buy commercial television advertising slots to promote BND are rebuffed by the television companies, at which point it gains fresh media coverage through involving activists and regulators. (Last year MTV declined an ad portraying America as a pig because of its high consumption).

Resurgence’s Slow Sunday obviously draws on the campaigns for slow food and slow towns. Having watched Satish Kumar present the idea in person at the Resurgence Summer Camp, it goes beyond these ‘slow’ concepts to try to reclaim the notion of the ‘sabbath’ or a day of rest in our secular, seven-day, high intensity, world. Why bread? Because, as he said during his talk on Slow Sunday, bread making is about enjoying both time and reflection (“bread-making is a meditation”), and because of bread’s power and place as a spiritual symbol. Breaking the bread is a Christian practice obviously (and Satish was witty on the use of the industrially-made wafer in Communion as the body of Christ) and this spiritual aspect of bread is also found in other cultures: he quoted a Vietnamese writer who said, “The piece of bread you asre holding in your hand is a piece of the cosmos”.

So bread becomes a sign of reducing consumption, of using time differently, and of sharing time with family and friends.

One useful way of understanding this is from the environmental economics literature. Conventional economics concentrates almost completely on paid-for production and consumption of goods and services which can be measured through financial transactions. Environmental economics looks at other forms of production and consumptions as well – as in this diagram, which I have adapted from the work of Paul Ekins

Ekins, 4-Capital Model of Wealth Creation

Ekins, 4-Capital Model of Wealth Creation

Ekins’ model requires us to consider the role of environmental and social capital in our social and economic systems: precisely those which tend to be disregarded – even thought of as ‘free’ – by conventional economics. Effectively Slow Sunday develops this by asking us to change our behaviour for a day to increase those aspects of ‘utility’ – an economists’ word for value’ – which are about ‘being’ and ‘relating’ rather than having and doing. It is also asking us to think differently about types of work, to include the value of unpaid work.

And there’s another idea strugging to get out here as well. This is about the wider way in which we understand the mechanics of social change. For two hundred years, since the French revolution, when groups of citizens realised it was possible to evict their rulers and replace them, the dominant model of social change has involved changes of government, either violently or non-violently. In practice this seems to have run up against its limits: as the anarchist theorist Richard J.F. Day argues in his book Gramsci is Dead, “Marxist revolutions have failed to achieve a transparent society and liberal reform has gone neoliberal – that is, it has become reactionary rather than progressive in tone” [p203].

Instead, he suggests that progressive change comes from social groups and communities which make space in which to create progressive alternatives, independently and through association with similar groups. He draws on the concept of ‘affinity’ (explained both in this review and in this blog post) to argue:

“Living affinity-based relationships means not only hooking up with those with whom we share values but actively warding off and working against those whose practices perpetuate division, dominance and exploitation” … There can be communities that share presuppositions that are different from those of the system of global states and corporations.” [186]

Resurgence is not an anarchist group, but I think it shares some values which Richard Day would recognise. Bread-making is a practical act, and it is also a political act. As Satish Kumar argued in his Guardian article:

What has happened to real bread? I do not believe that mass-produced bread is the “staff of life” – I believe it is the bitter bread of sorrow, because of the environmental devastation and health consequences it reaps… This mass-produced bread is stale and sterile. It is so devoid of life that manufacturers have to add vitamins and minerals. [It] contains more pollution than nutrition, more profit than nourishment, and more chemicals than taste. We may face global environmental crises, but we have the power to address them locally.

After his talk last Sunday, those who wanted to made some bread as a group. It was ready by lunchtime – and tasted wonderful.

Update: I happenend to be reading Ivan Illich in Conversation (a series of interviews with the Canadian broadcaster David Cayley, recorded in 1988, published in 1992) later in the day after I’d had written this post, and came across this passage [p193]. It seems relevant:

“What other people call culture, I would understand as unique arrangements by which a given group limits exchange relationships to specific times and places. You may engage in these activities on Saturday, when the market is open from six in the morning till noon, or down at the brothel, or over there at the bar, but otherwise we don’t want any of that.

For a couple of millennia after Aristotle most European cultures remained market resistant. Markets were carefully regulated and kept in place. The story of Homo economicus, the story of commodity production … is the story of the last 250 years.”

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