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Friday, July 20, 2007

Life in the Fast Lane

Apparently, his time was more valuable than mine. And also more valuable than the time of the dozens of other drivers he swerved and swooped around and cut off in an attempt to get someplace quicker than obeying the traffic laws and simple decorum would allow. He was in a Jeep, and he was in a rush.

This was this morning, but it could have been any morning. There is always the risk, especially during the morning commute, that some dimwit will speed along the turn-only lane just so that he can merge in at the intersection, preferably at a high rate of speed. These are the proud, the few, the impatient. More likely to cause and participate in accidents, they live life on the edge, and force the rest of us to as well.

However, as I gave him the finger while he waited to cut through a parking lot so as to avoid the inconvenience of a turn lane, I realized that I should not have blamed him. I, the one giving the finger to a total stranger based on a minute amount of information, was just as culpable as he. And we are both victims. Victims of the triumph of the horseless carriage.

According to Marshall McLuhan (and I seem to recall that he was quoting someone else), "We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." Although it is now popular to nod our heads sagaciously and and furrow our brows over the pollution caused by cars, we rarely think about the other effects that driving cars have on our lives.

I think I'll start from the macro and work my way down to the micro level.

The War in Iraq would not have happened if not for our dependence on our cars. Although the desire to assure permanent access to the world's second largest oil fields may not have been the only catalyst of the cataclysm, it cannot be denied as a contributing factor. Dependence on oil, as was demonstrated by the oil embargoes of the '70s, makes us economically vulnerable to the whims of other nations, the ones where all the dinosaurs went to die.

Dependence on oil also encourages other sorts of environmental depredation, such as the attempts to allow drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. The demand at the pumps fuels the need for further exploration, which feeds demand at the pumps, which causes more exploration.

And then, of course, there's the smog, a gift that we share with all, even ourselves.

There are subtler effects, though. Cars change the ambit of our lives and the structure and designs of our cities and towns. They encourage development that is spread out and a concept of distances that is measured in minutes rather than miles. Supermarkets and megamarts depend on people driving to them and shopping less frequently, but for more items. Our merchants become big and faceless corporations rather than local businesses. WalMart could not exist without the automobile.

As a result, our country is less wooded than it might be because trees eat up valuable real estate that can be turned into shopping centers and business parks and housing developments and parking lots and parking decks and cul-de-sacs and turn-only lanes. Flora and fauna become little more than decorations or pests, things to be controlled or eradicated, all of which has its own cascade of consequences.

On a more personal level, driving leads to an existential separation between us. The person in the other car becomes a part of that object rather than another person with a life and hopes and disappointments. He (or she, although gender really ceases to exist in this context) is just the thing you are giving the finger to or the object you are cutting around because it has become an obstacle to your pursuit of nowhere. A pedestrian lifestyle works differently and allows us a chance to see each other as human. Annoying maybe, but human.

The availability of speed that comes from driving gets addictive. The goal becomes making time rather than experiencing life. We dive in a headlong rush from activity to activity and wonder where a day went, a week went, a year went, a life went. Doing things quickly becomes more important than doing them well. Savoring, whether it is a meal, a face, or a moment, becomes too slow an activity. We rush from home to work, from work to lunch, from lunch to work, from work to store, from store to home so that we can zonk out in front of the TV. We live the life of a light switch, either on or off, existing rather than living.

I'm as caught up in it as anyone else. I'd love to do away with at least one car, but there's the boy to get from school and the meal to buy at the store and the errand to run before something closes. There is the convenience of being able to get places in hours that once would have taken days.

I don't expect things to change much. Perhaps we'll figure out cleaner ways of running our cars, but I doubt that, as a society, we will abandon them. There are no signs that civic planning is moving in any sort of direction to encourage walking over driving, and it is not in the interests of corporate America to having you do otherwise. It's just something to be aware of. Especially when you're giving some stranger the finger.

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