Friday, March 9, 2012

Damage Report

Yesterday when I was getting some coffee in downtown Madison, I saw a flier about two Progressive/Leftist friends who had scheduled a debate on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. At issue: whether Capitalism or Imperialism causes more damage. I thought about going, but somehow I was not in a receptive frame of mind. So I pedaled home instead, and thought about what bothered me along the way. It’s about 12 miles to my house in nearby Oregon (Wisconsin), and that allows me a bit of time to think.

One thing I pondered was all the damage I see right in front of my eyes every time I ride my bicycle in the suburban and exurban municipalities which surround Madison. Very few people in these locales walk to go from “a” to “b” if the distance exceeds one or two blocks. Almost no one rolls a wheelchair, or pushes a baby stroller, or rides a bicycle as a mode of transportation either. We have school bus service for children, but other than that there is little transit. Our public thoroughfares are dominated by motorists and most land uses are configured to make life as easy as possible for people who drive. When I bike and walk outside of downtown Madison I am painfully aware that I am not part of a 99% – indeed it is seldom that I am part of a 1%.

When I am in this frame of mind, the recent eruption of middle-class outrage against a privileged 1% rings hollow in my ears.

If one is (in) a car, this “ecosystem” says, “Welcome! Our streets are wide; our highways are uncongested, and there is plenty of free parking everywhere you go!” If one is not (in) a car, this ecosystem says, “You don’t belong.” And yet within my own municipality – the Village of Oregon, population 9,231 – I suspect it is not the distances or a lack of pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure which are the primary deterrents – it is the lack of other people! It feels terribly alien to be a small, slow, unarmored biped in most places most of the time.

I do not claim that anyone here intended this – indeed, I sincerely doubt anyone did. However, in the final analysis intention doesn’t matter: it “happened”. But most here seem loathe to acknowledge it – and it is this I find inexcusable. (More on this below.)

I believe this man-made state of affairs is grossly discriminatory; perhaps no less evil than Jim Crowe and other forms of institutionalized post-Reconstruction racial discrimination. Moreover it’s stupid, if for no other reason than that it cannot possibly continue. Earth will never sustain 7 billion people living as we do here, and the chances are remote that 6.7 billion other Earthlings will much longer tolerate 0.3 billion of us helping ourselves to the outsized share of Earth’s dwindling resources we “need” to keep our tanks full.

I also cannot imagine that a functional representative democracy can be founded on “consumers” speeding by one-other, each shut off from his community within his own motorized suit of armor. I am convinced that the physical isolation and socio-economic segregation we have managed to establish with our automobiles are inseparable from the cultural alienation and political bipolarization which afflict our times.

Yet when I consider the conversations which prevail among my friends and acquaintances – especially during this "Year of Our Walker" (footnote 1) – I see no will to meaningfully grapple with the evils of automobile addiction. If we can’t blame the Right; if we can’t blame corporations or capitalism; we ain’t gonna talk about it!

I am coming to the conclusion that the prevailing narratives among liberals and progressives about causality and power are a severe impediment, especially as regards automobile dependence.

Here is another kind of story we might tell ourselves – one which could prove far more effective in producing results.
Our instinctive reactions to the presence of other motorists in our midst, repeated countless times over many decades, have added up to what systems engineers would call an enormously powerful “positive feedback loop". Stated in layman's terms, the more that we drive, the more that we force driving on everyone else who lives in our community. Thus does a highly coercive phenomenon emerge from a great many "small" actions of ordinary people.

No conspiracy, no planning – indeed! No malicious intent – are required to produce a state of affairs very few among us desire and many now wish to remediate.

We-the-people will get precisely nowhere by continuing to indulge narratives which lay the blame for our automobile addiction on the shoulders of transportation department bureaucrats, zoning boards, and municipal officials; architects, real estate developers, and highway builders; auto companies, tire companies, and oil companies. Truth be told, most of these guys are either dead or have long since retired, and many of the businesses (GM, Chrysler) and institutions have gone bankrupt or are now defunct.

The inconvenient truth is that we drove ourselves into this mess – and we will have to do something other than continue to drive everywhere to get out. The solutions are waiting…on the other side of the windshield. All we need to do is…start…stepping…out.

(1) I refer to Scott Walker, the highly contentious governor we elected in November 2010.