Are we driven to distraction?
We are continually being convinced of what technology does for us – providing us with data, helping to save time, improving the quality of our entertainment, advancing medical care, and so on. The question we ask more rarely is, ‘what does technology do to us?!
This is perhaps more complex, longer term and less tangible. It also impinges on ethical issues (what’s the right or wrong of a technology?) and even spiritual questions (the non-measurables of life – what makes us tick?).
What something does for us can blind us to what is being done to us. No more so is this true than in our human relationship with the motor car. We know that cars offer us more convenient lifestyles, they give us power, they increase our sense of freedom and improve our mobility.
What we may rather not know is that the automobile is also a weapon (killing more than 1,600 people globally every day and injuring tens of thousands); it is extremely destructive of the environment and ecology (in many different ways); it makes us more competitive and less cooperative; it is a health hazard (physically and emotionally); and it destroys community life.
Cars make good servants but poor masters, and they make a worse religion (to paraphrase Amory Lovins). And yet that is how we easily treat our personalised forms of transport – with utmost care and devotion. We spend huge amounts of time and money on our cars – finding money to pay for them, cleaning and maintaining them, and then driving them. We so value the automobile that we place it on the altars of consumption, as we sacrifice other aspects of life (e.g. wildlife habitat, air quality, child safety) to ensure it is well appeased.
Encapsulated in our metal and glass bubbles we move around with little concern for the consequences of our actions. We are cushioned from the elements, from the weather and from each other. Cars encourage us to believe we are as gods – devoid of contact with a soiled and stained world yet potent and omniscient.
Perhaps nowhere more than behind the driving wheel does our ego-centricism really thrive as our selfish genetic side kicks in, and we speed off regardless of the debris we leave behind us? We are so focused on competing that any concern we may have had for the weak and vulnerable, the environment, or the future is usually lost in those seconds as the accelerator hits the floor and we feel in total control.
Yet is not the apparent safety and strength of the automobile really illusory – even an opiate to our deeper selves and a substitute for a better world for all?
The poet Heathcoat Williams suggests, “If an alien was to hover a few hundred yards above the planet it could be forgiven for thinking that cars were the dominant life-form, and that human beings were a kind of ambulatory fuel cell: injected when the car wished to move off, and ejected when they were spent.”
It is abundantly clear that our relationships with our cars are highly dependent and without them we suffer symptoms of withdrawal. No surprise that some penalties for dangerous and illegal driving are based on withdrawal techniques akin to alcohol or chemical dependency.
Our country and our communities have become car-saturated. Parks and gardens turned into car parks. Fields and forests converted into Service Stations, Motorways and Bypasses. Yet still our needs are not satiated. Vehicles dominate and intrude into our lives as well as our landscapes. But do we really comprehend what this all means for our society? Do we any longer see the woods for the cars – in more ways than one!?
In our society cars are symbols. They represent individualistic power, speed, status and convenience. In contrast they do not represent values of fairness, or harmony or integrity.
There is an Italian saying Non si può seguire Gesù in una macchina (‘you cannot follow Jesus in a car’)! If this means cars contradict the message of togetherness, justice, peace and love that is at the heart of the Christian message, then maybe that’s right!
So this is a plea to reassess our priorities, to use our cars as a last resort and not as a first choice. Let’s opt for a less rapid lifestyle in which we appreciate the deeper joys of nature and those around us, and forsake the speedy convenience which our idolatrous vehicles tempt us with!
All best wishes for a slower Autumn
“The way we respond to the natural environment is directly reflects the way we treat human beings. The willingness to exploit the environment is revealed in the willingness to permit avoidable human suffering. So the survival of the natural environment is also the survival of ourselves. When we will understand that a crime against nature is a crime against ourselves and sin against God?” — Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I