Over at dotcommonweal the other day, I commented on a study that showed how little people are willing to pay to get a cleaner energy supply. Even the majority who express concern about global warming are very reluctant to put their money where their mouth is and make a sacrifice to change our direction.
This inability to sacrifice even a little of our way of life in order to address the monumental problem has been brought out more personally for me in the last few months. For over a decade, I’ve lived a car-dependent life. I lived in places where there weren’t alternatives to driving that were realistic, especially for the daily task of getting to and from work. I did what I could – I picked residences that at least allowed some freedom. In Cold Spring, Minnesota, I lived around the corner from the main street and a couple blocks from the parish. In Frederick, Maryland, I took advantage a walkable library, fitness center, and church. But I still had (fairly long) drives to work, and more importantly, I lived in places where drives – whether long or short – weren’t hassle. There was always parking, and genuine traffic delays were rare.
This summer, I moved to Washington, DC, with great anticipation: I could finally break the dependence. Besides a city neighborhood scale that meant much more was walkable, I had the second-busiest transit system in the country at my disposal – and I moved determined to position myself to use it, especially for work, with a direct bus and rail connection basically at my doorstep.
Pretty quickly, the edge has come off my romantic visions. The buses were unpredictable at best, and often excruciatingly slow, making a 3.5 mile journey take over an hour sometimes. One afternoon, I was physically threatened by an unstable man (handled well, I should add, by the driver). The rail is usually better, at least during rush hours, but often enough, there are maddeningly pointless delays at other times. Notorious “single-tracking” should be pretty easy to manage on a dedicated set of tracks, yet not infrequently, two or three trains get stacked up in either direction, even though trains aren’t running frequently. I think my worst story was this past Tuesday evening, around 9pm, at the busy Dupont Circle station: I needed to go two stops to get home after a lecture, and I (and many others) stood on the platform for over 50 minutes, wondering where the train was that was (according to the sign) a stop away. The station manager could not give us any information. Eventually, I bailed (yes, I was charged for the trip) and dashed a couple blocks hoping to catch a bus – which eventually came and was itself overstuffed with others forced to get around the delay. Later, it was reported that a track switch had failed, and then when the train got stuck, two (unauthorized) passengers eventually decided to exit a train in the tunnel, thus prompting a series of safety checks that further exacerbated the delay. Did I mention the cooling system at Dupont has been broken all summer? The next morning, I had to drive my car for the first time in a couple weeks… and it felt so, so good.
I’ve taken to naming my previous life with the term “fossil fuel privilege.” Because that’s what it is: a liberation from reliance on the commons, from interaction with the poor, from all the things that come with relying on a community-wide transportation system. But it’s a liberation that awfully hard to see when (as is the case in most of the United States) the daily driving dependence is functionally seen as normal. I don’t mean here to get into a debate about the quality of Metro – which can be a delight sometimes – or place blame – it seems to me that everyone contributes to the problems at transit in different ways – customers, for example, seem unable to follow Metro’s admirable rules about not eating or drinking, with the result that cars are dirty and littered all too often, and I’m sure Metro workers would prefer to be fixing track switches than cleaning up after passengers. What fossil fuel privilege does is liberate me from all of that. I can do my own thing, set my own schedule, manage my own vehicle, and (preferably) park as close to the door as possible. But the privilege goes deeper than that: transit means thinking about the commons and (because it is fixed) living in the commons. For fossil fuel privilege is also a matter of being able to live in communities that are reasonably “inaccessible,” especially to the poor. Again, don’t get me wrong: I’m suddenly in a superZip here in DC, but it’s a superZip with beggars and a homeless shelter coming and… well, it’s just a matter of being required to live with a whole lot of other people. Of course, what I’ve had to wrestle with is the basic fact that I want my privilege back.
There are a number of different ways – not just shared transit – that might enable us to change our energy consumption on transportation sufficiently to meet the stringent requirements of the planet. (Self-driving cars are not among them, but that is for another post…) Curtailing unnecessary long-distance travel, living closer to the workplace, carpooling – these can all make a dent. But the 80% cut needed is hard to imagine apart from collective systems for routine transportation, which are a big part of why Europeans have about half the carbon footprints of Americans. As long as we say to ourselves, “the present is normal, we only need to make tiny changes,” we are suffering from the blindness characteristic of privilege.
Claims about privilege are not easy ones to swallow. First, it should be clear this isn’t simply a matter of people needing to feel guilty: as I pointed out, for over a decade, I didn’t really have a ton of options, and I tried to do what I could incrementally… but I wasn’t fanatical about it. Systems of privilege are just that – systems – and addressing them requires attention not simply to individual behaviors, but to structures. Yet structural change does require individuals to change. And at the very least, we cannot imagine a planet where everyone aspires to live the fossil fuel lifestyle to which we are accustomed.
But second, claims about privilege are really important for Christians, because they are the places where the renunciatory commands of the Gospel can really hit home. I didn’t understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who try to save their life will lose it, but…” But my dissertation was about how those sayings pointed us to structures in our society – structures especially of money, sex, and power – which the Gospels allows us to renounce in order for us to be agents of the reconciliation God has promised in Christ. Right now, such a renunciation is just annoying me – which is to say, I’ve lost some of the power to order my life to my own ends. But if we don’t keep at it, we just reproduce the existing structures… and the conflicts built into those structures.
David, this post is so close to my heart and I have written on this before too. We are a one-car family, and have been since we’ve had a family, and my husband needs the car for his job, which makes me carless during the day. My kids and I take public transportation when necessary (really not the best in medium town Iowa) but mostly, we walk. If there is a place to go, we walk. And if it is too hard to go by walking (or by sporadic public transit) we just don’t go.
The key to using less fossil fuel is, I am convinced, simplicity. Simplicity in lifestyle, simplicity in schedule, simplicity in desire. Now, my family is far from perfect since we do have a car and that affords us a lot of luxury but we get by really well with only one by making simplicity a key family goal.
This is why I like your discussion of systems of privilege. The privileged class in this country live in a system that encourages, even demands, business, packed schedules, frenetic paces. Some of the reasons are good ones. I think about Emily’s early post on being a working mom. But I am a stay-at-home mom in a culture where all the stay-at-home moms have their own cars and are driving around like crazy to school and preschool and playdates and stores. It’s a hard cycle to break. But we can, and I think we should, by just making our lives a bit simpler. Living closer to the stores we shop at, churches we attend, schools we learn at. And by doing less. Less stuff on the schedule means that even in a suburban setting, we might be able to get by with fewer cars per family and reduce our dependence on the fuels those cars demand.
Your point about simplicity is a great one, Beth. There are ways we need to be intentional about it, and I think the spirituality of it is powerfully articulated in paragraphs 223-225 of Laudato Si when Francis talks about the lost virtue of “sobriety”. But you also note the structural problems – I cannot begin to fathom the amount of driving that my parents were saved because we lived in a city neighborhood where my sister and I could walk to all sorts of things (free range, when it wasn’t a thing!), and so we could be involved in the world around us without being chauffered everywhere. I did sports – we walked to the bowling alley and to the little league fields at the park. And even when we did drive, most everything besides visits to extended family in the suburbs was within a 2-mile radius. Of course, that all changed when I ended up going to the suburban Jesuit high school – but even then I took the bus until I got my license, and then carpooled with a friend and my sister the rest of the time.
I should also mention that Uber is changing the way we might think of car ownership by developing a super-speedy system of cheap ride-hailing which could make car ownership in many, many places obsolete. Read about it in the Sept 3rd Economist. But Uber’s goal still depends on people having simple enough schedules and desires that they aren’t constantly hopping into a car whenever they need a bit of entertainment.
There was a huge uber discussion that broke out on my CW post. I actually feel like I live in uber-central, because I’m in a 900-unit urban apartment building that is just far enough outside the city center that some things are more manageable via car than via bus/rail. Ubers come and go in front of my building all the time. However, we shouldn’t overestimate this. First, it is kind of bad for the environment because we have all sorts of new people driving around essentially with no purpose (soon to be replced, if Uber has its way, with machines); second, Uber is losing money in order to lock up market share and get people interested, and it’s not clear that you can actually have a “cheap” system of ride hailing that is economically-sustainable that ALSO actually has enough of a scale to avoid delays and waits; third, yes, Uber actually talks all the time about eliminating car ownership (because eventually they want to own the cars and get a return on them every time we use them), but that’s not really the fossil fuel problem, the problem is non-collective transportation, because the only way to get more “transportation” without increasing fossil fuel output (besides way way more efficient cars, which we could in fact have, or rather DO have but many people don’t buy them) is to get the scale possible to a certain extent on bus and to a much greater extent on rail. My worry is that Uber won’t replace cars but will degrade transit use, which is a vicious cycle where service declines, more riders stop using it, and eventually it becomes a subsidized service that primarily serves the poor very poorly. (and to boot, is usually not very fossil fuel efficient, because it’s so underutilized).