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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 16-Dec-2006

Edition: First

Section: Spectrum


Page: 28

Wordcount: 2135

The cars that ate the planet


By Elizabeth Farrelly

Our addiction to the car – that fast, private, ‘swollen ego’ – is endangering our cities and dulling our minds.

AMBIC METRE, OUR most basic rhythm of rhyme and song, arose, they say, from thousands of years of shared evolution with the lop-sided clip-CLOP, clip-CLOP of the horse’s walking hoof beat. As our bodies moved, our brains began to create. This suggests that momentum, and the movement that produces it, matters, not just physically but emotionally, intellectually, spiritually. Musically, even. So what happens now that we can generate momentum without bodily movement? Now that the velocity drug is ours at push-of-button, or turn-of-key, with little or no work required? What might be the effect on our minds and our poetics when, millennia hence, we have internalised the rhythms of the cyber engine? Will our lives still show a pulse?

We all know the stories of nuns doing cryptic crosswords to stave off Alzheimer’s and of Einstein learning the violin for the new neuronal pathways that unfamiliar finger movements formed in his brain.

The ultimate in this use-it-or-lose-it genre is the tale of the sea squirt. The sea squirt is a small marine invertebrate that swims like a tadpole for its first few hours or days (depending on the subspecies), then spends its entire adulthood – years, maybe – stuck, nose-first, to a rock.

In its tadpole or larval form, the sea squirt has a rudimentary brain that, linked by a primitive spinal chord to its tail, enables it to swim. Within seconds of embarking on its sessile stage, however, the sea squirt, having no further need for motion, crushes and digests its own brain. Known colloquially as “dead man’s fingers”, the sea squirt sits out its remaining months or years with a mere dorsal ganglion for intellectual equipment.

Wags cite the sea squirt as a parable of university tenure. But the real lesson is that bodily motion feeds intellect, as well as vice versa. “Movement,” notes Harvard clinical psychiatrist John Ratey, “is fundamental to the very existence of a brain.” The inverse of Einstein’s violin playing also holds: movement deprivation, like sensory deprivation, destroys neural pathways.

This might suggest we’re headed in the right direction. After all, movement – more, bigger, faster movement – is the founding principle of the modern world. As Antonio Sant’Elia and Filippo Tomaso Marinetti wrote in their 1919 Futurist Manifesto, “we are no longer the men of cathedrals, the palaces, the assembly halls; but of big hotels, railway stations, immense roads, colossal ports, covered markets, brilliantly lit galleries, freeways, demolitions and rebuilding schemes”.

Alvin Toffler, writing Future Shock in 1970, noted that the average American would travel, during their life, 650 times as many non-walking miles as an average American had in 1914. No doubt the figure has multiplied many times since. And while some of this travel is necessary for work, much of it – by car, plane or boat – is simply fun.

Probably this urge for speed has always been with us. Think of spider monkeys swinging through branches, of kids on long rope swings over rivers, of the way both children and monkeys will suddenly run, flat out, for the sheer pleasure of it. Acceleration exhilaration may well be hard-wired. Certainly Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell argues that “the human race has always been going as fast as it can”.

But perhaps acceleration is like food. Perhaps, now that we can have it at will and in almost unlimited quantities, our more-is-better impulses are outmoded. Even dangerous. Perhaps speed without movement, the thrill without the effort, is in fact destructive. In speed, perhaps, as in calories, when necessity no longer disciplines us, self-discipline must step in.

For although we tend to equate movement with velocity – much as we tend to equate pleasure with happiness – they’re not the same thing. Just as pleasure can actually undo happiness, velocity can militate against just the kind of movement and the kind of brain stimulus that we need.

Cars are the obvious example. In 1909, a decade before the Futurist Manifesto, Le Figaro published one of the earliest literary paeans to the automobile, Marinetti’s loving account of an impromptu early-morning car race around the outer suburbs of Milan. Since then, cars have become fundamental to our lives and Marinetti’s fanciful prediction of cities shaped by speed seems no more than a description of normality. A recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey showed that although almost all Australians are now engaged in recycling, “concern for the environment stops at the garage door, with four out of five shunning public transport” in favour of the car.

This is the conflicted nub of it. Just as we love food but hate fat, we love our cars even as we hate what they do to our bodies, our neighbourhoods, our planet. Why? And is there an answer to this conundrum?

First and foremost, the car is a speed machine, as revolutionary in human living patterns as was that first domesticated horse on the Central Asian steppes, maybe 5000 years ago. And cars are fun. Especially in a voluptuous town such as Sydney, where tearing across the Harbour Bridge with the roof down on a sultry night can feel like the quintessential Sydney experience. As Anthony Hopkins’s endearing Burt Munro says in The World’s Fastest Indian, “You live more in five minutes on a bike like this going flat out, than some people live in a lifetime.”

Generally, though, cars enclose space. This is the second ingredient of our addiction. The car is personal, mobile architecture, a public mask for a private bubble. It is, in short, an umwelt. Umwelt (literally, “around-world”) is a term coined by Estonian biologist and semiotician Jakob von Uexkull (1864-1944), which lay untranslated and out of print until rediscovered by the postmodern cognitive science and cyberphilosophy sets. Von Uexkull regarded mind, body and context as inseparable for all animals and coined the word umwelt to cover an organism’s physical life-support system and the subjective network of relationships and interpretations that give that world meaning.

Umwelts are, therefore, personal, varying from organism to organism. Compare, von Uexkull said, a meadow seen through the compound eyes and feeding priorities of a fly with the same meadow seen through the black-and-white but smell-laden senses of a dog. An individual umwelt forms, and is formed by, its organism and, together with that organism, becomes what philosopher and von Uexkull fan Elizabeth Grosz calls “an organ of survival”.

A car, then, is an umwelt: a personal milieu that provides both physical support and mental interaction and, as second skin, extends the essential boundary between us and chaos. Surprisingly, since surveys show that more than 50 per cent of cars are now bought by women, most car talk is conducted exclusively in terms of form and function: speed, gear ratios, boy stuff. Critics and marketers tend to forget that the car is also, essentially, an interior. Although usually underwhelming in design terms, the car-as-interior is perhaps the most compelling source of our emotional entrapment in the age of the automobile.

In a car we control our temperature, smell and sound environments, reducing the world’s chaos to manageable order. In a car, we can sing or phone, quarrel or fart to our heart’s content; windows open or closed, roof up or down, exhibiting as much or as little of ourselves as we please. Mothers will do the school run in bare feet and lingerie, providing they needn’t emerge from the car. Couples save their long heart-to-hearts for the car; fathers, their talks to sons. In a car you needn’t confront each other but can look, together, out the window. The car is a comfort zone, a suit of armour, an expandable, swollen ego.

As Boston Globe columnist Sam Allis noted recently, “Car time is the last, best, private time left to us. Anyone with the intelligence of a yak knows this. Car time is defined as an extended period spent by two people in a moving vehicle. One person is a wake and three is a crowd. So two. There is no algorithm to car time. It is, like jazz, played a million different ways.”

Allis talks as though “car time” is an ancient right, or rite, being slowly whittled away by modern philistinism. In fact, of course, it’s new in historical terms and, far from being endangered, it’s running the show. One-fifth of all American meals, says US writer Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, are now eaten in cars. There are drive-in banks, funeral homes, even (the mind boggles) drive-in toilets.

The car is a shiny personal bubble that gives the illusion of vast personal control, while it controls us. It gives the illusion of beneficial movement, while substituting the addictive drug of speed. Auto-mobile: it moves, we don’t. What does this mean, for our lives, our psyches and our cities?

Many of the effects of car culture are familiar: road rage, air pollution, strip malls, boomburgs (fast-growing suburbs), congestion, sprawl. One of the car’s most pervasive, most addictive and least recognised effects, however, is anaesthetic. Forget yoga. Forget acupuncture, hypnosis and mindfulness therapy. Bested only by television and alcohol, the car is one of the most effective anaesthetics known to man.

Both of the car’s dominant aspects – speed and the bubble – have anaesthetic properties. With speed, there’s the speed thrill itself and, in our everyday lives, a kind of action addiction that allows us to stay busy by pretending to save time. These delights are enhanced – or exacerbated – by the anaesthesia of the umwelt. As the ageing Ed Koch-inspired mayor in the film Shortbus observes, life demands porosity. But because an organism’s constant exchange of chemicals and kilojoules with the environment also renders it vulnerable, one function of any umwelt is to provide a relatively safe, impervious milieu; an injecting room, so to speak. From city wall to cell wall, this is the architecture of life. A car allows us to take it with us.

This dual appeal to two innate urges – the will-to-speed and the will-to-safety – is what makes the car so sexy and so dangerous.

Decades ago, Alvin Toffler argued that the new transience – disposability, mobility, rental, contraception and divorce – was dramatically diminishing the vigour of our relationship with the material world; what he called the “man-thing nexus”. This might sound like a good thing, like greed reduction. In fact, it’s vice versa.

Our failure to connect properly with our material world is precisely what allows us to trash it with so little compunction. As with disposable pens and shavers, so in architecture. Churches, post offices and banks – the institutions that once established the very eyeteeth of our cities – now lease space in speculative towers, shopping centres and office parks. We build for the disposable short term. As Marinetti predicted a century ago: “Each generation will have to build its own city.”

In our city fabric, the casualties of this failure to connect include texture and detail. Just as the internal combustion engine removes rhythm from our rhyme and song, it dulls our senses, blunts our brains, removes texture and detail from our material lives. Car culture applies the same coarsening effect across the rest of our urban geography, out-sizing roads, fragmenting landscapes and reducing cities to glassy, non-porous surfaces across which we slide in our umwelts, spectators in our own place.

American sociologist Richard Sennett has written extensively of the “sensory deprivation that seems to curse most modern buildings … and the tactile sterility that afflicts the urban environment”. For Sennett, our determined and increasingly effective flight from discomfort – and our addiction to various forms of anaesthesia – has made “the massive outer world [lose] its weight”.

But we, too, lose, since spectating renders us passive. As car drivers, television watchers, fast-food consumers, we are removed from authentic stimulus. The kinesthetic becomes anaesthetic. Sennett puts it thus: “Freedom which seeks to overcome resistance … dulls the body … the body comes to life when coping with difficulty.”

The car, having sprung from our innate urge to lubricate our lives, is humanity’s most widespread and successful resistance-reduction device to date. But, like so many of our successes, it is rebounding; its double anaesthesia of speed-without-movement and control-without-connection puts us in danger of destroying our minds, our bodies, our cities and our one irreducible umwelt: the planet.

Unless we can learn more quickly, outsmarting even the smart car, we may find out the hard way that, contrary to instinct, our much-craved comfort is really the enemy in disguise.


Illustration: Simon Letch


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