Renouncing Affluence
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Slowing Down to Enjoy Life

The car and other motor powered tools and equipment have become so much a part of our lives that we rarely stop to wonder would we be better off without them. Certainly life would be more silent, the air purer, and perhaps most significantly, our pace of living would be slower.

by Charles Gray  
  One of the happiest parts of living simply is getting free of the radical monopoly of the automobile. According to Ivan Illich in his Energy and Equity, a radical monopoly is one which effectively eliminates alternative means. The automobile has all but eliminated mass transit, has made biking dangerous, has restructured our communities so as to make itself virtually indispensable, has made our communities almost uninhabitable and our highways lethal. However, the victory of the automobile has not been complete. One can escape with some effort and rediscover that marvel of energy efficiency, the bicycle. It is a wonderful machine and ordinary used ones are well within the WEB1. A bike can last from 10 to 20 years and you can maintain one yourself for a couple of dollars a month. Getting out and away from your car produces one of the most joyful and dramatic reductions in the cost of living, and in the true cost of living for the whole community. Not only are cars expensive to buy, but they cost a heap to keep, to insure, and to repair. They turn the very air we breathe into a garbage can. They kill and maim hundreds of thousands directly and more hundreds of thousands indirectly by contributing to lung cancer, emphysema, lead poisoning, and other pollution relates diseases. They are even more lethal for domestic and wild animals. The resources devoured in their manufacture and use plunders the planet and is a major part of the lifestyle that separates us from the world's poor. And now there are assertions that the automobile is a major contributor to the depletion of the ozone layer. Any one of the above points should be reason enough to seriously question the continued use of the automobile. Together, they spell disaster.

There would be comparatively little pollution in the manufacture and distribution of bicycles. There is no pollution in riding them. From enormous pollution to virtually no pollution in one single step. Take that step. You'll love it. You'll also get good exercise. It's easier on the joints than running. You'll greatly reduce your parking problems. You can even carry a hundred or more pounds of groceries or other stuff if you add a basket, panniers, or a bike trailer. In the centre of town, you can often get to your destination quicker on a bike than in a car. If, as Illich does, you figure in how many hours you have to work to support a car and count this as part of the time it takes to get from point A to point B, you'll find that a car is not much faster than walking, while a bike is three times as fast. Have you noticed how noisy our world has become, and how much of that noise comes from motors? Bicycles, on the other hand, like most muscle, solar, and wind powered devices are delightfully quiet.

There is a price to pay for enjoying this marvellous invention in a car dominated society. That price is danger. It's more dangerous to ride a bike. A bike gives no protection to the body. There is very little danger that you will ever kill anyone else by riding a bicycle. That's an important advantage to everyone, but especially a pacifist. You run little risk of killing yourself unless you go very fast, but you run a considerable risk of being hit by a motor vehicle. You can reduce the risk of death or serious injury if you wear a safety helmet, keep your lights and both brakes operating properly, wear light coloured clothes at night, ride defensively, find the safest routes to take, and join others in educating the community to the needs of cyclists for bike paths and bike lanes. As more of us step out of cars, it will gradually become safer for the bicycle.

When you bike you get closer to the weather which is sometimes wonderful and sometimes a drag. The bike with its thin tires is also prone to flats on our glass covered streets and that is a nuisance. A major repair on a bike costs less than a minor repair on a car.

If you frequently haul things, a bike trailer is a real asset. At various times, I have worked as a carpenter and used my bike trailer to carry all my tools. I could even carry eight or ten-foot lumber, though I regretted the time I tried to push this limit to twelve foot. My load was tail heavy and I waddled down the road like a duck much to the amusement of other carpenters whizzing by in their pick-ups. I think I had the last laugh though. I didn't have to work a year to pay for my rig. I also find a bike trailer very useful in scavenging, especially when doing so at produce warehouses where you are likely to haul off five or six cases of vegetables or fruits. I once moved half of my worldly goods on my bike trailer when I moved from Portland to Eugene in 1980. If cyclists in your community don't use trailers, you can still probably get pictures and ordering information about them at your local bike shop. Some are made with rain covers and sets for children. If you are handy, they are quite easy to make out of steel tubing.

Long distance travel is also possible by bike if you have lots of time, but generally I've used other means, like my thumb. Hitching has its risks and its getting harder, but in spite of the haste or fear of many drivers, someone eventually comes along who doesn't know its dangerous or doesn't care, and picks you up. It's a funny business, hitching. It's hard to predict. You are never sure whether you will wait two minutes, two hours, or two days. Though I've heard of folks waiting several days, I think the longest I ever waited was seven hours on a freeway on-ramp just south of Tacoma, Washington. You usually have plenty of time to play little guessing games like what kind of vehicle is most likely to stop? It used to be that an old VW hippie van was almost a sure thing, but then lots of hippies got rich and fearful like most people. As soon as you start thinking that a particular kind of person will never pick up a hitch hiker, you get fooled. I've been picked up by lots of unlikelieswomen, cadillacs, RVs, folks so crowded it took five minutes to make space for me. Born-agains seem to pick me out because anyone can tell just looking at me that here walks a soul in need of saving.
It used to be that an old VW hippie van was almost a sure thing, but then lots of hippies got rich and fearful like most people.
Hitchers have an etiquette that you soon learn. When you come to a spot where someone else is already hitching, it's courteous to move on down the road so s/he will get the first chance. Actually, though, it doesn't always work that way. The car will see the first person too late to stop, but having seen them in some cases makes them more prone to stop when they see you down the road. It is important to stand where people can see you from a fair distance off so they have time to make up their minds, and where it's safe to pull over. I think people are more likely to pick you up if you are standing on the shoulder rather than laying under a tree. In some places, for some strange psychological reason, people are more likely to pick you up if you are walking along rather than standing still. I can't quite figure this out. Walking isn't going to get you much closer to your destination if you are going several hundred miles. I think it has something to do with the value people place on self-reliance, as if somehow if you are walking you are doing your share of getting yourself there. Hitching is not dull and you meet lots of good people who will go out of their way to be helpful. You meet interesting folks, too, and occasionally you pick a doozie.

Well, hitching is the cheapest. Looking at a college ride board and sharing gas expenses is pretty cheap also. Lots of cities have drive-away agencies that are in the auto transport business. If you don't look too poor and scruffy and have identification, you can drive across the country in a good car for just the cost of the gas. If two or more are going that can be really cheap. I have trouble with drive-aways though, because I don't have credit cards and it's surprising how suspicious some folks are when they meet someone who isn't part of the credit card culture.

There are alternative buses, usually with seats stripped out to make bed space so you can sleep. We've used the Grey Rabbit and Green Tortoise. There's usually a jolly crew, food and drink on board, and a stop for a skinny dip in a hot spring or swimming hole. The cost is about two-thirds what a Greyhound will set you back. They aren't always dependable, but they can be a lot of fun and can save you the shame of riding on the greedy conglomerate that made all its money by overcharging the poor and then let the service deteriorate while they put those profits into hotels, casinos, restaurants, and agribusinesses, and then for their final show of ingratitude, they fenced off the restrooms in the depots so people couldn't use them unless they had a ticket.

My anger at Greyhound's rip-off motivated me to find an alternative way to get to San Francisco, about 70 miles North of Santa Cruz. General knowledge has it that Greyhound is the only available bus service, if service is the appropriate word. One wonders, when the ticket for that short distance is presently $21.55 round trip. Perhaps robbery is a better description. Anyway, I discovered that by taking a town bus as far as it goes up the beautiful coast one can catch the end of the line of another local bus that will get you to Half Moon Bay where another bus will get you to the end of the BART rapid rail serving the Bay area. These three buses cost only 50 cents each and BART to downtown San Francisco costs another $1.25 or you can take the slower MUNI for 75 cents. If you splurge and take the BART, the total cost is $2.75 one way from Santa Cruz or $5.50 round tripa fourth of what Greyhound holds you up for. Also, it's a much more beautiful trip up the coast highway and you have an hour's stopover at a lovely beach between two of the local buses. Unfortunately, there is only one connecting schedule each way which means you might have to stay overnight with a friend in San Francisco. It takes four and a half hours in comparison to Greyhound's two and a half, but it's a lot more fun and pretty and it supports local mass transit. It feels sweet to have an alternative to Greyhound. It should especially appeal to those for whom hitchhiking seems too dangerous. With a little research, you might find such alternatives where you live.
Suprisingly, for many jobs the hand tools are not only quieter, but as quick or quicker.

Finally, you can travel less altogether. Let your world get a little smaller. Learn to enjoy the people and the beauty close at hand. You'll be a lot lighter on the planet and on the pocketbook. It's hard of course, when you've moved out of a life where your friends and family are scattered all over the country and the world, but that pattern is all part of a life that must be sharply modified if we are to stay within our share. Since living on the WEB we have still travelled a great deal in connection with our movement work, so much that we are always looking forward to getting home and back to the pleasure of sailing around town on our simple and quiet bicycles.

Motor-mania is an expensive part of our culture and is taken to absurd lengths. Living simply has meant a return to hand tools and muscle power. Surprisingly, for many jobs the hand tools are not only quieter, but as quick or quicker. Take the lawn mower, for example. Hand mowers are cheaper, lighter weight, easier to manoeuvre, and certainly safer. For small lawns they are much better than a power mower. Even for large lawn areas I prefer them. A hand mower kept in good condition can do a pretty large lawn in less than a couple of hours. And those hours are more pleasantless tension from the danger, less racket for yourself and your neighbours and no cord to tangle or fumes to breathe. You can usually repair them yourself and even sharpen them if you are handy.

If hand tools are so superior, why don't more people use them? Motor mania is a set of attitudes that has taken over the country, a set of attitudes exploited and reinforced by heavy advertising pushing the latest motorized gadget. I don't understand the disease very well, but I think some of the psychological base has to do with power needs. For the power hungry male the gasoline motor has one advantage over the mechanical. You can get a charge out of revving it up, a feeling of bending something to your will, or perhaps the stepping on the gas gives a sexual thrust feeling and the immediate increase in noise says look what I just did. The noise might also serve an aggressive need to disturb your neighbour in a culturally acceptable way. The sociological base has to do with keeping up with the Joneses, being considered up to date, being sucked in by advertising, and, of course, the latest gadget becomes a hot gift item because there's a good chance that cousin Joe doesn't have one yet.

Another major sociological pressure to use power tools is the demand for speedspeed to get more work done to satisfy the employer and meet the speeded up competition, speed to make more money, speed to justify high labour costs, speed to get the work done around home so that both parents and teenagers can work outside the home in order to pay for the latest power gadgets to further decrease the time necessary to do the house and garden work so you can spend more time in front of the TV learning what next you need to buy to further speed up the American Dream Machine and get happy. Part of the get happy requires buying drugs to tranquillize you after a day of working with tension producing power tools. The system doesn't work. Advertising doesn't promote happiness. It promotes dissatisfaction and anxiety and consumer demand and more speed-up.

Advertising always keeps the dream a little out in front. So you have to run a little faster using higher speed tools in an effort to catch it. You never quite catch the dream, or the system might collapse. Speed has become an end in itself. We really lost track of why we are going so fast. It's like the old joke that describes our society so well. The aeroplane captain's voice comes over the loudspeaker, saying he has good news and bad news. The bad news is that we are lost. The good news is that we are making good time.

Some new attitudes that will help in return to hand tools and muscle power are the appreciation of silence, of clean air, of how good it feels to use your muscles, of the fact that it is easier to set your own pace with hand tools, to actually enjoy the work as opposed to just getting it done.

Motor mania has all but taken over and some hand tools are crowded out and getting harder to find. Every year or so new motorized equipment comes on the market. Recent garden tool examples are the nylon string wood cutters and the incredibly noisy leaf blowers that blow lots of dust into the air along with leaves. What next? Don't worry. They'll think of something. Christmas is always coming! What I've said of the garden can also be said of the kitchen. Do we really need a motorized can opener and carving knife?

Some new attitudes that will help in a return to hand tools and muscle power are the appreciation of silence, of clean air, of how good it feels to use your muscles, of the fact that it is easier to set your own pace with hand tools, to actually enjoy the work as opposed to just getting it done.

For me, one of the greatest advantages of hand tools is their relative safety. Not all are safe. The axe is dangerous. When it comes to saws, though, you aren't likely to cut off a finger with a hand saw, but such accidents are common with power saws. Chain saws are especially dangerous. The reason is that when the hand saw hits your finger, you aren't going to take another swipe, but when the power saw does the finger may be gone, or the leg may be deeply torn before the power can be cut off to stop the action of the speeding teeth. The same is true of power mowers. Lots of people, especially children, have lost their toes to those whirling blades. Part of staying healthy and out of the clutches of the costly medical monster is to work safely and hand tools help with that.

Hand tools will help us slow down our lives and get off the speed machine. If we don't have to be so rich we don't have to work so fast. We might even be able to slow down enough to enjoy the work itself. This idea applied to the society as a whole would slow down the rate at which we are destroying the environment. Think how many trees we would still have if we had to cut them down with hand saws. That marvel, the Douglas Fir, takes 80 years to mature naturally. Could we not be willing to take just one day to cut it down after offering prayers of appreciation? Yes, but that would make our housing more expensive. Perhaps, but we could live quite well in a smaller house and there would still be trees to shade it and clean streams to flow by it. There might even be trees left for our grandchildren to build their houses with. It will help us to slow down when we realize that the faster we go the crazier we get and the more destructive we become.

It's easy to say these things. And in saying them I don't mean to infer that power tools and appliances should never be used, but only that their use should flow from careful consideration of their costs, safety, and meaning, and not from a slavish conformity to motor mania and the devil god of speed. We still use power tools at times, but that is more out of old habit than necessity or even efficiency. At times they do things that a hand tool cannot do nearly as well, or we have lost the skill to do it as well with the hand tool. Nonetheless, we have largely returned to hand tools and our living cost its lower and our appreciation of the joy of work is greater.

1. World Equity Budget,cf. previous articles

This is an extract from "Towards a Non-Violent Economics" (1989). Copies available from Ben Searle, 5 Fairlawn Rd., Montpelier, Bristol B56 5JR, England for St£1.25 plus postage.

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