If Driving Can’t Be Fun…

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Hi there! – the Google self-driving car

In a world of driverless cars, the driving man is king. Or so I thought last weekend at a meetup where one laptop-cradling attendee asked the assembly: would you give up your right to drive for the convenience of a self-driving fleet? About two-thirds of the group raised their hands.

A strict libertarian I am not, but we should be wary when someone proposes the removal of rights. I didn’t raise my hand, but not out of ideological certitude. While the man’s question is a potent one, it seems too complex and too contingent for a straw poll to do it justice. So here’s my attempt.

It doesn’t take a professional planner to recognize that modern cities consider the right to drive a given. Driving is as necessary as eating for most of us. And despite our daily struggles with traffic, the automobile lives very close to the beating heart of American culture. The 2008 automotive industry bailouts got so much attention partly because we picture American industry’s golden age as rows of men on the Detroit assembly line, churning out cars. Our concept of leisure, even for supposedly driving-averse Millennials, operates around the assumption that you need a car to get anywhere worth going.

Perhaps an automotive century molded our sense of urban life in its image just as concretely as it transformed our physical infrastructure. We may be stuck with the private car. Transit, bikes, and walkable neighborhoods are all well and good, but what we really need are cars, driverless and battery-powered and app-summoned. Give up your right to drive, abandon these silly buses and trains, and declare your allegiance to Silicon Valley’s new world-changing venture.

It’s easy to get cynical. Silicon Valley’s insistence on disruption hasn’t delivered the revolutionary improvements in lifestyle it promised. Some say we’re more beholden to our machines than ever before, adapting our minds and bodies to their rhythms while maintaining the precarious illusion of control. Wouldn’t a citywide network of self-driving cars be an extension of that trend? Wouldn’t it become the civic answer to a Disneyland ride, a place to cede our right to travel, for a fee, to those who have our happiness at heart?

The Game of Driving

Beyond the cynicism, the doubt, the useful politics around any discussion of “rights,” is the brutal reality of driving as it exists now. And I’m not referring to the tens of thousands of Americans who lose their lives every year to variations on driver error. I am not talking about grinding hours on clogged, crumbling highways, bumper-to-bumper with the rest of the restless city. I’m not even talking about the land use disaster that is parking, the sky-high garage rates in city centers and the vast deserts of empty asphalt girdling suburban malls.

I’m referring to the game of driving, the unique psychological and political environment we enter when we pull away from garage or driveway and into that fraught arena, the street. We take for granted, I think, the degree to which this game shapes our politics and personalities. Though we are awash with self-help and self-realization guides of every kind, they offer no comment on the specific and often intense exercise that occupies hours of our time, every single day.

And yet there are engineers and programmers at Google, even now, who take this game of driving very seriously. They’re thinking about it every day. As I write this, intricate protocols are being written to guide self-driving prototypes safely down the streets of Mountain View. They’re even tackling ethical challenges, like whether an autonomous car can or should choose between the lives of its occupants and the lives of pedestrians on the road. Those programmers know that driving fits one definition of a game: a set of activities bounded by concrete rules. And that game is enforced, traffic cops aside, by the collective agreement of all parties involved to follow those rules.

Imagine you’re alone in your car and you approach a red light. Even though you can see clearly that no drivers are speeding down the perpendicular road, you stop at the light and wait. Imagine you’re on a two-lane street in front of a pack of cars. You want to drive at 30 mph, but the strangers behind you crowd close and you can tell they’re in a hurry. You speed up to 45 mph. Imagine you’re on a boulevard with three lanes traveling in your direction. You know there aren’t cars to your right or left, but you stick to your lane anyway, or feel a little jolt of embarrassment when you realize you’re drifting.

These are all examples of gameplay in an unpredictable arena where the stakes are at once commonplace (getting to the grocery store before it closes) and extreme (avoiding death-by-collision at that blind turn on the way there). That combination of extremes always struck me as psychologically significant.

A Political Exercise

And it’s all very political. Consider the enforcement of rules by horn and by rule-bending squad car. The masculine posturing and the constant preemptive stereotyping by vehicle and driver identity. The protocol of turn signals. The ways we improvise when a cyclist, a construction zone, or a fallen tree modifies the game-board. And then there’s road rage. That flash of supreme fury when one of these anonymous nobodies breaks the rules and puts us in a disadvantageous position.

The game of driving can be brutal in the city. We are all strangers when we walk down the sidewalk, but at least we are human strangers, bound to consider the people we encounter as something like our conscious selves. With cars it isn’t so easy. We know intellectually that the driver is a person, but what we see first is the car’s inhuman form. Moreover, we encounter that form in a competitive and rule-stricken environment where fear, anger, and shame are never too far away.

That isn’t how it was supposed to be. In a blander, less-crowded America, the automobile was a multiplication of the horse, a tool for liberation and self-discovery. In many parts of the country, out away from the cities, it can still be that way. And city driving isn’t always a challenge. The danger and the rules remain during pleasurable trips, but they soften. Far from obstacles or assholes, fellow drivers become incidental peers in a world where we’re all playing the same game. In those cases, driver control can be a positive social exercise – as well as a lot of fun.

A Google transportation network sounds like the final triumph of Silicon Valley boosterism, but we need to resist the urge to kill the self-driving car. Liberated from the need to play this high-stakes, low-payout game of driving, we can regain some of the psychological and political energy it currently drains from us. We can keep the right to drive, but only in places where we derive some pleasure from it, where road interactions don’t need to rely on an attitude of defensiveness. Maybe the self-driving car can help us make space for the games we actually enjoy.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann

Has Environmentalism Lost Touch with the Wild?

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Desperation. Rising seas, phantom hurricanes, the polar bear’s plight. To channel the climate deniers and the corporate right, environmentalists have long resorted to “alarmism” and “fearmongering” to spread their message, appeals to arouse our society’s collective fear of dying. As an unabashed environmentalist, I have to agree with the opposition: our prophecies may be based in fact, but that doesn’t make them any less sensational – and subject to the criticism sensational rhetoric will get. But if environmentalists abandon this script, are we watering down the message beyond repair?

In a piece published by the LA Times, Yale Environmental Protection Clinic director Joshua Galperin takes on the theme of desperation. These days, he argues, young environmentalists use the language of the “enemy” hoping for nominal, halfhearted concessions. They’re into appeasement, not bold progress. They’re desperate. Galperin yearns for the days when environmentalists rallied behind their “awe at the grandeur, interconnectedness and unpredictability of the ecosystems and wild landscapes.” Lifted out of themselves by the natural world, the old guard advocated for transformative change, an end to pollution and corporate malfeasance.

The argument is this: old-school environmentalists demanded revolution and got concessions. The new generation demands concessions and gets nothing. Cue desperation.

I think Galperin gives “young environmentalists” too much credit. His Yale students may be revolutionaries at heart, but I wouldn’t say the same for the majority of professionals in the environmental field. For one thing, the American public already supports environmentalist aims despite the power brokers’ successful campaign to stymie real action. Faced with an uncertain future, Millennials are hedging their bets, going along with the corporate responsibility narrative in case this blows over and the revolutionaries are left out to dry in a vibrant clean economy.

The die-hard greens, meanwhile, find themselves in a world that talks their talk without doing any of the associated legwork. Dirty capitalism is rebranding itself and maybe that’s how it should be. Climate change is happening, but maybe, um, it won’t really be that bad for people like us. Maybe people will live happy, decent lives in Elon Musk’s new order.

The left-wing magazine Jacobin published an article today chronicling how government power was (and is) essential to the development of capital. The piece touts the Soviet Union, not as a model to emulate, but as a gray counterweight to liberal economics, a bogeyman that let mid-century leftists extract concessions from corporate America. That “viable alternative” disintegrated around 1990, when Galperin notes the last substantive federal legislation on climate was passed. Back then, people my age were infants, poised to grow up in the world’s first truly global civilization.

With the Soviets gone and European “socialism” looking less attractive – as it botches immigration from its former colonies – we’re left with a voracious global economy and those who say we can knead it into shape. Meanwhile, inexorably, the old guard’s awe has slipped away. Where did it go?

For some young people it’s still there, hidden in a different place. Human civilization, for better or worse, has achieved cosmic proportions worthy of awe. The engines of global capital, people in their teeming billions, and now the omniscient, omnipresent digital overlay on our lives – these things are grand, interconnected, unpredictable, beyond understanding.

As the world urbanizes and cities grow at unprecedented rates, we find more everyday awe in man-made things. Green is an afterthought and an ornament. We drive through endless sprawl adorned with facsimiles of nature. We walk in tightly-bounded parks, places to pause and watch the cars go by. Increasingly, only those of us with stability, with disposable income, with time to spare can escape to “real nature.” And what about people who live far from the city center? Against Galperin’s narrative, they favor the policymakers who want to sully their hills and valleys for a better bottom line.

Centuries of science have convinced us that we know something about nature. And decades of unprecedented human change have us convinced that civilization is a mysterious thing. I agree with Galperin: mainstream environmentalism needs to rediscover wilderness, to see a new Apple laptop beside a houseplant and recognize which one is more complex, more awe-inspiring. Environmentalists need to study the human world, to acknowledge things like the federal government, investment banking, and the tech industry not for their innovation, or their evil, but for their simplicity.

The planet doesn’t require desperation, but it does deserve awe. The environment isn’t some fragile thing in need of protection – it’s us we need to worry about. If we can get beyond the relative smallness of global capital, we might find wilderness again, beyond the city lights, up in the stars, in ourselves.

Photo credit: Kevin Krejci via Flickr

Preppers, Guns, and Environmentalism

 

I know next to nothing about guns, aside from what the odd video game has to say. I’m a west coast liberal, a progressive, and I chuckle with wry agreement when Europeans refer to the “sick gun culture” in America. They’re right, of course. There are too many guns. But I’ve never been an ardent gun control advocate, and I only just realized why.

As unlikely as it sounds, guns and green have a lot in common. Modern environmentalism aims for the same psychological sweet spot that shows like The Walking Dead – in all their high-caliber glory – target for high ratings and repeat views. I’m referring to the strain of millenarian end-of-the-world environmentalism that lies beneath every viral article on melting permafrost, oceanic die-offs, and refugees from submerged cities. When it comes right down to it, the green movement needs the apocalypse as much as the gun lobby does. Which brings me to the American prepper.

I’ll admit to a fascination with the prepper phenomenon. The stereotype of rednecks hiding out in bunkers belies an active and earnest subculture of regular folks (often from the “heartland”) who prefer self-reliance in the face of major catastrophe. A whole cottage industry has sprung up, especially online, marketing specialized survival goods, manuals, and assorted bric-a-bric to preppers. There’s even a TV program about the subculture (American Preppers), which I haven’t had a chance to see.

The lengths to which some of these individuals pursue their hobby is impressive. In the event of TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it), preppers prefer to own a rural “bug-out” location already stocked and ready to serve as home for the long-haul. They mull over ways to keep their families away from the “Golden Horde” of panicked non-preppers. (It’s always families: apparently the single person is rare in prepper-land.) They often accumulate a vast array of canned food, survival equipment, and, of course, weaponry. If a sudden TEOTWAWKI event does occur, I’m certain they’ll have the last laugh.

As mass shootings dominate the news, tired old arguments for and against gun control get dragged back and forth, achieving little. I wish more critics would brave the liberal-conservative border fence and acknowledge the real issue: we Americans love us some autonomy. And we love being able to say that we have more autonomy than those drones on the other side. The prepper movement is the face of a powerful undercurrent in the collective American psyche.

What’s funny is that most preppers are sustainability advocates. Their love of autonomy and self-sufficiency – being “off the grid” – drives them to solar energy, recycling, composting, and conservation. And their predilection for the end of the world (as we know it) sounds mighty similar to the torrent of articles about climate scientists and their worst fears. Guns, like household solar panels, symbolize the common person’s power in the face of global threats.

The fact that modern environmentalists align so closely with “liberal” positions like gun control, queer rights, abortion rights, and the like is a recent fluke of political history. Previously, conservation environmentalism embraced hunters, cowboy enthusiasts (Edward Abbey), and assorted wild men who’d laugh out loud at Dick Cheney’s famous steady hand. The modern pivot toward a progressive environmentalism has attempted to forge common cause with successes in identity politics, letting some of the previous generation’s prized autonomy slide.

It’s been said before, but I think we need to take another hard look at the green movement’s inherent conservatism. As in “conservation,” not “Republican.” Too often, those of us caught up in the fervor of today’s identity movement (a heroic and worthwhile endeavor) see the past as a dark stain, a pit of obscene human rights violations, of racism, of misogyny, of homophobia. Amid all this valid criticism, we miss the fact that the neoconservative/neoliberal agenda cares nothing for tradition, autonomy, or identity. In a blind quest for maximization and growth, silly human notions like “love” or “religion” mean very little.

For all its tragedies, the past is a fertile field for useful stories. Stories that explain things like conservative and progressive, liberal and authoritarian, capitalist and corporatist. It’s up to each of us to look at those stories and decide which labels are good and bad, and in which circumstances. What I can say is that the current global system is fundamentally at odds with both environmentalism and autonomy. We have allowed most of our ideological markers to fuse and blend into meaninglessness.

Sanders’ and Trump’s populist campaigns prove that autonomy remains a viable force in the American mind. They also prove how divided we have become. Through shotguns or solar panels, I hope our love of self-reliance can help us find some common ground other than liberal capitalist progressive authoritarian conservative libertarian corporatism. (I choose the solar panels.)