by John Scull
Divorce your Car! by Katie Alvord. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0-86571-408-8. http://www.newsociety.com/
We ecopsychologists love to talk about worldviews, disconnections from nature, dualistic thinking, ecospirituality, and other mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the human-nature relationship. On the other hand, we seldom seem to discuss what we can actually do or stop doing to improve this relationship. Without any psychology at all, this friendly and readable book explores our romance with the one cultural artifact which, more than any other, serves to separate us from nature and from each other -- the automobile.
With this issue of Gatherings being about about trees, why am I writing about cars? Everyone knows they are expensive, use fossil fuels, and spew poison gases into the atmosphere, but what do they do that is specifically related to trees? Well, acid rain for one. But the power of this book is that Alvord looks into all aspects of our relationship to the car, including the space they take up. Imagine, for a moment, that most of the parking lots, streets, and highways around you were planted with trees rather than asphalt. Imagine that your garage or carport was an extra room, that your driveway was a garden. This book shows how to move towards a world like that, where trees are more important than travel in a metal box.
Alvord suggests that, since the first Benz and Daimler cars were sold in Germany in 1888, humans have had a romantic relationship to the automobile. She describes the early history of the car as the courtship, discusses the flaws that have appeared in the relationship since then, and finally explores ways we can accomplish a partial or complete separation. This marriage/divorce analogy is a pleasant alternative to the addiction and illness models ecopsychologists seem to love.
In the first part of the book she gives us a clear and readable history of the early courtship, the falling into love, and the early relationship. She describes how, from the beginning, wealthy individuals (the only ones who could afford cars at first), automobile makers, oil companies, and road construction companies conspired together to encourage governments around the world build roads with public funds, at the expense of other forms of transportation. The history makes fascinating reading, as automobiles reshaped our cities, our economy, and the ecology of the planet. The manufacturers' claims that they were being helpful and their denial of automobile-induced air pollution makes them sound a lot like tobacco companies.
The second part of the book explores the many grounds for divorce in the relationship, and they are many. She begins with air pollution, combining tailpipe emissions with pollution from oil refineries and car manufacturering. "Being married to the car is a lot like being married to a smoker and breathing second-hand smoke." She moves on to oil spills in the ocean and runoff from roads. This relationship is definitely bad for the health of both people and planet.
Alvord then explores the effect of cars on the car-owner's life -- the high cost of driving, the time wasted on both maintenance and traffic jams, the space taken up for roads, parking lots, and driveways. She writes about how cars and roads are the major threats to habitat. She mentions lots of little irritants, too -- traffic noise, loss of community, and road rage, among others. After she has explored and amply documented all these abuses, she arrives at the best cause for divorce, safety. More people were killed in road accidents than in all the wars of the 20th century. The car is, without doubt, a cause of violence against families and terrorism without precedent.
With all these problems, why do we continue to live with cars, and why do we like them so much? Alvord's answer is that, beyond their obvious usefulness and convenience, they are highly advertised and they are highly subsidized. Advertising has consistently romanticized, sexualized, and glamorized the automobile and government support for infrastructure has made the cost of driving artificially low compared to other forms of transportation. This distorts the market so that people drive far more than they would with a "level playing field" between cars and other forms of transportation. Studies in the US, Canada, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere have indicated that the "external" costs of driving (those not paid by the driver) would be covered by a tax of $14 to $17 per gallon of gasoline, or more than $3,000 per year per car.
The third part of the book creatively explores how we can become car-free or, at least, car-lite. This section creatively explores the life we can have after the divorce. Chapters cover walking, bicycling, transit, car pools, and telecommuting. Each chapter covers both the choices we can make as individuals and political action we can take in our communities. They are full of success stories and encouraging examples from around the world. These positive and upbeat accounts go some way towards counteracting the guilt and anger generated by the first two parts of the book. The book also comes with practical suggestions and an excellent list of resources.
The real power in the last few chapters of this book, however, is in the description of the positive benefits of the alternatives to driving. These come in the form of better health and fitness, more spending money, more free time, a stronger connection to the landscape, and a stronger connection to our communities. If many people reduced their driving the shape, sound, and air of our cities, towns, and countryside would begin to be transformed.
I live 10 rolling km from the nearest town. Year round about 10% of my trips are by transit and, except in the winter, about 20% are by bicycle. The rest of the time I drive. I'm well below the North American driving average described in Divorce your Car! but I am well above what I could do if I tried. This book left me with a determination to further reduce my driving and to advocate alternatives to driving whenever I can. If, as an ecopsychologist, I am going to "walk my talk" it might be good to begin by doing more walking and less riding. Maybe it's time to divorce cars and turn my love affair with my bicycle into a marriage.
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