November 16, 2015

Choosing Life over Stuff: How I Went (Mostly) Car-Free & You Can too.

traffic cars drive

We are hearing more and more about the dire situation that is facing planet earth.

As always, people can’t seem to agree on what the problem is, what the solution is, or whether there is even a problem, the insinuation being that perhaps “they” are just making it up to win the next election.

Folks, it’s time to stop the conjecturing, name-calling, finger-pointing, and just plain fat-lazy-selfish-greedy-cop-outs. The time is now for taking action to address the situation or we and our children are all going to die agonizing deaths because our pollution is killing the planet—everything, including all the diverse and sensitive life forms that have helped to sustain our own lives here.

What can we do? We can choose.

We can choose life over stuff. This is not a new idea, but it is not a popular idea because it is contra- conspicuous consumerism; counter-pernicious capitalism; anti-self-centered.

We can choose to limit our choices.

We can choose to have enough by desiring less.

Because, as G. K. Chesterton wrote, when we choose to always have more by accumulating more and more, we can never have enough.

How can we choose? To begin with, every single person in the world does not have to own a car: this is an idea with disastrous consequences. While third world countries pump more and more new cars into their growing economies because they want to imitate us, first world countries need to take the lead, do the responsible thing, by changing the game: reduce our demand for new cars.

Maybe if more of us refused to buy cars, our leaders would do something about infrastructure, as China has done, by building a high-speed rail system. China has high-speed electric trains; why won’t the almighty United States build them, too?
Because consumers continue to buy cars.

When I was growing up in the 1970s, our family car served three teenagers and two working parents. How? We cooperated. We planned our days: dropping off and picking up from work, mapping out travel routes and shopping trips—and we supplemented by walking around town, riding bikes within a five-mile radius, and using mass transit for trans-city travel.

Sure, it can be very inconvenient to not have a car for every person in the family. But most of the time this is because we created the problem to begin with, by insisting on living in suburbs or rural areas that are too far from work, shopping centers, and social activities. This is how I spent most of my adult life, and eventually I started to develop a phobia of spending so much time in the car. This is when I began making comparisons between quality and quantity of life; between having enough by desiring less, not by accumulating more—including experiences and activities.

It is possible to live a good quality of life without owning a car. In fact, not owning a car is a good way to maintain good health and have more free time, while also substantially reducing cost of living. Choosing to self-limit by not owning a car is a first choice that has the power to change your life in ways that far outshine the so-called easy life of the auto.

Nearly a year ago, I set out on an experiment to be car-free. I have managed, so far, to live without a car; and although it was inconvenient at times and once in a while I did ask a friend for a ride, I have survived. Not only have I survived, but I am healthier because of the daily exercise I get by walking instead of driving. I save a lot of money and stress by not having to depend on a machine that is expensive and sometimes undependable. And, I have more time to enjoy a simpler life doing things I choose to do, because I have had to set limits on where I go and how often.

Every time I am tempted to go ahead and be like everyone else—a consumer who believes she has to have a car—I remember the reasons for my choice:
First, to be the change I want to see in the world, which means that I intentionally do what is within my own power to reduce my carbon footprint.
Second, I want to follow the intention to live and work locally, so that I can know my neighbors, become more involved in community activities, and waste less of my life in the isolating, alienating role of the commuter.

What are the reasons for owning a car? So that I can be autonomous. So that I can do anything I want, anywhere, whenever I want. So that I can run out to the store at any hour of the day or night to buy a fun food that makes me fatter and sicker, and then drive to the gym so I can work off those unnecessary calories, then drive to the doctor and dentist and pay lots of money for them to fix the problems that I created for myself by driving around buying and eating things that I don’t need, not to mention driving back and forth to work so that I can pay for the car and the fun stuff I bought because I had a car to rush me out to buy them without considering the consequences.

You get the idea.

Having a car creates conspicuous consumerism.

Having a car creates carbon emissions.

Carbon emissions are what is killing our planet earth, killing sea life and plant life and bird life and animal life—and all of us— one agonizing breath at a time. But we don’t notice it yet, because we are like that proverbial frog in the water pot with the heat on.

How can I be car-free, you ask? It may take some sacrifice in terms of lifestyle choices. You may have to rethink where you live or work, or what and how much you do for entertainment. But in terms of choosing lifestyle over life? When we think of it in those terms: life or death, every one of us must choose to do something, now.

The individual is powerless to make a difference, we’ve been told; it’s up to the big corporations to reduce the carbon footprint. But aren’t we consumers? We can choose to stop consuming the things those big corporations make in their carbon-emitting factories. That is where we can make the difference, the difference between life and death.

There are softer alternatives to just saying no to having a car, but if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that these alternatives become ineffective compromises, sort of like a chain smoker who opts just to reduce his habit: it may work at first, but over time, we are only fooling ourselves.

For those folks who may be offended at my claim that we should all stop buying cars, I will offer a few moderate suggestions:

Share the family car.

Figuring out strategies for getting mom and dad to work and both teens to their clubs and parties all with one car will provide intellectual challenge, create teamwork, and improve relationships. It may even lead to a decision to limit activities, spend more time together as a family, move closer to town, or even to change jobs.

Personal car-sharing. 

If we are honest, we will admit that we really don’t need to use the car all the time. Neighbors and friends can use it sometimes, too—all the better when they share the expenses of insurance, gas, and repairs. But this only works between trusted friends, among fellow socialists, or among car owners who don’t need to remind everyone, “This is mine.”

Cooperative car sharing.

Neighbors, friends, and co-workers can buy a car cooperatively and sign an official-use contract so that no one feels entitled or resentful about sharing personal property.

Municipal car-sharing programs.

Some cities are actually implementing this idea, as is already implemented with bicycles.

I mentioned that my choice to be car-free is an experiment, meaning that it is a work in progress with an as-yet-unknown outcome: if I am true to the scientific method, I accept the possibility that my experiment may ultimately fail to produce the expected results, which means I may end up buying a car after all. But as is also true of the scientific method, I am open to the possibility of discovering something entirely unexpected, perhaps even unrelated to the original experiment. As of this writing, I have been surprised by the ways in which my car-free life has touched areas of my life that have nothing to do with owning a car.

For one thing, I have become more intentional in other choices that I make. For example, because I take the bus to go shopping, I shop at the same store every week (Trader Joe’s); which means that when I shop at a different store (Kroger or WalMart), I am keenly aware of the differences. The employees at Trader Joe’s all seem happy and motivated, as though they are treated well, and I am treated well because they are happy. But it seems that the employees at Kroger or WalMart are unhappy and poorly treated; in fact, it bothers me to shop at these stores now because I am so keenly aware that the inefficiency of the employees is related to their unhappiness.

Because I don’t have a car to run out in search of social events, I have lost interest in superficial socialization, and as a result, I have become an avid reader again; curiously, by socializing less and reading more, I feel less lonely than I used to when I was always going out in search of friends.
Because not having a car limits my mobility, I find that I have more time to volunteer at important events, which is more rewarding to me than I ever felt when I was a social butterfly lamenting the fact that I never had enough time to do more important things.

Not having a car has forced me to get to know myself and be content in my own company. It has also shown me who my real friends are: I tell friends that if they want to see me, they will need to come to my house, or meet me somewhere on my bus line, or give me a ride.

Now, when I think about buying a car, I weigh all the inconveniences and expenses of this choice against the inconveniences of not having a car, and I find that the scales are balanced. In other words, not having a car has the same quantitative impact on my life as having a car, except for one difference: carbon footprint.

When I think of it that way, the choice it is very easy: I choose LIfe over Stuff.





Author: Connie Foss

Editor: Renée Picard

Images: epSos .de/Flickr 

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