Sunday, April 6, 2008

Books and Cars

World Made by Hand is the latest book by James Howard Kunstler, author of The Long Emergency which examined issues such as running out of oil and the resulting collapse of industrialism and the extravagant way of life based on it.

The new book is a fictional look at what life may be like in the near future after that collapse. Passing mention is made of major bombs in LA and DC, plague, flu, starvation, climate change, general chaos and violence leading to the greatly reduced population but the book focuses on what life is like for the residents of an upstate New York town living a simple and demanding life in rural isolation.

The novel has plenty of flaws, but I enjoyed reading it because I long for the days it describes and believe the collapse and resulting die off is not only unavoidable, but also necessary for the good of humans as well as more obviously for the other species on the planet. Our ignorant and abusive dominance of the planet must come to an end.

For those horrified by the thought of looking forward to something which will only come about through a great deal of suffering and death (of course, our way of life also only exists because of a great deal of suffering and death—just not our own, so we don’t worry about it), another book I recently read offered an alternative much further in the future, but much more closely following the path of our current way of life.

In The Companions by Sheri S. Tepper, it’s 700 years in the future and people live in square mile skyscrapers hundreds of floors high. All other species have been eliminated for using up air and space, and the group IGI-HFO (In God’s Image-Humans First and Only) doesn’t seem far removed from the dominant values of today.

Perhaps there are people who would prefer that way of life to a greatly reduced population living much more deliberately, but I’m certainly not one of them. As my favorite exchange in Kunstler’s book puts it,

“We’ve lost our world.”
“Only the part that the machines lived in.”

The machine I’d most like to see die is the automobile and they are part of the past in this book which rather lovingly and frequently mentions the decaying of roads and parking lots. No doubt the Duluth woman who turns every topic on the local newspaper’s website into a forum for her complaints about potholes would rather live in one of Tepper's skyscrapers.

Following are some updated thoughts about cars and their effects from an old column I headlined Car Culture or Auto Addiction.

A couple local columnists wrote about cars. One wrote of her family’s need for a second car while acknowledging the environment would be better off if they didn’t have it. She claimed to need the freedom it provided while describing a condition which sounded more like dependency. The second wrote of being against drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge while acknowledging that his solo drive to the office made him part of the problem, and didn’t even mention all his long-distance trips.

They illustrate one of the reasons I have so little respect and hope for the human species in its current form. Even people who know the proper responsible action continue to act in their own perceived selfish and short-term interests. And the majority of people don’t even care enough to admit the lack of integrity in their lives.

I believe that anyone who can’t get between their home and workplace under their own power or by public transportation is living or working in the wrong place. This is admittedly often difficult due to inadequate public transportation and society being set up around the car, but there is no legitimate reason for living in the country or suburb and working in the city. It’s a completely understandable desire but also irresponsible. Imagine instead a world where people took responsibility for conditions around their downtown workplaces and cared about their neighbors there instead of scurrying back to a suburb to live their antiseptic lives and write letters of horror about crime.

When I attended Duluth’s charette meeting on transportation, someone claimed we all love our cars. After someone disagreed, another person later repeated that we all love our cars and was reminded that this is not true. It was as if people could not conceive of people living without cars, much less opposing them, even when face to face with those people.

Another gentleman referred to switching to public transportation as going backward. In my own unenlightened days when I thought animal experimentation was acceptable, the rats and I learned that when we reached a dead end, turning around and going backward was the intelligent thing to do. In our culture, most people prefer to keep banging their heads against the wall rather than turn around and start living a very different and necessary life. Perhaps calling our society a rat race grants it more credit than is due.

I have never owned a car and haven’t driven one in about twenty-five years. When I lived in a city with good public transportation, I didn’t even ride in one for years. One night after dinner with friends, I let someone give me a ride home and felt as if I was in an unknown city because of the change in viewpoint as we traveled.

Staying out of cars changes one’s entire life. I live at a slower, more relaxed pace, more connected to the natural world and its rhythms, and more aware and respectful of other life forms. I experience Duluth’s fascinating microclimates rather than try to keep myself removed from the weather. I know the aging of my body as I climb and descend our hills. In short, I’m more alive and more aware of where I live.

Trying to create cars which aren’t dependent on oil would be a step in the right direction. Certainly I’d like to be rid of the stench of them as I walk along the sidewalk or cross a street and I’d prefer to never see another rainbow of pollution on the pavement when it rains.

But the real problem remains the automobile itself. Changing its means of power will not eliminate the destruction of habitat (a paved area the size of Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania) caused by it, or the killing of an estimated one million animals a week by it. It won’t reduce our culture’s intoxication with speed and noise, or our laziness and obesity.

It won’t change the fact that automobiles are the leading cause of death of children and have killed more Americans than all of our wars. You want me to be outraged about 4,000 Americans killed in Iraq? Every year, 40,000 Americans are killed in car accidents. Where’s your outrage about that and why are you contributing to it?


Stephanie said...

A thought-provoking post, greentangle.

This--"In our culture, most people prefer to keep banging their heads against the wall rather than turn around and start living a very different and necessary life"--reminded me of a line I read somewhere else years ago, and now I'm going to go mad trying to figure out just where and what it was. Regardless, this (your entry, not what I'm trying to remember) was well said. We're not always exactly on the same page, but I completely get what you're saying, more than I want to sometimes.

greentangle said...

I never expect anyone to be on the same page with me; I'm happy if they're even in the same book.