Boyonabike!

Life beyond the automobile in Southern California

Archive for the month “March, 2014”

Homage to JHK

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With a couple of days left on my spring break, I pulled out a copy of James Howard Kunstler’s Home from Nowhere, his 1996 call for a reassessment of suburban sprawl and its attendant social and ecological problems.  He is a particularly astute observer of the contradictions and blind spots in our thinking about the automobile, and doesn’t mind telling us we’ve fucked up.  Big time.

His arguments aren’t necessarily new, and are part of a growing body of literature critical of the car-centered suburban mode of social organization, but nobody lays it on the line quite like JHK.  He’s a cross between Lewis Mumford and Hunter S. Thompson.  He’s acerbic, scathing, unflinching, and bracing.  He’s a bit of a cynic and a curmudgeon, but he cuts through the bullshit and lays a withering scowl upon what he calls our “geography of nowhere”—suburban sprawl.  At the center of this heart of darkness is the automobile, the totem of a society gone profoundly antisocial and, at times, quite mad.  One of my favorite scenes is from his dystopian post-automobile age novel, The Long Emergency, set in the not-too-distant future when the combination of petroleum shortages, nuclear war, and climate change have doomed the unsustainable “American way of life.”  In a brutal dissection of the pathological depth of our psychological dependence on the car, one of his characters sits in his beloved automobile and puts a bullet in his own head rather than continue to live in a world without cars.  JHK is the tonic answer to the sickly-sweet carbonated sugar water of American car culture.

Of our penchant for equating cars with “freedom,” Kunstler writes in Home from Nowhere, “[t]his is the freedom of a fourteen-year-old child,” a freedom to do whatever we want, consume whatever we want, heedless of the consequences.  When the consequences (highway deaths, polluted air, climate change) become too obvious to ignore, the tendency is to put our faith in techno-solutions, despite the fact that they ignore the root of the problem and are evidence of the peculiar blindness of wishful thinking.  He dissects the fallacy that the electric car will save us from the destructive effects of the automobile, likening it to “the old joke about the guy who decides to make his blanket longer by cutting off twelve inches from the top and sewing it onto the bottom.”  He lays out the economics of the automobile as clearly as anyone and one realizes how deeply we’re in hock to these tin cans on wheels.  The more money we pour into the car system, the more congested our roads become, the more money we throw at it, the more dependent we become on it, the more congested it becomes, and so on.

In a society living in a deep state of denial about automobiles, it should come as no surprise that politicians tend to pander to this addiction.  Rather than asking the average voter to confront the uncomfortable truth that the age of the automobile is coming to an end—must come to an end for its economic and ecological unsustainability—they promise more and wider freeways, the cost be damned, as a panacea for the problems caused by, well, more and wider freeways.  It’s not as if transportation engineers don’t know the consequences of more, wider freeways.  Indeed, they have a term for the inevitable congestion that will follow: induced demand.  Happens every time.  As JHK points out, “we have the knowledge to do the right thing; we lack only the will to do the right thing.”

Despite our auto-sociopathy, there is another way.

I believe that our utter dependence on the automobile must come to an end.  Society can no longer afford the cultural phenomenon of mandatory mass car ownership.  Whatever cars might run on in the future, we will have to use fewer of them and less often.  We are going to need places that are worth dwelling in, from which we won’t feel compelled to escape every moment we are not working. … an intelligently designed town can easily provide access to the needs and wishes of people in everyday life by public transit, walking, and biking.  The models for these places already exist.  They’re called London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague, Munich, Oxford, Perugia, and Zurich.

More people are beginning to see this, but there are powerful cultural and economic interests working against such a transformation.  The odds are long, but the stakes are high, and will only get higher the longer we wait.

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One More Reason to Ride

There are lots of reasons I ride a bike and take transit whenever I can instead of driving.  Riding a bike for transportation is fun, it relaxes me, it’s great exercise, and it connects me to my neighborhood and my surroundings in a way that driving can’t.  I actually look forward to my commute when I’m riding my bike.  There is no question that these reasons are all important and, as I’ve experienced my world on a bike and transit I have a new appreciation for the pervasive ways we’ve prioritized the private automobile in our design of our cities and our roads.  But there’s another reason riding a bike is important:  the urgent need to address climate change.

Ok, I’m aware the bicycle alone won’t solve the world’s carbon energy and greenhouse gas problems, so I’m not saying it’s the only answer or that it alone is sufficient.  I do think, however, that bicycles and transit must be a major part of the reconstruction of society to shrink our carbon footprint.  As I’ve discussed before, EVs and hybrids—while better than gas guzzlers—aren’t the answer.  If you wanted to design a more wasteful transportation system, you couldn’t have thought of a better way than the automobile.  The idea that every adult must possess a 2,000 – 3,000 lb metal box that sucks up (mostly fossil fuel) energy makes a mockery of sustainability.  By changing the propulsion system from internal combustion to the electricity grid, you might reduce the rate at which those metal boxes consume fuel and spew pollutants, but the overall global scale of energy consumption will continue to rise, especially as that mode of transportation expands to other parts of the world.  The automobile is the nexus of a vicious circle of congestion and sprawl, which is wasteful of space and energy and and creates a feedback loop of more cars-more sprawl-more cars, ad infinitum (well, at least until the carrying capacity of our planet is reached).

I am increasingly convinced that most Americans—even most liberals who agree that something must be done to address the problem—have only dimly grasped the scope and seriousness of the climate change crisis.  Reading the peer-reviewed science on the subject leads to the sobering realization that humanity faces an existential crisis by the end of the 21st century if we don’t fundamentally change our habits of energy consumption.  While the end of the century seems a long way off (I most certainly won’t be around to see it), it is within the life span of a child born today.  In the scope of human history, it is but the blink of an eye.  Yet, most people continue to live—and drive—as if there’s literally no tomorrow.

A recent article by Rebecca Solnit highlights an essential cognitive problem confronting climate change activists who challenge the  status quo.  Many of those in positions of power, even those well-meaning people who recognize the reality of climate change in the abstract, seem not to recognize the scale or seriousness of the problem.  She uses the idea of the burning house as a metaphor for the nature of the emergency we face.  Our house is burning, Solnit tells us, and we’re debating whether to use a bucket or a hose to put out the spreading flames (not to mention those who claim not to “believe” there’s a fire at all).  Here’s the problem: if we wait until the house is entirely engulfed in flames, it will be too late to save it.

She relates the story of how Bay Area climate activists called on the San Francisco Retirement Board to divest from fossil fuel stocks recently, and the board balked at what it considered a “radical” request:

Climate activists speak the language of people who know that we’re in an emergency. The retirement board is speaking the language of people who don’t. The board members don’t deny the science of climate change, but as far as I can tell, they don’t realize what that means for everyone’s future, including that of members of their pension fund and their children and grandchildren.

 Indeed, she highlights a central problem: some of us recognize we’re living on the cusp of an emergency that will affect every human being in one way or another, and some of us don’t.  I’m not talking about the deniers, who live in their own world of wishful thinking.  I mean people who don’t deny climate change, but seem to think some techno-solution will save us and allow us to continue to live as we’ve always done.  Plug-in hybrids!  Electric cars! Hydrogen-powered cars!  Some people are more concerned with what kind of car they’re going to buy in ten years than the fate of the planet.  They can’t imagine not driving all the time, despite the fact that the cumulative effects may destroy the climate by the time today’s children become adults.  Now, that’s radical.

I see this same lack of awareness in some local officials who’ll dither and debate whether to replace a traffic lane with a bike lane, or whether to remove some on-street parking for cars for a bike corral or bike lane.  The world house is on fire and they’re worried about how many extra seconds a bike lane might cost people in cars.  The age of the automobile and cheap oil is coming to an end.  Get used to it.  EVs will not save you.  The massive amount of energy they’ll suck up will have to be supplied to no small degree by fossil fuels, as most energy analysts recognize.  

Change can be overwhelming, but it starts small.  Resolving to replace one car trip a week with your bike or transit is a good place to start.  Advocating for better transit and bike infrastructure in your community is another.  Recognizing that the answer to our transportation issues is not more parking lots, more sprawl, and more freeways, but less.  Supporting the creation of car-free streets and spaces in our cities, de-privileging the automobile in our transportation funding priorities, charging drivers the full cost of their bad habit, and using the revenue to fund transit and infrastructure improvements for biking and walking.

The good news about this is that these alternatives can make our cities more livable, healthy, and as Charles Montgomery argues, happier places.  These small changes add up and make a big difference.  Using UC Berkeley’s carbon calculator, I discovered that by using my bike and transit for many of my commuting trips and local errands instead of my car last year, I reduced my household’s overall carbon emissions by 42%.  While my commute is less convenient than it was when I drove my Corrolla all the time, I’m less stressed and healthier now that I’m taking the bus and my bike and I save money.  It makes me realize how much the car-dependent lifestyle negatively impacts our quality of life.

Our house is on fire and some of us are sounding the alarm bells.  The reconstruction of society along sustainable lines must begin sooner rather than later.  This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is about life, period.

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