Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fatal Pace

Oregon, Wisconsin USA

Our failure as a community to support and reward those who attempt to go about their lives at a walking or bicycling pace is bad enough. But the recent cyclist fatality near Brooklyn, Wisconsin reminds us that we-the-drivers often pose a life-and-death threat to non-motorists. The swift, the powerful, and the heavily-armored so thoroughly dominate most of our public thoroughfares today that merely walking or bicycling across them can be hazardous. (Walk or bicycle along them? Forget it!)

Our pervasive (if unintentional) disregard for the “least among us” – i.e. those annoyingly slow, small, vulnerable creatures called pedestrians and bicyclists – represents one of the most flagrant injustices in our society. Rather than joining the anthropogenically-motivated, we’ve made things even worse by withdrawing ever more frequently into our supersized vehicular exoskeletons. Many of us now consider a three-ton armored personnel carrier a practical necessity for conveying our youngster to extra-curricular activities. “My child needs to participate just like other normal children, and I need a big SUV to keep her safe!”

Unsurprisingly, our police and highway departments won’t slow drivers down enough to make it feel safe and be safe for non-motorists on our roads and highways. A more human pace would surely throw a wrench in our speed-addicted economy, and a voting majority that has become almost totally dependent on the automobile would not suffer any such disruption to the “Happy Motoring” way of life.

I cannot end this with a pep talk and some bullet-points. Not only is the Brooklyn cyclist’s death a tragedy; our sprawling, hyper-mobile, resource-gobbling way of life is a tragedy as well. And so long as we cling to our steering wheels; so long as our leaders deploy American troops all over Earth to ensure an uninterrupted flow of cheap energy into our tanks, nothing will change.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sinking In

This past weekend at my wife's family farm on County Highway D south of Madison, Wisconsin, we had a garage/estate sale to dispose of my brother-in-law's material possessions. Traffic was good - if one considers 99% of potential buyers using a motor vehicle to access 99% of their destinations to be desirable.

For once I kept my mouth shut about our nation's wars and occupations for oil, our addiction to driving everywhere, the enormous Environmental Footprint of homo automobilicus, etc. and just tried to sell my brother-in-law's stuff and thus cover his bills. Instead I used the occasion to quietly absorb the vast gulf between my beliefs versus our prevailing expectations and norms.

The overwhelming majority of people in these parts simply cannot imagine not driving everywhere. They lack any comprehension that their way of life undermines and destroys far more frugal - potentially even SUSTAINABLE - ways of living in their midst. Spending time there near that highway (a once-quiet country road which has morphed into a heavily congested two-lane commuter artery into Madison) I was stunned by the violence of movement. Seeing the vehicles that pulled into the yard, I was disgusted by the phenomenal size of many of them, especially when one considers they are used nearly all of the time for single-occupancy commuting and chauffeuring little Brittany to extra-cirricular activities rather than carpooling or hauling heavy, bulky stuff to jobsites.

What kind of power-mad, self-obsessed monsters have we become? So many people have collapsed their own identity into the identity of their motor vehicle(s). Motorcycle as lifestyle. Pickup truck as codpiece. Speed and power and restless movement as rebellion…against what? Everything branded, everything a logo and image. My own brother-in-law, God rest his soul, was a man who could express his love for his Harley and Suburban and Corvette far better than he could express love for humans; he bought into the Happy Motoring paradigm for the better part of his life. He may have been "book smart"; he certainly did well in the corporate world for a while; but he was a sucker for the perpetual dissatisfaction corporate America has to sell.

It strikes me as less and less likely that I can make any practical difference beyond my own household. This weekend helped me to realize that I have absolutely no idea how to engage most of my neighbors in discussing the issues and beliefs that really matter to me. More than a few - including a man I consider a very close friend - have already shut me off for rocking the boat.