22. Revisiting the Slowdown, and the end of the Great Acceleration
Danny Dorling’s book ‘Slowdown’ on how the engine driving the Great Acceleration is being dismantled; Japan, Greece, and the Nordics as ‘developing nations’; Fukuyama on the tea ceremony versus Japanification
Perhaps the most interesting paradigm in front of us is the least discussed yet, and a gently confronting idea that undercuts numerous established mental models. In his book Slowdown, the Oxford University economic geographer Danny Dorling claims that the age known as the ‘Great Acceleration’ — the age that many experts assume we are in the midst of — actually ended some decades ago. Instead, the emerging patterns of our age are characterised by a slowing down rather than acceleration, across almost every single measure that we think is moving in the opposite direction at great pace.
As I touched on in the previous batch of papers, Dorling makes a convincing case using a vast and diverse array of data, such as global population increases, GDP per capita, life expectancy, fertility rates, house prices, student debt, productivity rates, the growth of megacities, technological development. Dorling describes how each pattern is in its deceleration phase. Whilst some are still growing — such as global population, student debt, or the size of Shanghai — ‘the change in the change’ is dropping, and sometimes rapidly.
This presents a quite different set of dynamics to those of the Great Acceleration. In Small is Beautiful (1973), EF Schumacher summarised these simply by reporting the words of Sicco Mansholt of the European Economic Community.
“More, further, quicker, richer are the watchwords of present-day society … (We must help people adapt for) there is no alternative.”—Sicco Mansholt
Mansholt’s phrase “there is no alternative” (or TINA), infamously echoed by Margaret Thatcher, is perhaps the prime example of how a locked-in, un-questioned ideology can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet Dorling’s data suggests that are alternatives. If such data is representative of a change in something this fundamental, certainly different patterns of habitation will emerge, or are already emerging around us. Our challenge, recalling Donella Meadows, is that fundamental paradigm shifts tend to be fiercely resisted at the societal level. These mental models — around growth for instance, and therefore extractive development — are locked in deeply.
Thomas Piketty, in Capital and Ideology (2019), describes such models as being “a priori plausible”. In other words, those ideas which are apparently ‘common sense’, yet are in fact markers of the deeper ideology within which some sense is understood to be ‘common’, and that which is not.
So what are the new characteristics of the Slowdown era, a different set of ‘a priori plausibles’ to that of the Great Acceleration? How might it undercut the fundamental assumptions, the unstated beliefs that Donella Meadows described, that have defined our patterns of living for a couple of generations?
For instance, if population begins to slow down, property prices — by definition predicated on continuous demand (of increased people) outstripping supply (of buildings) — can no longer be assumed to rise over time. This applies to houses as well as commercial office buildings. GDP growth becomes awkwardly problematic as a goal in itself: fewer people, less demand. It’s not that there is no demand; it’s just a very different engine underneath the economy, altogether gentler, slower, quieter, and with the potential to be more balanced as a result. The demographic statistics that Dorling collates perhaps explain why GDP growth has recently been so sluggish in so many places, why productivity in so-called advanced economies has been quite so resistant to stimulus. (In a conversation with Tyler Cowan, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama Jason Furman responds to questions about low productivity compared to the 1950s by almost audibly shrugging, muttering “That’s just what it is.”)
During July 2020, a few months after Dorling’s book was released, the latest projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washinton indicate that, as Dorling suggested, the global population will be around 8.8 billion people by 2100, 2 billion fewer than current UN projections. The Guardian reported that:
“More than 20 countries — including Japan, Spain, Italy, Thailand, Portugal, South Korea and Poland — will see their numbers diminish by at least half. China’s will fall nearly that much, from 1.4 billion people today to 730 million in 80 years.” (emphasis added)
Lead author Prof. Christopher Murray says, “These forecasts suggest good news for the environment, with less stress on food production systems and lower carbon emissions, as well as significant economic opportunity for parts of sub-Saharan Africa. However, most countries outside of Africa will see shrinking workforces and inverting population pyramids, which will have profound negative consequences for the economy.” Their study finds that number of people of working age in China may plummet from about 950 million to just over 350 million by the end of the century, a 62% drop. Prof. Stein Emil Vollset noted that “Societies will struggle to grow with fewer workers and taxpayers.”) (The Lancet paper is here, and the IMHE news release is here.)
Dorling makes clear that the slowdown is not simply due to population growth slowing. There are numerous other factors at play here, including a broadening realisation that there are limits to growth, to coin a phrase. It is not simply a case of waiting for the slowing rate of population growth to solve our climate, health and social justice crises for us. Given that global temperatures are one of the few datapoints that Dorling shows is still rising, the slowdown is something we also have to actively bring about, particularly if we want to enable a just transition. This makes it a political question, rather than apolitical, concerning a series of active design decisions. Waiting passively will not deliver the reparations that must be made or the just transition that must be managed.
However, Dorling is largely very optimistic about these shifting dynamics were we to do so. They would enable us to focus on the growth that matters: addressing those entwined crises of climate, health, and social justice, recognising that the growth dynamic of the Acceleration had largely created these problems.
Indeed, Dorling describes that slowing that dynamic has occurred through social progress towards stability, “driven not by the achievements almost entirely ascribed to men and their wonderful inventions, but by the choices that women first made once they had won just a little of the freedom to work, vote, and plan the size of their families.”
And clearly, feminism has not simply been ‘driven by’ economics, despite its secondary impact on the size and quality of the workforce. Social progress is of far greater importance than economics, and clearly concerns fundamental questions of ethics and social justice in a way that tends to make certain economists so itchy. Ethically speaking, we must speed up social progress, the growth that matters. Not obsessing over economic growth, as traditionally framed, may enable this reprioritisation.
In that, Dorling speculates that what could be left is something akin to Japan, “the first large country in the world to slow down”, or perhaps other ageing countries like Sweden and Finland, which are also arguably in what Dorling calls their ‘settling’ phase.
Dorling dwells on countries like Japan, noting with relish that the apparent dreaded disease of slow growth ‘Japanification’ scares the pants off people like the Financial Times. Instead, Dorling sees Japan as moving forwards in other, arguably more important aspects. As “the first large country in the world to slow down,” he describes Japan’s steady movement in social progress, across women’s rights, matters of sexuality and gender, race, environment, immigration, and even more oblique social matters, such as the daughter of a modest academic marrying into the royal family.
Again, all unthinkable a few decades ago. By some international standards, Japan clearly has a long way to go on these issues — don’t we all, relatively speaking? — but that social progress happened precisely in the years that Japanification started occurring, whilst its economy and population in slowdown mode, rather than Acceleration.
It’s also worth reading this Financial Times article on Japanification, in which they confront the apparent paradox, to their eyes, of the country’s high standard of living and low economic growth. It draws from The Power of Money, in which Robert Pringle notes several apparently unique Japanese conditions that explain this ‘anomaly’.
Now, however, it may well be worth assessing whether these conditions could be relevant more broadly in the Slowdown, and whether they are possible to exert within other places. For example, they include the high number of very old companies in Japan, a feature I noted the value of in Slowdown Paper 16. Pringle explains how this resilience is in part due to lessened focus on short-term profit, and instead more “selfless dedication to service, abhorrence of pecuniary motives, modesty, a ceaseless and untiring search for perfection and endless patience.” Equally, “there is less emphasis on monetary measures of success” in comparison to the USA, and little social conflict as a result. Pringle also describes the “subordination of the individual to the group” in Japanese culture, discouraging competition with the aim of a stable society. This relative homogeneity, enabling that a balance of individual and collective, combined with a fear of confrontation, or conversely, a desire for consensus, is relatively unusual, of course—though it has echoes in Nordic culture, to some extent.
Perhaps we might reframe ageing societies like Japan, Singapore, or the Nordic region, as “emerging economies” or “developing nations”, in that it is their ageing populations that are the first into the Slowdown years. This is the new direction to develop towards, or the condition to emerge within. These are the nations that could be compelled to figure out true social and environmental progress, without rapid GDP and population growth masking those issues.
In turn, that would present a different dynamic for what many currently think of the developing world: not destined to repeat the same mistakes of the so-called developed world, with its short-term-attractive cul-de-sacs of excess carbon, poor health, and rampant inequality. As Bee Wilson has pointed out, “the highest-quality overall diets in the world are mostly to be found not in rich countries but in the continent of Africa, mostly in the less developed sub-Saharan regions.” That data does not exactly match the narrative of the North exporting an advanced food culture, or extracting raw materials for food processing from Africa, rather than its food culture and diet. Perhaps if we were able to expose and reframe our assumptions, other trajectories emerge all round.
In his book How Democracy Ends, David Runciman also dwells on Japan. This is partly because the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama did so, in his hugely influential The End of History and the Last Man (You can also hear Runciman discuss Fukuyama, and why his perhaps flawed view in underestimating the East, in his brilliant History of Ideas podcast series, from which I’ve been taking regular doses, as if a palliative soundtrack to the pandemic.)
“Francis Fukuyama cited Japan (along with the EU) as the likeliest illustration of what we could expect from the end of history: the triumph of democracy would turn out to be stable, prosperous, efficient and just a little bit boring … Today Japan and Greece are rarely invoked by politicians in other democracies as exemplars of the possible fate that awaits us all. They don’t work as morality tales any more because their message has grown too ambiguous. Japan remains stuck in a political and economic rut yet it continues to function perfectly well as a stable, affluent society that looks after its citizens. Imagine drawing a ticket in the great lottery of life that assigned a time and a place in which to live from across the sweep of human history. If it read: “Japan, early twenty-first century’, you would still feel like you’d won the jackpot.”—David Runciman, How Democracy Ends (2018)
Here, Runciman doesn’t quite unpack the promising nature of that ambiguity. How can winning the jackpot coexist with being in an economic rut? That’s interesting! Ambiguity is our current condition, not least under the virus. It’s something we have to learn how to work with, and within, and it describes a very different form of ‘drama’ than the simple narrative arcs and resolutions that Runciman suggests politicians are looking for.
“It is Japan and Greece that now offer the best guides to how democracy might end up … As morality tales ago, they are missing something. What they lack is a moral. Instead of the drama reaching a climax, democracy persists in a kind of frozen crouch, holding on, waiting it out, even if it is far from clear what anyone is waiting for. After a while, the waiting becomes the point of the exercise. Something will turn up eventually. It always does.”—David Runciman
This ‘waiting it out’ is clearly problematic, including in the context of Greece and Japan, as Runciman makes perfectly clear with reference to the various toxicities in their political culture, and their various inequalities. Things do not ‘turn up’ equally. I’ll pick up the imperative that we must not simply wait it out later on in this series. In his podcast on Fukuyama, Runciman describes the familiar refrains of ‘missing years’ and ‘spinning wheels’ usually applied to the stasis perceived in Japan and Greece; as if there is nothing to see there. Of Japan, Runciman says that “it does not seem like it’s providentially surfing the river of history — it’s got stuck in the reeds.”
But perhaps this is the point. There is much to see in Japan, just not from when viewed through the orthodox lens (as Runciman knows). Fukuyama, in his The End of History and the Last Man, used the motif of the tea ceremony in his uncomfortable dismissal of Japanese culture, conveying what he saw as a pervasive pointlessness, or stasis, at best, and at worst, a humiliating subjugation to an unchallenged hierarchical social order concerned with recreating a self-protecting stasis. Fukuyama saw Japanese culture as exemplifying the latter of his two manifestations of thymos: isothymia and megalothymia. (Isothymia is the desire to be recognized as the equal of other people, whereas megalothymia is the demand of certain individuals to be recognized as superior to others.)
“After the rise of the Shogun Hideyoshi in the fifteenth century, Japan experienced a state of internal and external peace for a period of several hundred years which very much resembled Hegel’s postulated end of history. Neither the upper nor lower classes struggled against each other, and did not have to work terribly hard. But rather than pursuing love or play instinctively like young animals — in other words, instead of turning into a society of last men — the Japanese demonstrated that it is possible to continue to be human through the invention of a series of perfectly contentless formal arts, like Noh theater, tea ceremonies, flower arranging, and the like. A tea ceremony does not serve any explicit political or economic purpose; even its symbolic significance has been lost over time. And yet, it is an arena for megalothymia in the form of pure snobbery: there are contending schools for tea ceremony and flower arrangement, with their own masters, novices, traditions, and canons of better and worse … (I)n a world where struggle over all of the large issues had been largely settled, a purely formal snobbery would become the chief form of expression of megalothymia, of man’s desire to be recognized as better than his fellows. In the United States, our utilitarian traditions make it difficult for even the fine arts to become purely formal. Artists like to convince themselves that they are being socially responsible in addition to being committed to aesthetic values. But the end of history will mean the end, among other things, of all art that could be considered socially useful, and hence the descent of artistic activity into the empty formalism of the traditional Japanese arts.”—Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (1992)
This passage feels somewhat like a political scientist picking up the entire field of aesthetics in his analytical tweezers and peering at it, as if an exotic insect, or frustratedly shuffling columns in Excel, attempting to find the value of art via arithmetic. To reduce art to a simple gradient opposing solid, utilitarian and responsible (American) and contentless, empty and snobbish (Asian) is uncomfortable indeed, as well as entirely missing the point.
I’m not the person to produce a fuller critique of that position, but seeing as Fukuyama has landed on the tea ceremony’s function—if that is what we must reduce it to—do read the opening words from The Book of Tea (茶の本, Cha no Hon) by Okakura Kakuzō, published in 1906:
“(It is) founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life. The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion to the universe. It represents the true spirit of Eastern democracy by making all its votaries aristocrats in taste.”— ‘The Book of Tea’, Okakura Kakuzō (1906)
This hardly seems pointless. Indeed, it could be that cultivating a “comfort in simplicity rather than the complex and the costly”, or the “moral geometry (in) defining our sense of proportion to the universe” would be extremely valuable practices right now.
The Slowdown conditions in Japan after the Shogun Hideyoshi—in Fukuyama’s words, “a state of internal and external peace for a period of several hundred years”— would be interesting to understand more about, particularly after Dorling’s ideas. What could be learned from this time, and what might not—given the isolationist sakoku period that followed; what might translate to a contemporary globalised condition under Slowdown dynamics?
An article in Foreign Affairs goes so far as to suggest that Japan is actually very well positioned for these next moments.
“The United States, whose response to the virus exposed chaos and division, stands to lose migrants. But other countries will gain them, and with them, the attendant benefits of diversity, dynamism, and new talent. Few stand to profit more than Japan, a relatively secure and stable country with low unemployment — even a need for more laborers — and excellent universities that can lure students who may now be reluctant to risk expensive study in the West. Japan has long been considered a fairly homogeneous country. After the pandemic, it is likely to grow more diverse and globally connected. This transformation, which will remake Japanese society and challenge the traditional understanding of its national identity, is necessary if Japan wants to remain a significant power in the global arena.”—‘Post-Pandemic Japan Will Attract the World’, Gracia Liu-Farrer, Foreign Affairs, 24 July 2020
It will not be that straightforward; given the often tortured cultural dynamics merely hinted at in that article a ‘just transition’ will be full of struggle and strife. Again, reading Shigeru Mizuki’s epic history of 20th century Japan suggests a country that in which “secure and stable” is an exception rather than the rule—unless we are truly in some Slowdown-era sakoku-with-internet condition. The Japanese ‘jackpot’ that Runciman describes is clearly not equally distributed either, as reading novels like Mieko Kawamaki’s Breasts and Eggs makes perfectly clear, describing an everyday Japan that the gaijin tourist will rarely encounter.
“You only know what it means to be poor, or have the right to talk about it, if you’ve been there yourself. Maybe you’re poor now. Maybe you were poor in the past. I’m both. I was born poor, and I’m still poor.”—‘Breasts and Eggs’, Mieko Kawamaki (2020)
Yet this alternative to the hand-wringing over Japanification, simply because contemporary Japan does not fit into a mental model attuned to Great Acceleration, is most welcome. Somewhere between that Foreign Affairs puff-piece and Kawamaki’s vivid descriptions of the working poor is where we are—a place of ambiguity.
With Japan, as with China, it’s not at all easy to see through the reeds that Runciman referred to, from within or without. But that does not mean there is nothing to see. It is a complex place, resisting the easy filing of the narrative beloved of hour-long podcasts and Anglo-American culture generally. We may need to engage more fully with these complex places in these complex times, and with a variety of lenses in play, cultural as well as economic or technical. If, perhaps like Fukuyama, we are unable to read the meaning within aesthetics, we are unlikely to be able to read much meaning beyond.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Japan and Greece have handled the virus relatively well, thus far at least, despite what many would have expected given their elderly populations (and especially of Greece, given their reputation within Europe). This could be in line with them beginning to ‘handle’ the slowdown, perhaps. We could continue to learn from these older states—old in the sense of continuous civilisations, as well as the average age of populace—rather than dismiss them. The sheer span of their timelines flattens the series of obvious spikes the contemporary observer obsesses about, providing a sense of perspective. Shankaj Mishra makes a powerful point when he suggests that such societies, having rebuilt after genuine disaster and outright failure many times, are far more resilient models to learn from than the Anglo-American empires who, put simply, got lucky.
Yet it is difficult to imagine any current national politician embracing the idea of the slowdown, publicly at least, including in Japan and Greece. Yet reviewing the events described above, and without wishing to crassly discuss any form of silver linings to a pandemic, the COVID-induced lockdown may have worked as something of a prototype of the Slowdown that Dorling describes, perhaps even working as an accelerant of these deeper trends.
(Under Japan’s version of the lockdown, and according to a poll of 5,000 full-time workers in Japan by Nomura Research Institute (NRI), nearly 60% of men with children under the age of six claimed that working from home helped them play a greater role in parenting. Of course, men should not require a pandemic to be in place before they start helping with the laundry—and elsewhere, there is emerging evidence from the UK that men have not shared the various burdens of the lockdown much at all.)
The lockdown, where it has occurred, engendered a fundamental shift in terms of living and working patterns, just as other events — from bushfires to Black Lives Matter — have forced the question of fundamental resets onto the table.
We have both behaviour change, due to the lockdown, and attitude change, due to protests, in play simultaneously, set against the backdrop of the slowdown that Dorling describes. With the stakes this high, this is a moment to rethink what is understood to be ‘common sense’ or ‘a priori plausible’.
Looking back at some of the nascent patterns I tentatively wrote about in my earlier sets of Papers, many of them have either continued, or solidified even—and in other cases, have simply been actively discussed more than before. It seems to me that these patterns are not in question. Living and working patterns remain thoroughly shifted in many cases; others have snapped back a little, yet not to what they were. The ‘a priori plausibles’ are wobbling, meandering a little, or at least shaken.
We continue to slide into potentially radical shifts, like universal basic incomes or shorter working weeks, simply by extending the various forms of furlough in place (Germany just extended its Kurzarbeit part-time working scheme for 24 months.) This is fascinating, of course, yet that ‘sliding’, rather than active design, means that the more considered approaches—perhaps such as the universal basic services, or essential infrastructures, that I suggested—are not really on the table, or even approaching it the boardroom. (Diane Coyle quite rightly points out some of the problems with UBI in Talking Politics recently; we have to be careful here. Equally, working less would be a good goal for many reasons: it tends to both reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants and increase peoples’ health and wellbeing.)
The great question of the Slowdown thesis is, well, what do we do about it? As I pointed out in the first series, this is still not a time to make those definitive decisions. Whilst the potential for addressing our great linked crises is still latent in this moment, the required shifts in strategies, policies, and institutions are far from clear.
Yet just as with the previous set of Papers, which began to extrapolate today’s patterns into tomorrow’s possible shifts in spatial organisation, over the coming Papers I’ll explore a few of the different implications for cities, places, and everyday infrastructures. They’ll explore what could happen if we approached the practices of design, innovation, and policymaking differently. Can they be tuned more appropriately to the moment, and to the needs of the coming years, pandemic or not? In particular I’ll explore the landscapes and infrastructures of the Slowdown, loosely sketching their mood-worlds, dynamics and patterns. This is far from a fully developed theory or playbook, yet there is something there.
The economic and development models underpinning some of these shifts are less clear. To some, such as the ‘convivial conservationists’ I end with, the change required is genuinely radical. To others, variants on entirely different fiscal policies, like modern monetary theory, are necessary. In the shorter term, a shift towards working with co-benefits may not fully produce the economy of care we need. But many of us think that they are at least a step in that direction. (In this case, the co-benefits approach could be summarised as producing environments that resolve and promote health, climate resilience, and social justice simultaneously, borrowing for the investment required by bringing forward the savings they make.)
Our challenge is in slowly raising our sights from the short-term imperative to slow down a pandemic, in order to assess the landscape ahead of us. Many, myself included, still see the virus as a chance to work new practices into place, in order to prepare for the deeper crises to come, and begin to start addressing them coherently, meaningfully.
The UK’s Royal Institution Christmas lecturers for this year say that “Covid is ‘restart button” for climate action.
“One of the excuses people give for not doing things about climate change is, ‘Oh, there’s this enormous system and it’s too hard or too expensive or too difficult to change it because that’s the way it is’. What’s happening now is that systems are having to change.” — Dr. Helen Czerski
“Covid is a restart button. The pandemic provided an opportunity to build on developments such as the EU green deal, while opening conversations about risk and resilience. To be resilient to the next pandemic we have to build some of the same core skills and capabilities that we need to be resilient to climate change.” — Dr. Tara Shine
Yet as I’ll note, even ‘global pause’ events do not necessarily change systems. Where they do change them, they may not do so equitably. There are battles ahead, yet the phoney wars for these campaigns are unfolding around us right now.
My focus is trained on our fundamental patterns of habitation, our living environments, our infrastructures and technologies of everyday life. They sit within the broader context described above, and are entirely shaped by the mental models that inhabit and shape that dark matter. Given that these patterns are changing around us in real time, perhaps with increased speed, how might we begin to understand what is happening to these infrastructures of everyday life, and what may possibilities may be latent within this moment?
Next: 23: Slowdown landscapes: Flattening the curve on the city centre
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Intro to third batch: 19. The waters draw back, only to returnIntro to Slowdown Papers: 1. Writing the coronavirus to memory
Index: All Slowdown Papers are here