“I hate how much I love this.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
So went the brief exchange between my friend Brian and I; the two sentences, properly contextualized, conveyed more frustration, dissatisfaction, and stubborn joy than could be invoked in pages of poetry. We were in Brian’s car, driving from Western Massachusetts into Connecticut to catch a show. After a long day of work, I had texted Brian at around six to let him know that I was listening to an album, Alvvays, which we both loved. Shortly thereafter, we had stumbled across the fact that the band (authors of the self-titled record) would be playing that evening in Connecticut. Twenty minutes later we had purchased tickets and were on our way.
Our hearts weren’t totally with us on the journey, though. Passionate for ensuring the planet’s well-being and anxious to find alternative economic structures, Brian and I were unhappy to be driving. As environmentalists, we share a distaste for cars and the noise and exhaust they produce, but this distaste is utterly matched by the joy we both find in driving. We love the limitless freedom of it. With a car, we can decide at six-thirty to go to a rock concert and then be at that rock concert ninety minutes later. Brian and I love public transportation, make no mistake about it—but the formulaic, mechanical, scheduled nature of trains and buses makes us feel like automatons, sapped of our spontaneity. Torn between these twin desires—to loathe public transportation and love driving, or to love public transportation and loathe driving—we hang, justifying our decisions to ourselves in either case.
Driving, we can tell ourselves, is an American pastime. In the USA—the birthplace of the assembly line, Ford motors, traveling salesmen, and drive-thru fast food—driving occupies a gargantuan place in the cultural psyche. To not drive is to shear a hole the size of Route 66 in one’s connection to the American milieu. This is a pretty good excuse for when we loathe ourselves for driving unnecessarily—we are not just driving, we are renewing our affiliation with a culture and a history! But ultimately it’s a shoddy excuse: slowly destroying the habitability of the very earth that made one’s culture possible is precisely antithetical to celebrating and connecting with culture.
But there is also something simply liberating and exhilarating about driving. Granted, this sensation is part of what gave driving such an honored place in American culture. We love driving for the sense of independence it gives us. In Death of a Salesman, Willy’s crashing the car—his inability to drive—is emblematic of his mental state. In 2013 film Nebraska, driving is the only way to recover the vibrant independence of youth. Thanks to the interweaving webs of roads and highways laid down across landmasses the world over, driving produces a sense of something like omnipotence and potential omnipresence.
But this sense of independence is itself suspicious. The name “automobile” should immediately indicate to us something gone amiss. Auto, the Greek root meaning “self,” transmits to “automobile” a status of inherent independence. Automobile, it seems, indicates an ability to move one’s own self. But neither the vehicle nor the driver actually possesses this ability: the automobile needs a driver, but more importantly, it needs a paved road and combustible fuel. The driver, similarly, does not actually gain self-mobility by the use of the automobile: the driver remains shackled to the car, the gas station, and the road. The automobile is sorely misnamed. We dream of a world without the hulking metal beasts, without the smoke they belch, and without the endless roads they require.
And yet we love it so. The automobile is dearly cherished and even those of us with reservations about or outright hostility toward the automobile still regard it with paradoxical fondness. Those of us who are most hostile to automobiles and most uneasy with their outsized ubiquity in society still find reasons to love cars. Consider the most emotionally direct moment on Arcade Fire’s seminal debut record Funeral: “I like the peace in the backseat.” The line is simple and universal enough to account for the title of the track, “In the Backseat,” which itself is so recognizable as a place and condition of being that just the phrase “in the backseat” conveys tranquility. And such a celebratory moment of earnestness from the same artists who had a year prior released the track “No Cars Go” in search of a mystical place before time without cars, trains, or planes. On that track, Win Butler sang, “We know a place where no cars go,” as though it were the place he had been searching for his whole life—and yet what would he do without the peace in the backseat? The dilemma is unresolved.
It’s a particularly stubborn dilemma in part because it challenges us to make fundamental decisions about the kind of world in which we want to live. We despise cars for environmental reasons: they belch exhaust into the atmosphere, require miles of paved roads in previously untouched regions, and consume tons and tons of metals and plastics in their construction. But we also despise cars for more social reasons: they seclude us from our fellow travelers, promote sedentary lifestyles, and ossify economic inequality in urban architecture. On the other hand, we love automobiles for the sensation they give us of liberation and tranquility, the shared cultural understanding of peace, power, and friendship.
But simultaneously, we love what the world could be without cars. Some would choose (and many already choose!) to eschew long-distance travel altogether, preferring to save the planet the energy costs involved. But for those who need or want to travel, we can imagine bikeshares, super-efficient public transportation—trams, trains, and buses—all giving us the opportunity to travel in human togetherness, in harmony with each other and the world. Redirecting the engineering, development, and research that are currently directed toward automobiles toward public transportation and education instead would greatly increase the viability, efficiency, and pleasure of transit; this would result in an increasingly accessible and shared world. In the ‘60s, Erich Fromm wrote about the approaching “One World” that humanity would soon have to share, replacing the fractured and divided worlds and milieus that existed prior to globalization. Travel is necessarily integral to the functioning of the One World—should its accessibility and functionality not be prioritized?
And yet, public transportation as it stands is dysfunctional, sensuously unpleasant, and mechanical. The dilemma forces us to choose between that which is pragmatically undesirable but sensuously enjoyable, and that which is both pragmatically undesirable and sensuously unpleasant, in hopes that it might eventually improve in both respects.
In this respect, the dilemma of the automobile seems to spring from the question of our capacity, as global actors, to communally work toward a shared good. This dilemma seems as intractable as ever amidst the oft-repeated refrain that people are ultimately self-serving.
But perhaps there is a lesson to be retrieved from the experience of driving to a summer concert, of spontaneously deciding to travel with a friend. Spontaneous joy and pleasure will inevitably, at times, come at the expense of environmental and social responsibility. At times like these, it becomes imperative that we recognize the ways in which our lives are structured to make irresponsibility and destruction of our planet convenient, easy, and encouraged—and alter our lifestyles to make responsibility and environmentalism easy. We might only travel within a certain radius so that we can emphasize use of public transit, bicycles, and other alternative modes of transportation. We might form societies akin to carpools that take the ethos of carpooling even further by using public transportation in groups. By transforming these dilemmas into win-win situations, we can live more ethically, responsibly, and deliberately.
The impact of the phenomenological experiences of both driving and riding public transit on our political views regarding the feasibility of a world free from automobiles remain far from clear. But dissatisfaction with the automobile’s sway can give us cause to shift our lifestyle priorities from destructive pleasure to responsible enjoyment.