In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift’s classic satirical novel, Lemuel Gulliver travels to the city of Lagado on the island of Balnibarbi. Here the people have embraced a thoroughly intellectual manner of problem-solving. New innovations will improve building, manufacture, agriculture, and every pursuit in which the city might engage. Among the benefits promised: “one Man shall do the Work of Ten; a Palace may be built in a Week…all the Fruits of the Earth shall come to Maturity at whatever Season we think fit to chuse, and increase an Hundred Fold more than they do at present.” Trouble is, these methods haven’t been perfected, and the people are suffering for it, going without adequate food and safe shelter as they wait for the innovations to catch up with their needs.
Like the people of Lagado, we are suffering for the imperfections of our schemes for improvement except that we’re suffering with asthma, cancer, obesity, heart disease, ailing communities, disconnection from friends and family, depression, and a host of other afflictions that result from polluted air and water and habits borne of the automobile-dependent communities in which we’ve trapped ourselves.
Also like the people of Lagado, we persist in our current, imperfect modes of living. “Instead of being discouraged, [the people of Lagado] are Fifty Times more violently bent upon prosecuting their Schemes, driven equally on by Hope and Despair.”
Most discussions about the need for change towards a more sustainable and healthier way of living address our intellect. We hear a lot of numbers, projections about how many years of fossil fuels we have left, how much we need to reduce carbon emissions so that we’re only moderately screwed rather than comprehensively screwed. But numbers don’t address those things that keep us in our patterns of behavior: Hope and Despair. Hope and Despair live in our hearts; addressing our intellect isn’t going to get at our hearts.
In order to help people change, we need a direction. We need to get a taste of a better way of living so that we develop a craving for it, and if we crave it enough and can envision it clearly enough and in large enough numbers, we’ll be able to make a change.
Right now, people in most parts of the United States cannot envision a safe way to get to the places we need to go—work, grocery stores, schools, parks, libraries—without an automobile. Walking to school, biking to work, taking the bus or the train are simply not options from most of the neighborhoods of most of the people I know, including my own. We can’t just say, “Drive less,” and expect people to be able to do that easily—or at all.
My family is a one-car family, but this didn’t happen spontaneously, and it didn’t happen because of some deeply-held conviction about our role in helping the environment. But once we experienced it, we loved it. We became committed to it, and we sought it out each time we moved.
Living now in the Boston suburbs, we’re still a one-car family, but we’ve compromised our values in some pretty significant ways. We came here committed to car-light living, but for those already entrenched in a car-dependent way of living, there are extraordinary, sometimes intractable barriers to making changes in the direction of car-light living. And for so many people, they’ve never had the benefit of seeing just what living car-light can be like.
What if they could feel the pleasure of walking in the open air to the grocery store or to school or to baseball practice (without needing to walk in the street)?
What if they could experience the healthful rush of biking to work or school in the early morning (without worrying about being hit by a car)?
What if they could reduce the amount of time they spent at work by telecommuting from a commuter train (without needing to drive fifteen miles to get to a train station and then take 2.5 hours of travel to get to their destination)?
What if they could bike with their children to a summer concert in the park? What if they could walk to dinner at a local restaurant without feeling the need to don reflective safety vests? What if they could spend 20 minutes commuting and get their daily workout at the same time? What would they be freed up to do if they bought only one tank of gas each month?
Car-light living isn’t just about the environment. Moving about our community without a car increases the odds of interacting with our neighbors and strengthens community ties. It allows for a more intimate experience of the place where we live and helps us to feel more connected to it both physically and spiritually. It doesn’t just promote healthier bodies, healthier communities, and a healthier environment—it’s really, really fun and fulfilling.
If people could get a clear vision of What Might Be, could they develop such a craving for it that they could band together and make it happen?
I’m probably too idealistic. Even if it were possible (which it probably isn’t), maybe experiencing these things would not have the profound effect on others that it has had on me and my spouse, but I think it would be more likely to encourage people out of the malaise of Hope and Despair than feeding them numbers. Were there a way to bypass the intellect and appeal to the heart, I think that’s when we would find people rising up and saying, “This! This is how we want to live! This is how we want our children to live!” and saying it loud enough and in large enough numbers that it would just have to happen.
Okay, yes. I am too idealistic. But I’m just not willing to accept the Hope-and-Despair alternative.
2 Replies to “Hope, Despair, and Car-Light Living: An Earth Day Post”
Brilliant Swift! Change one thing that is natural and there is a consequence. Change a lot and, well . . . . Unforseen harm and consequences are way to common to still be ignoring!
It’s surprising how applicable his critiques still are after 300 years.