Reflections on the Passing of a Car

Value – noun, verb, -ued, -u·ing.

A colleague used this term in a written draft recently and it immediately triggered in me the impulse for the equivalent of an electronic scratch-through; so much do I detest the term as generally construed but especially in the context of quantifying the benefits of something that should be considered in terms of quality.

So, given such a distaste and allergy, the sensible thing is to turn sharply back into the term, which I did on my walk this morning.

One of the qualities still heartily propping up Our Way® is the skewed preference we preserve for the wrong things – wrong in the context of resource depletion and ghg generation, the burning of coal and general wasting of essentials that is the chief characteristic of 1st world progress. We’re not that far away from being able to shift our priorities – the rank of what we value. But we’re also not close to actually doing it, either. We basically market ourselves vis-à-vis that transition as far into the future as possible, so much so as to make the possibility appear remote and implausible, and largely making this so, as well.

Why this disconnect between capability and action? Value (n.,v.) seems to be the culprit.

An example close to home, pun intended: We could value the ability to commute to work on foot more than the ability to drive that Porsche or BMW we cannot afford anyway. Now this one statement is chock-full of some of the neat contradictions that define us. But we do reserve a high degree of importance for the kind of car we can drive, not in any way comparable to that which we attach to walking – which we associate with drudgery as well as a kind of personal failure on the part of the walker. It takes excessive time and energy. But the car, its excessive costs and energy externalities, delivers a kind of status walking cannot touch. The qualitative difference at the center of our ability to value one over the other, despite the terrible quantities of money and energy demanded to hold this equation in place – not to mention the quantities of time and health extracted from us in the exchange – make the arrangement appear permanent and intractable. That’s not even considering the marketing to which we voluntarily submit ourselves and our consciences. Until we realize how we are not the ultimate beneficiaries of this arrangement and attach status value with being able to go car-less, indeed we are trapped within this tight little circle.

Yet it is easy to comprehend: were we availed of it, walking has just as much status potential, with the ability to do it everyday far superior to being trapped in a personal automobile.

Even supposing a person could conquer the desire to drive a Porsche or BMW and replace it with a preference for walking to the same destination, what would a person have to do in order to close the distance. The first order would be actually closing the distance, creating a real choice between the two modes of transportation. Granted, this is not the option for most people, and makes the question moot. But how to move the window? You would have to put value on living with proximity to work, food, school and play, with the ultimate prize being the ability to walk. In-town neighborhoods would be the most desirable (and most highly-valued, touché!); once they are fully occupied, demand drives development at the edges of walkable distances; to remain carless at these edges, public transportation infrastructure crops up to facilitate access to proximity – convenience, but not prioritized for personal automobiles. With this, a cascade of other values fall into place. You suddenly began to value other things that end with you/yours and quality re-enters the picture whereas before only quantity was considered: how many miles to work? How long will it take with traffic? How fast can we eat? How long can he wait at school for me to pick him up? How much does gas cost now? How much for new tires? Repairs?  A tune-up? There is no end to these questions. Their answers may change subtly but their nature does not. They worry and weigh upon us, but these questions are essential trivial – which itself worries and weighs on us, re-enforcing the circle.

We need the slippery slope of weightier issues and topics. Compare to: what is the walk doing to my weight? Am I feeling better with a little more exercise? What should we eat tonight? Is that new book store open? What should I read? What should I write? What new music would I like? Should we get the band back together? Could I learn Italian listening to a podcast five minutes a day? What is Coriander for? These questions are also endless, in a good way as you can see.

Which set of questions do you prefer?