Saturday, May 22, 2004

Warning to those who read this blog for its knitting content: none in this entry.

Today's musings are about hardship and sacrifice, or what passes for it in modern U.S. culture.

Regular readers (if there are any) of this blog may recall that my family attempts to do what is widely regarded by most of our neighbors as an enterprise in pure folly: we "get by" with "only" one car. My husband (I want no part of it) owns a 1999 Ford Escort wagon and the mileage reimbursements he gets from his employer cover its costs in gas, insurance, maintenance and even the oft-overlooked opportunity costs (the money we could be earning if we sold the car and invested the proceeds).

I rarely use the car, but it's available to me when I need to travel outside my walking and biking range. For the past 10 days, it hasn't been available as my husband has been away with it for work. Several of my neighbors have generously offered me rides or the use of their cars. While I am grateful to live in a neighborhood in which people know and care for each other, I can't help recalling Bill Bryson's wonderful essay, "Why No One Walks," in I'm a Stranger Here Myself. Bryson described how his well-intentioned neighbors reacted to his walking habits when he first moved to New Hampshire:

"People have gotten used to this curious and eccentric behaviour now, but several times in the early days passing acquaintances would slow by the curb and ask if I wanted a ride.

"But I'm going your way," they would insist when I politely
declined. "Really, it's no bother."

"Honestly, I enjoy walking."

"Well, if you're absolutely _sure_," they would say and depart
reluctantly, even guiltily, as if leaving the scene of an
accident without giving their name."

(For those who haven't read it, an excerpt of the essay is available here.)

We've lived in the neighborhood long enough that most people know I don't need a ride, but I suspect the proliferation of offers in the past 10 days has been a result of the weather. It's been an exceptionally wet spring and those who are traveling in the comfort of a metal cocoon must naturally assume that exposure to the unpleasant elements outside constitutes a particularly nasty hardship.

When I'm walking my children to school in a downpour, or biking my daughter to ballet class in the drizzle, I know it may look like a hardship to my neighbors, who might justifiably wonder if I'm unfairly sacrificing my children's welfare to my sense of environmental responsibility. A little perspective is in order. True hardship is walking 5 miles every day to get drinking water, wedging yourself into a packed cargo truck for a long hot ride across the border for work, or seeing a loved one hauled off to Abu Ghraib prison.

My life is one of comfort, ease and security. I have umbrellas and rainwear to shield me from the rain, boots and parkas for the snow, and even sunscreen for those rare and blessed sunny days. I have a warm, comfortable house and too much food in the kitchen. Getting wet or cold occasionally is not a sacrifice; it is the least I can do.

As for my children, their welfare is always my concern. I think they have more to fear from our car-centric culture than from raindrops, and I'm not just talking about the statistics that show automobile accidents are the leading cause of death for children. The fossil-fueled prosperity to which we've grown accustomed in the U.S. is coming to an end and my children are learning the skills and attitudes they will need if they are to help lead our society away from war and self-destruction and into peace and long-term sustainability.

The internet, as well as your local library, has a vast amount of information and essays on this topic; try googling "end of oil" for starters. One of the best books offering practical solutions is Divorce Your Car by Katie Alvord. She lives not in transit-friendly N.Y.C. or San Francisco, but 11 miles outside Houghton, Michigan, where the annual snowfall is around 200 inches. She offers useful advice for minimizing car usage even for those who live in car-centric suburbs. Highly recommended.

Transportation accounts for more than half of the oil consumed each year, so efficiency in that area can have a big impact. But don't forget to take steps to reduce energy usage in other areas, such as heating (turn the thermostat down and knit more sweaters!), food (organic and local whenever possible), and consumer goods (reduce, reuse, recycle). Take the Ecological Footprint Quiz and learn what you can do to live more lightly on the planet. Then, if you'd like to discuss your progress with others, consider joining the LessIsMore discussion group (warning: high e-mail volume).

A little bit of voluntary hardship and sacrifice now may save us from catastrophic hardship and sacrifice later on.

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