What If? A Response and Another Response.

A few days ago, I posted a thought experiment, suggesting that maybe some things could change.  My son sent an email in response, and I responded to his email.  The entire exchange is reproduced below, with my response to his response in italics (yes, the italics are mine). 

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I was thinking along your lines about cars the other day. I was walking back from Pizza Hut carrying a box, when I realized *just how many* cars were parked in front of other people’s houses. Cars that no one was using. It struck me how wasteful that is. So, although I don’t agree with your idea that cars should be abolished altogether, I do feel like the number in service could be substantially reduced without too many ill effects.

I’m not sure that I think cars should be abolished altogether.  There are many people who need transportation of one form or another (the elderly, the ill) or who simply live too far away from other people (e.g., farmers, forest rangers) to make abolition altogether practical.  I think (though I may well have missed on this point) that my focus was on something that might constitute a first-world application of what was once known as appropriate technology.

As far as laundry goes, I think I straight-up disagree. Many homes—including the one we shared, at one point—do enough laundry to justify dedicated facilities. I know that between myself and my two roommates, there isn’t a day that goes by when SOMEONE doesn’t use the laundry.

Here, I’m going to disagree with you.  The other night, in four hours I did a week’s laundry for four people (four loads, sorted by color, thank you very much).  Granted, some of them are teenaged males.  But that was one of the things that got me to thinking.  Maybe in your situation not a day goes by without someone doing laundry, but the point is that it’s not a day.  More likely, it’s about an hour.  And given the kind of technology we carry around in our wallets and briefcases these days, even if that hour had to be in the middle of the day, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be productive in other ways as well.  Of course, there are issues with hauling lots of laundry by hand—which is why I would advocate for block-based, rather than neighborhood or region-based, laundry facilities.

Also, your idea of walk-to small neighborhood markets requires us to spend much more time shopping. Rather than being able to pick and choose what we need for the rest of the week, or two-week period, walking only gives us the liberty to get enough food for the next day or two. I do most of my shopping on foot, and I have to go to the Wal-Mart near my home at least twice a week to pick up something I ran out of.

It might require more time.  But there are several interesting aspects here.  First, you have been conditioned (by your mother, among other people) to think of shopping in terms of a supply for a week, or a month (or a year).  But you’ve also been conditioned to that by the presence of enormous stores.  When I visited Europe in the early ‘80s, most people had refrigerators that were tiny in comparison to American units (and the units o food available for purchase were also rather small).  This was so much the case that when hypermarkets (we would call them Super-Walmarts or Super-Targets) made inroads in Europe, perishables such as milk were sold in special sterilized containers (Tetrabriks) that did not require refrigeration. 

The older European way of shopping (and the way I used to shop when I was a student) meant that you didn’t keep more than a day or two of most things on hand.  The end of my work or study day was often spent in the aisles of a small grocery, picking up some cheese and bread and so forth that I would eat over the next day or two.  It’s true that after your mother and I married, we would make monthly shopping trips to a food warehouse sort of place, and stock up on canned goods and refrigerable items.  Even so, we often stopped at a neighborhood grocery store on the way home.

And therein hang a couple of points.  First, the food we served was often fresher, because the overall time from farm to table was reduced.  Today, that could be reduced by even more.  It also meant we ate appropriate to our hunger, something that is harder to do when you rely on the ingredients in a well-stocked larder.  And it meant we wasted less.  A significant amount of food in this country spoils in storage (much, though not all, of that storage being in refrigerators and kitchens).  It also meant that we couldn’t always get what we wanted, and that, sometimes, we had to try something new (at some point, I’ll tell you [again] the story of the spiced Polish sausage from hell).  I would also point out that all of our shopping (with the exception of the monthly stock-ups) was done on foot, which is also a nice way to get a little exercise and which caused us no problems.  Of course, if you’re talking about a family with lots of children, or with picky eaters, this might not look like the best solution.  On the other hand, it might actually discourage the picky.

In principle, I think public transit is a great thing. I use it all the time. However, I think that the discretion offered by automobiles is too great to pass up completely. Are we overdoing it in our current society? Absolutely! But I don’t think that’s a valid reason to kill off the personal car completely.

Again, I’m not trying to abolish cars.  I’m simply suggesting that many of us already don’t need them as much as we think we do, and that if we (see King, above) were able to rejigger our communities a little (a little, not a lot) we would need them hardly at all.  This is why in my pose I called for smart decentralization.  I didn’t say we should do away with cars, but that cars (certainly as we know them today) aren’t necessary.  Of course, neither are bicycles with nine gears in back, or wide-screen LCD televisions, or cell phones, or notebook computers (like this one).  Most of the stuff in our lives isn’t necessary.  Still, some of us learn to exercise discretion (and we learn it in different areas).  Some of what got me started on this was reading an article (I’m not through with it yet) published in 1973 in Le Monde by the social critic Ivan Illich.  Among other things, Illich points out that the way we think about dealing with “the energy crisis” is primarily in terms of (1) finding more exploitable energy and/or (2) making energy-using devices more efficient.  What we forget is alternative (3):  learning that such devices (which he calls energy slaves) are not necessary in the first place, and exploiting human power.  As you know, I’m a big advocate of this.  Though I can’t race anyone on my bike with the barest hope of winning who isn’t at least twenty years older than me, I can use it easily for transportation.  I had to see my orthopedic surgeon yesterday for a follow-up on my  hip surgery.  So I rode into New Haven.  It took me about half an hour each way, not much more than it would have to drive, and I didn’t have to pay $$ for parking!  Nor did I have to pay for gas, etc.  As I said, my boss drives ¾ of a mile to the gym to exercise.  Which is more ridiculous?

Finally, I thought you might be interested in the hyperspeed train schedule a friend and I drafted up a while back. It’s fast enough that it could replace the current generation of air travel between most major cities in the United States. Find it attached.

I’ll have a look and comment later.  I do find funny the association we make between raw speed and status.  For example, airline pilots seem inordinately proud of what they do (honestly, I’m thinking of a church figure we both know) and others accord them heightened status as well.  What nobody seems to realize is that they’re driving glorified buses—a thought that probably does cross a few coach passengers’ minds while in the tin can.  Even if you could make a hyperspeed schedule that was efficient (and I have little doubt that it would be more efficient than using aircraft), flight would continue to have a “gee whiz” status for a long time to come.  I find trains greatly preferable and considerably more civilized, if only because they avoid the SkyMall catalog completely.  But then, in spite of my years as a software engineer and an early computer adopter, I expect this sounds like you’re talking to a follower of Ned Ludd.

So, in sum, thanks for your comments.  I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not calling for the abolition of the automobile.  I personally would benefit from such abolition and wouldn’t mind it very much,  but I recognize that overall society would suffer.  I do think that a more appropriate analysis of owning and using automobiles would go a long way toward addressing some of the problems we experience today.

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So what do you think?  Are we bound for an autoapocalypse or can we change things?  I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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