Analyze This: On Not Giving Stuff Up

This post comes with a caveat: It is an exploration of systems, the limits of agency, and the social constructs that  preclude giving up my car… yet. I am not looking for sympathy, nor am I beating myself up over my limitations in the face of the myths of Western civilization. I recognize that I lead a profoundly charmed life, full of privilege and the leisure to consider these things. It doesn’t escape my awareness that I can only think about this because of the same education that leads to the rest of it all… it’s complicated.

The problem with giving stuff up is that we don’t want to. I mean we may want to, sort of, but it’s often more that we think it’s a good idea, or we think that we will be better people if we do it, or we think that we should (in all the various interpretations of that loaded word.) But to truly give something up, to stop doing something we enjoy merely for the greater good, without getting any benefit back for it… we don’t really want to do that. At least I don’t.

For me, my ideals keep running up against the car/house problem. My house is too far from the things we do. Or the things we do are too far from my house. Since “the things we do” include the work that pays for the house, I’m going to go with the first interpretation in this case. On a daily basis, we travel more than is justifiable, given the things that we know about the effects of that travel. But once I get to that conclusion, I am unable to take the next logical step…

The benefits of our house, even the environmental ones, are enormous. We have a huge food garden, soon to be updated with nearly year-round greenhouse production. We have chickens, and bees, and fruit trees, and berries, and asparagus (I’m still waiting for the first harvest, so the asparagus is surprisingly prominent on the list of things keeping me here.) At the end of our driveway, we have swimming, canoeing, kayaking, or skating, depending on the season. We can go fishing (which means standing on the end of the dock talking about fish, since no fish are silly enough to come in that close to shore.) It’s like being on vacation whenever we get home, or like living at the cottage. Actually, it’s exactly like living at the cottage, since our house is a winterized, converted cottage. This leads  to a couple of quirks, like the fact that the master bedroom is in the basement, and the second bathroom is tucked behind the chimney and has no ceiling.

Back to the pluses of this property: We heat with wood, and we have a huge bank of south-facing windows. We have available wind in abundance and flowing water, so could probably be energy independent on this property with a smaller-than-average investment in renewables… There is also a second garage with apartment above it, and two sheds, one of which contains chickens, and one of which has my writing studio, at least in the summer. This place is awesome (which is why we bought it two hours after we saw it, the day the sign went up.)

But we keep coming back to the cars. There are currently three of them sitting in my parking space. Three! This is awful! (Now, it happens that we just haven’t managed to sell the van, so it’s not that we intend to continue to have three cars for two drivers. That would be silly.) When we get despondent about the house, and the driving, and the repairs, and entropy, and how all this work we are doing is for naught if we just do the opposite of carbon offsetting by driving back and forth to all our environmental and community events… we come around, eventually, to the cars and how else we could solve the transportation problem.

Can we switch to bikes? Well, for about half the days during the one third of the year it is not below freezing on a regular basis. For short trips not involving the 4-lane highway that is the only route to the aforementioned job, that pays the bills. So, not really.

Additionally, I looked at a couple of pedaled cars, since we usually have to take a couple of kids with us, and I’ve come to a conclusion: I am not willing to give up the enclosed roof. It’s not the time it takes me to get somewhere, or the effort involved that stops me. I would adapt, and change my habits to match up. It is the lack of seclusion from the elements that these vehicles provide. I need my stuff (children, car seats, groceries, towels, clothing) not to get wet, and my body not to get frozen. That’s the main thing that I require from my transportation device. It must protect me from the weather, which we get in abundance.

I think there is something more that underlies that, though. I’m not willing to give up the control over my schedule that would come from having to adapt so much more to the weather. As it is, our lives are much more weather-dependent than typical North American expectations. We change the way we heat and cool our house depending on the cloud cover and wind conditions. We must plant, harvest, and do laundry when the sun shines. It is only warm enough to sit outside of an evening occasionally, and I don’t bother to put away my mittens for July and August, in case I want to go for a walk after dark. I live with all of those things. I don’t even mind them. They add a certain… spontaneity to it all. I’m just not ready to start calling our friends and say, “Sorry, we can’t come over this evening. It’s raining.” So if we’re going to replace our cars with bikes, we’ve got to figure out ways to make our bikes drier and warmer.

It isn’t exactly a transportation problem. It’s a social problem. We don’t say, “Oh, my life would be so complete if only I could go those 30 km in the next half hour!” We say, “Stephanie invited us over for dinner. What should we bring?” It’s an entertainment problem: “Did you see that there’s a drama festival on all this week at the university?” It’s an education problem: “The tutor wants to meet us at the library this evening.” It’s a logistics problem: “We’ve got music lessons at 4 and rehearsal at 6, and they are 14 km apart.” It’s a work problem: “I’ve got to stay 45 minutes late to meet with a student who wasn’t able to make it to the exam and the kids have taekwondo before I’ll be home.” It’s a taking-advantage-of-the-weather problem: “It’s not raining! Who wants to go to the beach?!” At the end of it all, it’s a middle-class problem: “I have to. There are all these things I need to do. And what about the children?”

There’s something there to do with expectations. I don’t feel bad that I can’t provide a private jet or regular skiing trips to Europe; those things are so far out of my purview, they don’t even register. I also don’t feel bad about denying my kids access to the skidoos, jetskis, power boats, and ATV’s that are such common weekend activities for the other kids around here: those things are so obviously outside our value system that they exceed my compromise capacity. Also… expensive! Same reasons we have no lawn to speak of. But these activities on the boundary, when I have the ability to provide them, and the activity itself is something I value… they’re gateway activities. Gateway into the car, into the car culture, into fast food, (which I sometimes resort to when desperate for calories when logistics break down) into consumption. The events, the birthday parties, the obligatory gift giving, are all parts of participation in the broader culture, participation in the culture the children are immersed in by going to school. They already don’t get television, elaborate birthday parties, cell-phones, laptops of their own, or the newest gadget from Future Shop. The least I can do (so I reason) is take them to drama classes, taekwondo, and swimming lessons. And the library. And the theatre. And the farmer’s market. And the wildlife park. And the playground. And their friends houses. And… you see how this goes. It’s a good-mother myth, tied up in the package of a successful life, and topped with a bow of synthesized freedom. For the bargain price of $169 (bi-weekly), plus taxes, maintenance, and gasoline. Phew.

And I can analyze it. And I can realize it, and think it, and know it intellectually. But when it comes right down to finally saying, No? I can’t quite give it up.

9 responses to “Analyze This: On Not Giving Stuff Up”

  1. Have you looked into converting your car to electric? then maybe you could charge it with solar or wind? just a thought.

    • Most of the tabs that were open at the same time as I was writing this were on electric or hybrid cars. 🙂 Having spent some time reading the conversion instructions, I definitely lack the basic skills. It is one of those things that is so far beyond my capacity that it makes more sense for me to pay somebody else to do it… there are all-electric cars arriving on the market in Canada next year, and used hybrids available already. What I *really* want is a plug-in hybrid Mazda 5. Which doesn’t exist, but I anticipated the Palm Pilot and the BlackBerry, so it can only be a matter of time. Writing’s on the wall for this fossil fuel age, methinks.

  2. So my solution to the transportation problem is to live on top of everyone I want to see and everything I want to do. (Well, almost everyone I want to see — though we stick to public transportation as much as possible.) And, if I wanted to, I could have a garden — but I don’t see myself being able to accommodate that for a while. And folks in my neighborhood have chickens and bees, but I would have to have $1 million or more to afford one of those homes with a yard.

    BUT. I’ve heard (on an episode of Radio Lab, to be specific — I’ll send you the link if I ever figure out which episode) that despite our solution to the transportation problem, we city dwellers aren’t necessarily *greener*. (Just realized as typing it that I think I’m beginning to hate that word.) Our living on top of each other means that we don’t have to go so far to get to each other, and we can usually take a bus or train there, but it also means that we are brimming with ideas, interacting with lots of folks with lots of ideas, and making lots of stuff — and thus using a lot of energy. Eh. I’m explaining it poorly. Better find a link to that Radio Lab episode …

    • The segment of the Radio Lab episode (Season 8, Episode 4) is here.

      Also, the other thing I wonder is just how many small farms it would take to feed a city of 8+ million.

      • Probably about a bazillion. But some of those could be on roofs and/or hydroponic. I think that they figure the optimum size for communities is in the hundreds of thousands, so that they can be walkable, concentrated enough to provide meaningful services, AND a reasonable distance from their foodsheds. However, that’s moot, since there already are humongous cities all over the place. It’s not a question about what “should” be, so much as how to come up with diverse solutions that are particular to the location in which people find themselves.

        I have an idea! I will send you an email. I think we can do something with this: I’m about as rural as you can get, and you’re in the biggest city I can think of, but we’re coming at the same problems… I see a rural/urban column or something. Documentary? Bridging the divide? Ooooh. I think there’s potential here.

      • I do think about the rural/urban question a lot, often in response to the things you write about. It may be that I’m asking the wrong question. Yes, I am asking the wrong question. The question is not, Where should I live? The question is, How does one live best where one is?

        rachael {at} thevariegatedlife {dot} com