We all take for granted that our world runs at a fast pace. In fact, it accelerates every year. Technology is obsolete almost before a gizmo is out of its packaging. People are on the go 24/7. Private time is almost an anachronism, what with GPS chips in the near-ubiquitous cell phone (something I may end up acquiring later this year, after resisting all this time), and the concept of all-access work and personal relationships. These new issues of time and space are bound to have unforeseen (or, at least, unplanned-for) repercussions.
For one, being busy distorts one's sense of priority. I have seen this in many people I know. They are forced to be expeditious due to 10-hour workdays, child-care demands, commutes, etc. They schedule almost the entire 24-hour period down to the minute. Try getting these people to add another responsibility to their list. Or, try asking them to do anything: they will see it as an unfair drain on their time and attention. (Often it is attention that is the precious commodity, especially when some tasks consume almost no time at all - or consume time otherwise wasted.) They get resentful, stressed, even self-righteous.
Busy people like these (and not all have this attitude towards task management) will be the last to adopt voluntary measures for the betterment of the community. For example, they may resent having to separate their garbage into true waste, recyclables, and compost - because they are just too busy, damn it! In reality, the extra bother involved barely requires another minute or two per disposal act (if the appropriate bins are nearby, of course). The issue is not time, as I say, but attention. While being busy genuinely alters cognitive function, a significant measure of self-permission factors into it all. ("I am a BUSY PERSON. I have BETTER THINGS to do than sort trash!")
Okay, you say, so the guy doesn't want to sort trash. He's a CEO with 3 kids, for crying out loud. Fair enough. But one household sending all its trash to the landfill is multiplied many times over in a society that does not value social responibility enough to allow people time to think outside of their million little survival and pseudo-survival tactics. The insidiousness of busyness is not only the way it shrinks a day, precluding valuable time with children or aging parents, or just a good soak in the tub alone. It's the way it shrinks the circle of concern.
Many people neglect the planet at large: it's just too abstract to love. More are apt to donate money to disaster victims or buy Fair Trade items, for example, to help strangers in other lands. More yet will aid their compatriots, and many more deem their local community important. Of course, family tends to get the highest level of concern.
But make someone busy, and he's going to start shutting down what matters, one concentric circle at a time. Companies that take a pound of flesh from their employees - threatening them with lay offs if they don't do overtime, for example - may end up ruining their family life as well as their community participation. In today's economy, people are so grateful to work, they will sacrifice almost anything to stay employed.
As more and more companies feel entitled to overwork their people, this trend will go viral. Like loneliness, this becomes contagious. Indeed, it is a kind of isolation - that we are manipulated into creating ourselves.
If your mind tends towards conspiracy theories, it's easy to see this as intentional: divide and conquer works well under dictatorships, so why not here? Does being a democracy protect us from deliberate social fragmentation? I think not.
The upside of the economic slump may be (and I try to be optimistic) a reassessment of human values. It may not lead to an up-tick in recycling, but it could mean more parks crowded with families on week-ends, just being together - and seeing other families doing the same. Get enough of that going on - for almost no money - and we may see rebirth of the cohesive, politically active community.