Hope, Despair, and Car-Light Living: An Earth Day Post

English: Map of Laputa and Balnibarbi for the ...

English: Map of Laputa and Balnibarbi for the 1726 edition of Jonathan Swift’s Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into several remote nations of the world (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

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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.

A Glimpse of an Alternate Reality

"A plan of the town of Boston with the in...

Image via Wikipedia

When my husband got a job in the “Metro West Boston area”, we envisioned a move to an urban setting. We envisioned downsizing significantly to fit into a two-bedroom apartment with rent higher than our mortgage in Utah. We envisioned car-light (or maybe even car-free?) living, using Boston’s wonderful public transit to visit museums and restaurants and all manner of historic sites. We envisioned living side by side with people from all over the world.

What we found when we arrived was that my husband’s work is about as far from Boston as you can get and still be in “Metro West.” We considered living in the city and having my husband do the reverse commute to work, but we found that the commuter rail station is miles and miles from where he works and the schedules aren’t really set up for a reverse commute. The commute by car would be about an hour and that would leave me without the car during the day (which would be an extended day because of the 2+ hours of commuting time, without traffic. And from what I can tell, you’re never entirely without traffic here).

We settled for a nice, suburban home in a friendly neighborhood about 2 1/2 miles from the downtown of our little suburb, which is nonetheless nearly inaccessible without a car because the drivers are unaccustomed to sharing the road with bikes and pedestrians and there are sidewalks only part of the way. The benefit is that we’re only an 11-minute bike ride from my husband’s work, so if he can winterize his bike sufficiently to commute during the New England winter, we can remain a one-car family.

But still, our situation is such that the kids and I can do hardly anything without driving. This was a rude awakening for me. I’ve been systematically decreasing our driving time and distance since we lived in California. When we were in Utah, I challenged myself to use the car just one day a week for bigger errands and to walk or take public transit the rest of the time. I back-burnered this idea during my heavily pregnant months (for me, about five months in) and throughout the newborn months when I was ultra-germphobic. I was just working my way back to using the car less again when we moved.

And now here I am. Totally and utterly dependent on my little car. This week (Sunday to Saturday) we will spend a total of about 11.5 hours in the car. If you’re guessing that this means we’re spending very little time outside walking, playing, or otherwise exercising, you would be right. Not only are we spending more on gas and auto maintenance, we’re becoming less fit. I recognize that this is the norm for middle-class America, but it’s not the norm for us, nor is it consistent with my family’s values. And that pretty much sucks.

During our long drive today, we went to Boston. Well, to Brookline, which is just west of Boston. There the kids and I got a glimpse of what I thought life would be like for us here. There were friendly people of innumerable races, religions, and ethnicities walking the streets together, greeting one another on their way into or out of any number of independently owned shops and restaurants or picking their kids up—on foot—from neighborhood schools. We stopped in at a tiny little place and had an awesome lunch, much better than we’ve had out our way in the five months since we rolled into town.

I loved it.

Yes, there was a lot of traffic, and I did see some apartment rental signs that indicated we would be paying the equivalent of our mortgage or more for a two-bedroom apartment were we to live there. But there! Right there! It was a T stop! Oh, the places we could go with a T stop near our home!

Instead we walked back to our car with nearly an hour still on the meter and hopped on the turnpike back out to the suburbs while listening to the story of the Ingalls family braving Minnesota blizzards in their nineteenth-century prairie farmhouse.

I like our house. I like all of the trees in our neighborhood. I like the hikes that are nearby. I like our neighbors. I like having a garage. I like that downsizing is voluntary rather than necessary. But tonight I’m feeling wistful for that alternate reality in which we are an urban family bee-bopping around Boston, creatively arranging and decorating our tiny apartment, and walking to the grocery store rather than comparing gym membership fees.