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But is the nature of civilization “speed”? Or is it “consideration”?

Any animal can rush around a corral four times a day.

Only a human being can consciously oblige himself to go

slowly in order to consider whether he is doing the right thing,

doing it the right way, or ought in fact to be doing something

else. . . . Speed and efficiency are not in themselves signs of intelligence

or capability or correctness.

—John Ralston Saul


Plum Creek begins in drainage from farms on the west side of the city

of Oberlin, Ohio, and flows eastward through a city golf course, a

college arboretum, and the downtown area. East of the city, the

stream receives the effluent from the city sewer facility before it joins

with the Black River, which flows north through two rust-belt cities,

Elyria and Lorain, before emptying into Lake Erie 25 miles west of

Cleveland. Plum Creek shows all of the signs of 150 years of human

use and abuse. As late as 1850 the stream ran clear even in times of

flood, but now it is murky brown year-round. Because of pollution,

sediments, and the lack of aquatic life, the U.S. Environmental Protection

Agency considers it to be a “nonattainment” stream. Yet it

survives, more or less. To most residents of Oberlin, Plum Creek is

little more than a drain and sewer useful for moving water off the

land as rapidly as possible. Few regard it as an aesthetic asset or ecological


The character of Plum Creek changes quickly as it flows eastward

into downtown Oberlin. Runoff from city streets enters the stream

where the creek runs under the intersection of Morgan and Professor

Streets. One block to the east, a larger volume of runoff polluted by

oil and grease from city streets enters the creek as it flows under Main

Street, past a Midas Muffler shop, a NAPA Auto Parts Store, and City

Hall, located in the flood plain. Where Plum Creek flows under Main

Street, an increased volume of storm water and consequently increased

stream velocity have widened the banks and cut the channel

from several feet to a depth of 10 feet or more. The city has attempted

to stabilize the stream by lining the banks with concrete or

by riprapping with large chunks of broken concrete. The aquatic life

that exists upstream mostly disappears as Plum Creek flows through

the downtown. Bending to the northeast, the creek passes through

suburban backyards, past the municipal wastewater plant, a Browning

Ferris Industries landfill, and on toward the west fork of the Black

River and Lake Erie.

Whatever Plum Creek once was, it is now fundamentally shaped

by the fact that European settlers cut the forests and drained marshes

which once absorbed rainfall and released water slowly throughout

the year. The wetlands and forests that once made up the flood plain

are now mostly gone, replaced by roads, lawns, buildings, and parking

lots. Rainfall is quickly channeled from lawns, streets, and parking lots

into storm drains and culverts and diverted into the creek. The result

is a landscape that sheds water quickly, contributing to floods, reducing

water quality, and degrading aquatic habitats. Mathematics tells

the story: doubling the speed of water increases the size of soil particles

transported by 64 times.

The history of the Plum Creek watershed is not unusual. More

than 90 percent of Ohio wetlands have been drained. As a nation, we

have lost more than 50 percent of the wetlands that existed before

European settlement and despite federal laws we continue to lose

wetlands at a net rate of 24,000 acres each year (Revkin 2001, 1). The

total paved area in the lower 48 states is equivalent to a land area

larger than Kentucky. As a result, water moves more quickly across

our landscapes than it once did, so that flooding, particularly downstream

from urban areas, is more common and more severe than ever.

Measured in constant dollars, flood plain damage rose by 50 percent

between 1975 and 1990.We labor in vain to control flooding and prevent

flood damage by the heroic engineering of dams, levees, and diversion

channels while continuing to clear forests, drain wetlands, and

pave. The results shown in the Mississippi floods of 1993 or those

along the Missouri and Ohio rivers in 1997 are now part of the escalating

price we pay for engineering, as if the velocity of water moving

through the landscape did not matter.


The city of Oberlin is a fairly typical midwestern college town with a

square around which are arrayed college buildings, a historic church,

an art museum, a hotel, and downtown businesses including three

banks, two book stores, a bakery, a five and dime store, an Army-Navy

store, an assortment of restaurants, a gourmet coffee shop, pizza parlors,

and one struggling hardware store. In the past six years, however,

the downtown lost among other businesses a car dealership, a drug

store, a bicycle repair shop, and stores selling auto parts, clothing, and

appliances. Going back even further, the economic changes are more

striking. Older residents remember the six grocery stores that would

deliver to your home, local dairies that delivered milk in glass bottles,

and a train station. All that changed after World War II. A large mall

with the standard assortment of national merchants located 10 miles

away now drains off the largest part of what had once been mostly

local business. Going south out of town, new development in Oberlin

begins unsurprisingly with a McDonalds and a chain drug store. Farther

on, a Pizza Hut newly relocated from the downtown has opened

beside a large discount store with more strip development on the

way. If this sounds familiar, it should. It is the American pattern of

automobile-driven development by which capital moves from older

S P E E D 45

downtowns to the periphery where land is cheaper and zoning regulations

are more lax.

Despite the fact that the city includes a well-endowed college, a

vocational school, an air traffic control center, and an industrial park,

an estimated 38 percent of the residents of Oberlin live below the

poverty line. Money does not stay in the local economy for long. Most

of the salaries and wages paid out in Oberlin exit the city economy

quickly. Hence the multiplier effect or the number of times a dollar is

spent in the local economy before being used to purchase something

outside is low.

In contrast, 55 miles to the south in the Amish economy of

Holmes County, the economic multiplier would be very high and unemployment

and poverty virtually nonexistent. The Amish buy and

sell from each other. They make their own tools, farm implements,

and furniture. They grow a large percentage of their food, much of

which they process themselves so that the value is added locally.

Their expenditures for fuel, health care, consumer goods, luxury

items, and expensive items like cars or retirement costs are low to

zero. They have their own insurance system, which to a great extent

consists of the applied arts of neighborliness toward those in need.

They accept neither welfare nor social security. The contrast between

the Oberlin economy and that of the Amish could hardly be greater.

An Amish friend of mine recently told me that “the horse is the

salvation of the Amish society.” The Amish culture, as previously

noted, operates at the speed of the horse and the sun. Because they

farm with horses, they aren’t tempted to farm large amounts of land.

Farming with horses, in other words, serves as a brake to the temptation

to take over a neighbor’s land. And because the effective radius

of a horse-drawn buggy is about eight miles, and its hauling capacity is

low, the Amish are not much tempted by consumerism at the local

mall. But horsespeed does more. It slows the velocity of work to a

pace that allows close observation of soils, wildlife, and plants. My

Amish friend often uses only a walking plow, which he believes preserves

soil biota and prevents erosion. The speed of the horse, in other

words, allows the Amish to pay attention to the minute particulars of

their farm and how they farm. By a similar logic, he waits to cut hay

until the bobolinks in the field have fledged. The loss in protein content

in the hay he believes is more than compensated by the health of

the place and the pleasure derived from having birds on the farm.

The capital tied up in an Amish farm is mostly in land and buildings,

not in equipment. Their cash flow seldom goes to banks or vendors

of petrochemicals and fossil fuels. It is small wonder that Amish

farms continue to thrive while 4.5 million non-Amish farms have disappeared

in the past 60 years.


Several years ago the college where I teach created an electronic

“quick mail” system to reduce paper use and to increase our efficiency.

Electronic communication is now standard throughout most organizations.

The results, however, are mixed at best. The most obvious result

is a large increase in the sheer volume of stuff communicated,

much of which is utterly trivial. There is also a manifest decline in the

grammar, literary style, and civility of communication. People stroll

down the hall or across campus to converse less frequently than before.

Students remain transfixed before computer screens for hours,

often doing no more than playing computer games. Our conversations,

thought patterns, and institutional speed are increasingly

shaped to fit the imperatives of technology. Not surprisingly, more

and more people feel overloaded by the demands of incessant communication.

But to say so publicly is to run afoul of the technological

fundamentalism now dominant virtually everywhere.

By default and without much thought, it has been decided (or

decided for us) that communication ought to be cheap, easy, and

quick. Accordingly, more and more of us are instantly wired to the

global nervous system with cell phones, beepers, pagers, fax machines,

and e-mail. If useful in real emergencies, the overall result is to

homogenize the important with the trivial, making everything an

emergency and an already frenetic civilization even more frenetic. As

a result, we are drowning in unassimilated information, most of

which fits no meaningful picture of the world. In our public affairs

and in our private lives we are, I think, increasingly muddle-headed

because we have mistaken volume and speed of information for substance

and clarity.

On my desk I have the three volumes of correspondence between

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison written with quill pen

by candlelight and delivered by horse. The style is mostly impeccable.

S P E E D 47

Even when they wrote about mundane things, they did so with clarity

and insight. Their disagreements were expressed with civility and felicity.

The entire body of letters can be read for both pleasure and instruction.

Assuming people still read two centuries from now, will

they read the correspondence of, say, Bill Clinton or George W. Bush

for either pleasure or instruction? In contrast to our own, Jefferson

and Madison were part of a culture that, whatever its other flaws, had

time to take words seriously. They knew, intuitively perhaps, that information

and knowledge were not the same thing and that neither

was to be confused with wisdom. In large part the difference, whether

they thought about it or not, was the speed of the society.

It is time to consider the possibility that, for the most part, communication

ought to be somewhat slower, more difficult, and more

expensive than it is now. Beyond some relatively low threshold, the

rapid movement of information works against the emergence of

knowledge, which requires the time to mull things over, to test results,

and, when warranted, to change perceptions and behavior. The

speed of genuine wisdom, which requires the integration of many different

levels of knowledge, is slower still. Only over generations

through a process of trial and error can knowledge eventually congeal

into cultural wisdom about the art of living well within the resources,

assets, and limits of a place.


Water moving too quickly through a landscape does not recharge underground

aquifers. The results are floods in wet weather and

droughts in the summer. Money moving too quickly through an economy

does not recharge the local wellsprings of prosperity, whatever

else it does for the global economy. The result is an economy polarized

between those few who do well in a high-velocity economy and

those left behind. Information moving too quickly to become knowledge

and grow into wisdom does not recharge moral aquifers on

which families, communities, and entire nations depend. The result is

moral atrophy and public confusion. The common thread between all

three is velocity. And they are tied together in a complex system of

cause and effect that we have mostly overlooked.

There is an appropriate velocity for water set by geology, soils,

vegetation, and ecological relationships in a given landscape. There is

an appropriate velocity for money that corresponds to long-term

needs of whole communities rooted in particular places and the necessity

of preserving ecological capital. There is an appropriate velocity

for information, set by the assimilative capacity of the mind and by

the collective learning rate of communities and entire societies. Having

exceeded the speed limits, we are vulnerable to ecological degradation,

economic arrangements that are unjust and unsustainable,

and, in the face of great and complex problems, to befuddlement that

comes with information overload.

The ecological impacts of increased velocity of water are easy to

comprehend.We can see floods, and with effort we can discern how

human actions can amplify droughts. But it is harder to comprehend

the social, political, economic, and ecological effects of increasing velocity

of money and information, which are often indirect and hidden.

Increasing velocity of commerce, information, and transport,

however, requires more administration and regulation of human affairs

to ameliorate congestion and other problems. More administration

means that there are fewer productive people, higher overhead,

and higher taxes to pay for more infrastructure necessitated by the

speed of people and things and problems of congestion. Increasing

velocity and scale tends to increase the complexity of social and ecological

arrangements and reduce the time available to recognize and

avoid problems. Cures for problems caused by increasing velocity

often set in motion a cascading series of other problems. As a result,

we stumble through a succession of escalating crises with diminishing

capacity to act intelligently. Other examples fit the same pattern such

as the velocity of transportation, material flows, extraction of nonrenewable

resources, introduction of new chemicals, and human reproduction.

At the local scale the effect is widening circles of disintegration

and social disorder. At the global scale, the rate of change caused

by increasing velocity disrupts biological evolution and the biogeochemical

cycles of the earth.

The increasing velocity of the global culture is no accident. It is

the foundation of the corporation-dominated global economy that

requires quick returns on investment and the obsession with rapid

economic growth. It is the soul of the consumer economy that feeds

S P E E D 49

on impulse, obsession, and instant gratification. The velocity of water

in our landscape is a direct result of too many automobiles, too much

paving, sprawling development, deforestation, and a food system that

cannot be sustained in any decent or safe manner. The speed of information

is driven by something that more and more resembles addiction.

But above all, increasing speed is driven by minds unaware of the

irony that the race has never been to the swift.


We are now engaged in a great global debate about how we might

lengthen our tenure on the earth. The discussion is mostly confined to

options having to do with better technology, more accurate resource

prices, and smarter public policies, all of which are eminently sensible,

but hardly sufficient. The problem is simply how a species

pleased to call itself Homo sapiens fits on a planet with a biosphere.

This is a design problem and requires a design philosophy that takes

time, velocity, scale, evolution, and ecology seriously.We will neither

conserve biotic resources nor build a sustainable civilization that operates

at our present velocity.

But here’s the rub: The very ideas that we need to build a sustainable

civilization need to be invented or rediscovered, then widely

disseminated, and put into practice quickly. Yet the same forces that

have combined to give us a high-velocity economy and society reform

themselves at glacial speed. Nearly 140 years after The Origin of

Species, we still farm as if evolution did not matter. More than three

decades after Silent Spring, we use more synthetic chemicals than

ever. Three decades after publication of The Limits to Growth (Meadows

et al. 1972), economic obesity is still the goal of governments

everywhere. And a quarter of a century after Amory Lovins’s

prophetic and, as it turns out, understated projections about the potential

for energy efficiency and solar energy (Lovins 1976), we are

still using two to three times more fossil fuel than we need.Wendell

Berry’s devastating critique of American agriculture was published in

1977, yet sustainable agriculture is still a distant dream. Nearly a

decade has passed since the scientific consensus began to form about

the seriousness of global warming, yet we dawdle. I could go on, but

the point is clear. The things that need to happen rapidly such as the

preservation of biological diversity, the transition to a solar society,

the widespread application of sustainable agriculture and forestry,

population limits, the protection of basic human rights, and democratic

reform occur slowly, if at all, while ecological ruin and economic

dislocation race ahead. What can be done?

First, we need a relentless analytical clarity to discern the huge inefficiencies

of high-speed “efficiency.”We have contrived a high-technology,

high-speed economy that is neither sustainable nor capable of

sustaining what is best in human cultures. On close examination,

many of the alleged benefits of ever-rising affluence are fraudulent

claims. Thoughtful analysis reveals that our economy often works to

do with great expense, complication, and waste things that could be

done more simply, elegantly, and harmoniously or in some cases

things that should not be done at all. Most of our mistakes were a result

of hurry in the name of economic competition, or national security,

or progress. Now many mistakes must be expensively undone or

written off as a permanent loss. The speed of the industrial economy

must be reset to take account of evolution, natural rhythms, and genuine

human needs. That means recalibrating public policies and taxation

to promote a more durable prosperity.

Next, we need a more robust idea of time and scale that takes the

health of people and communities seriously:

The only way that can induce us to reduce our speed of movements

is a return to a spatially more contracted, leisurely, and

largely pedestrian mode of life that makes high speeds not

only unnecessary but as uneconomic as a Concorde would be

for crossing the English Channel. . . . In other words, slow is

beautiful in an appropriately contracted small social environment

of beehive density and animation not only from a political

and economic but, in the most literal sense, also from

an aesthetic point of view, releasing an abundance of long

abandoned energy not by patriotically making us drive

slowly, but by depriving us materially of the need for driving

fast. (Kohr 1980, 58)

Our assumptions about time are crystallized in community design and

architecture. Sprawling cities, economic dependency, and long-distance

transport of food and materials require high-velocity transport,

S P E E D 51

high-speed communication, and result in higher costs, community

disintegration, and ecological deformation. Rethinking velocity and

time will require rethinking our relationship to the land as well. Here,

too, we have options for increasing density through open space development

and smarter planning that create proximity between housing,

employment, shopping, culture, public spaces, recreation, and health

care—what is now being called the “new urbanism.”

Finally, in a society in which people sometimes talk about “killing

time” we must learn, rather, to take time.We must learn to take time

to study nature as the standard for much of what we need to do.We

must take time and make the effort to preserve both cultural and biological

diversity. We must take time to calculate the full costs of

what we do. We must take time to make things durable, repairable,

useful, and beautiful.We must take the time, not just to recycle, but

rather to eliminate the very concept of waste. In most things, timeliness

and regularity, not speed, are important. Genuine charity, good

parenting, true neighborliness, good lives, decent communities, conviviality,

democratic deliberation, real prosperity, mental health, and

the exercise of true intelligence have a certain pace and rhythm that

can only be harmed by being accelerated. The means to control velocity

can be designed into daily life like speed bumps designed to

slow auto traffic. Holidays, festivals, celebrations, sabbaticals, Sabbaths,

prayer, good conversation, storytelling, music making, the practice

of fallowing, shared meals, a high degree of self-reliance, craftwork,

walking, and shared physical work are speed control devices

used by every healthy culture.