how dignity and freedom fall short; vague gestures at electrification
Welcome to Digestable, your mouthful of things happening in the world.
The best after-the-end-of-the-world book I read recently was Notes from the Burning Age, set a few decadesish after our current time (the eponymous Burning Age). At some point in the book, during a review of old technological manuals, air conditioning comes up. There’s no artificial cooling, in their time; one character asks another if he thinks it’s wrong to want cool air on a hot day. The response is no, of course not - but to seek out cool in a way that ultimately leads to further warming is not sustainable. The original asker counters: it’s only unsustainable if everyone has it, and that’s where “things went wrong” in the Burning Age.
We are living at many times the capacity of the planet. We here is all of humanity, but specifically people in the Global North (although there were some surprises in this CO2 by capita chart). This is bad! We are doomed. Although there are many committed to denying this scientifically unshakeable truth, it is the case.
There are myriad reasons why our carbon habit is hard to shake, many of which I’ve written about here. One is the idea of ‘freedom’ - this is what made cigarettes cool, and what’s behind petromasculinity, and prevention of any meaningful firearm regulation - it’s at the core of American manhood/ideals.
Another that’s more recently come to my attention is dignity. Gabriel sent me this article that I needed three tries to get past the first paragraph of: Universal Basic Automobility, by Dan Albert. The subtitle is “give poor people cars, not bus passes.”
Albert’s main point is that public transportation sucks, is still hard to use even when it’s free, and that the best way to “help poor people” is to give them cars instead of making public transit free/better.
America has long been built for cars, a result of the fossil fuel industry’s aggressive lobbying and dominance. There are a lot of places that are good to be in a car, for this reason, as well as a lot of car-oriented places that are horrific to be in a car (Los Angeles, etc). There are even more places where it’s impossible to have a good time/get anywhere using only public transit. Why is this? Well, probably because there are almost no large systems in the entire world built by the people who use them.
What’s behind Albert’s argument, deep behind it, makes sense to me: reorganizing systems so that people don’t have to scramble to have enough and feel okay. Taking the bus, especially when there’s only one that gets you to work on time, can be stressful! Another thing Albert points to in his ‘argument’ is that car travel provides choice, anonymity, and dignity. I looked up the definition of dignity, because I wasn’t sure what it really meant. Given the context, dignity is “a sense of pride in oneself; self-respect.”
That is all well and good, and it seems easy for dignity to become a proxy for individualism, which is also driven by values like freedom. But what is it freedom from, exactly? Freedom from the natural constraints of living on a finite planet? Surely, if having a car meant freedom from poverty, this auto-stricken nation wouldn’t have a poverty rate of 11.4%.
Let’s go back: Air conditioning on a hot day is nice, but unsustainable if everyone has it. Cars are better than public transit, but unsustainable when everyone has them. Letting a few people have these things is unjust, as is leaving people no other option if they’re inaccessible.
While the climate crisis progresses at a clip, and there’s basically no sign of us radically ramping down carbon use, it’s kind of astonishing to me that an outlet like the Baffler would publish something like Albert’s article. The last thing we want - or can planetarily handle - is everyone having a car. But a lot of social services, aimed at helping people who are struggling, prioritize dignity above other things.
Here’s how I’m thinking about this slippery slope: dignity is a kind of fairness, which in America looks like “deserving to have a thing,” otherwise known as freedom. But “everyone should have more” when we’re rapidly expending our carbon budget cannot be the answer.
In the last few weeks, I’ve spent some time with the charitable food system (food shelves, free meals, etc), which also prioritizes choice, anonymity, and dignity.
I recently heard researcher Sam Bliss speak about non-market food, and how the capitalist dream shifts the priorities of the charitable food system to focus on making sure everyone has access to money so they can buy food, not that nobody has to pay for food. He pointed out how charitable food attempts to mimic market-based food options, rather than orienting towards being able to have abundant free food for everyone, and freeing everyone from the cycle of the capitalist food system. His research has shown that it sucks to farm for profit - margins are tight, especially if you’re trying to care for your workers and land as well - in a way that farming just for food production (and not money) isn’t.
What Bliss suggests is also a reorganization of systems so that fewer people have to scramble - from farmers to eaters - to have enough, and to feel okay. Couldn’t we do that with transit as well, without cars?
The Second Look
Half-baked cultural criticism from Gabriel Coleman.
I’ve also been thinking about Dan Albert’s garbage fire of an article for the Baffler: the one I sent to Lena, which was originally sent to me by the incredibly well-read Travis Amiel. What’s been specifically on my mind is that Albert seems to see cars as the ultimate transit experience: self-directed, always available, a space you control entirely. Everything else in the article organizes itself around this supposed truth: strengthening investments in public transport networks are discounted and the reality of climate change is brushed off with vague gestures at electrification. But as someone who kinda gets car sick these days when I have to ride in a car, I’m not sure if I agree with his assessment.
I’ve written this piece on the train: drafted it on my way to Tralee to stay with a friend on the other side of the island, and I’m giving it an edit on my way back to Dublin. It's raining in County Tipperary while the sun shines and across the table from me a guy about my age is making dinner plans with his partner over the phone. All the European folks I know, particularly the Irish ones, complain about Irish Rail, but I love it. It’s not as fast as the high-speed Italian rail and it’s more expensive than a Dutch or German train, but as a user of Amtrak’s cross-country service, I’m just thankful to have half-decent, affordable, regular service that doesn’t have to stop for BNSF freight cars.
Most people travel alone the majority of the time. We swipe Metrocards or tap Go-To cards and sit or stand quietly reading or writing or just watching the lights flash by in the train tunnel or the tree cover ebb and flow outside the window. When I’m riding alone it often feels like I’m the only one who has these little experiences, getting off and on at my stops on the train and picking the bus seat I like. But sometimes I end up traveling in someone else’s company, bussing to a party with a friend or taking a little day trip with folks on the train. Each time I do, my illusion of isolation is shattered. When we punch in our codes at the ticket machine and find our names on the green display above the seat, I'm struck by the intimacy of sharing these little rituals with someone. When I travel with someone, my seemingly solo rituals suddenly become a shared language, something that makes the travel experience that much more intimate.
You don’t get that kind of intimacy in a car. When I was driving everywhere growing up we would pack into two cars or so and pause interaction until we got into the mall. Even in the same car together things are weird: the driver is having a completely different experience from their passengers and no one has the ability to face one another. We just listen to the radio or a playlist and wonder if we’re there yet. Most importantly, there’s no potential for positive interaction between strangers. Sure, people on the bus can be loud and smelly and the subway can be crowded but you can also exchange smiles or pleasantries, read a book over someone’s shoulder, ask and give directions, even have elaborate fantasies about how you and the hottie across from you are meant to be. In a car most all the interactions you can have—honking, speeding up, slowing down, exchanging words out the window—have a default hostility to them.
The litmus test for me is the bicycle. Biking isn’t public transit; a bike is an individually piloted vehicle that most folks own themselves, with all the benefits of a car without being a car. Certainly biking on the road can lead to hostility, primarily between bikes and cars. But when you’re on a bike you’re still mostly human, people can see your face and interact with you, maybe to mansplain how you signaled incorrectly at the last intersection but maybe to compliment your bike or your outfit. And biking even allows for a shared transit language. I love taking folks around on a bike, showing them the ropes and routes around Dublin or Brooklyn, and being in a little biker gang of folks comfortable in my city gives me the same buzz as taking the train or bus, chatting away as you plug into your shared infrastructure and let it take you away.
The promise of individual car ownership is freedom, individuality, self-determination: the ability to go where you want when you want as long as you can afford the gas and find a place to park. But this self-interested form of transportation robs us of the kind of togetherness that we only get from engaging with one another as human beings, relying on the same transit systems and one another to get where we’re going. The common rituals of these systems add an intimate layer of culture to the way we get around, something that rugged individualism can’t replace. When isolated in our cars we sacrifice what it is to be together on the road or in the carriage: having idle chit-chat and enjoying the company of friends and strangers.