More red pills

Many people who delve into presentations of the peak oil problem describe their reaction by allusion to The Matrix. Red pill or blue pill? The red pill is the way of disturbing knowledge, disorienting and traumatic at first. red pillThrough the lens of impending energy scarcity, it becomes impossible to view most any scene in our neighborhoods without alarm at how tenuous it all is, how doomed, how sad.

My reaction to the same projections of doom is a little different from most, because I took another red pill years ago, and the effects moderate each other. (I am also highly resistant, as a recovered fundamentalist, to most constructs of quasi-religious scope.) Most peak oil initiates mourn first of all the raw suffering that economic hardship will entail, but second comes a sense of desperate privation at the thought of not being able to drive. Peak oil preparation groups grasp at various schemes to extend gas mileage, replace fossil fuel, or even hoard it. For their cars, or for the next, somehow greenwashed car they suppose they’ll buy. For many people, these are easier to think about than not driving at all. I imagine a band of lumberjacks, closing in on the last stand of trees in sight, fretting whether hydrogen-powered chainsaws will arrive in time to save their jobs.

While I’m as disturbed as anybody at the prospect of violent mayhem, more wars, starvation, etc., I can’t help but rejoice at the idea of cars as we know them going down with the cheap energy that brought them into being, a 20th-century bad-idea blip in human history like Crisco.

The red pill I took before Peak Oil became headline news was bicycling, specifically long-distance, everyday, utilitarian bicycling, as an alternative to driving. I didn’t do this out of altruistic reasons, but because it was fun and cheap, and I enjoyed the little challenges it presented. And the endorphins. Peoples’ thoughts are as influenced by their behavior as the other way around. Over a number of years, without any behavioral commitment to driving, I began to see car culture for what it is, and this reinforced my decision not to own a car even when my family’s distances and loads went far beyond common bicycle scale (excepting the Viet Cong).

Living this way makes car dependence, on the scale it obtains in the US, appear simply monstrous. To the extent that I can even accept it as real, I find it as loathsome as other forms of slavery. As in all master-slave relationships, it’s often difficult to tell who is captive to whom; more than a few of the masters grow fat, feeble, and imperious as they lose the physical dignity and capacity to do even the small, truly necessary part of the work they assign the slaves. Car culture’s enduring institution seldom correlates to moral weakness; its inertia is far beyond that: for most of my fellow citizens driving is a non-negotiable way of life, the antithesis of freedom. As with confederate slavery before, liberation will be imposed from without, by hard circumstance, probably very messily. Our grandchildren will marvel without admiration at how we lived.

Car culture exists to serve car culture; humans are the vehicles. It’s not a matter of how cars are fueled and of the noise and poison they emit: it’s a matter of how much energy they expend in relation to the useful work they perform, where work is understood literally as moving weight a certain distance in a certain time. Forget about efficiency as measured by double or even triple-digit MPG figures. Cars will always be more served than servants, more ends than means to the extent that their own weight grossly dwarfs what they carry. Their heaviness is advised by safety at speed (for those inside, at the expense of those outside), while their speed is in turn “necessary” largely to overcome the distances enabled and imposed by cars and their infrastructure itself, and the delays of traffic (i.e., other drivers). Most shameless of all, cars are sold and bought as a way to experience Nature, as a destination. Strapped in place, encaged, isolated from the subtle signals and enchantments of the outside world, they wield a deadly surfeit of kinetic energy as they careen around, turning former public space or wilderness into kill zones. Children are taught to fear the streets, and intrepid humans moving in them with peaceful grace are advised to wear funny hats and bright clothing if they value their lives. And I am a wild-eyed fanatic to maintain that this is deeply wrong. As Thoreau said, “Men have become the tools of their tools.”

During the last oil shocks of the 1970s, Ivan Illich began to describe our predicament. His talent for alienating ideologues on both the left and right assured his obscurity after the oil markets recovered. He died in 2002 at the age of 76. His works Energy and Equity and Tools for Conviviality are cited frequently by bicycle advocates, but not as extensively as they should be, I think. Some excerpts:

The per capita wattage that is critical for social well-being lies within an order of magnitude which is far above the horsepower known to four-fifths of humanity and far below the power commanded by any Volkswagen driver.

Cars … can shape a city into their image–practically ruling out locomotion on foot or by bicycle in Los Angeles. … That motor traffic curtails the right to walk, not that more people drive Chevies than Fords, constitutes radical monopoly. What cars do to people by virtue of this radical monopoly is quite distinct from and independent of what they do by burning gasoline that could be transformed into food in a crowded world. It is also distinct from automotive manslaughter. Of course cars burn gasoline that could be used to make food. Of course they are dangerous and costly. But the radical monopoly cars establish is destructive in a special way. Cars create distance. Speedy vehicles of all kinds render space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake. This monopoly over land turns space into car fodder. It destroys the environment for feet and bicycles. Even if planes and buses could run as nonpolluting, nondepleting public services, their inhuman velocities would degrade man’s innate mobility and force him to spend more time for the sake of travel.

Car-free advocacy is transformed by Peak Oil the same way Christian Socialism was transformed by Marxism; the former relied on moral and authoritarian appeals to one’s true best interests, while the latter posited an inexorable historical process, destined to sweep civilization in its path, directly or reactively. A few more sparks and time is all it will take. Have you noticed how every other hiccup of weather, act of terror, and rumor of instability sends the price of oil to a new record high these days? There’s no give or slack in the system anymore; we’re riding on the rims, and we will feel most every bump down the slope. Peak oil means that we don’t have to succeed in convincing people of the obvious. They will change or be changed; if not now, soon.

15 thoughts on “More red pills”

  • Jules Puddy


  • <p>[...] The Red Pill Excellent post on the problems with cars: Clever Chimp: More Red Pills. Every day I get a little bit closer to convincing Sarah that we don’t need a car. [...]</p>

  • Ian Hopper

    <p>Maybe if I can get my wife to start reading the same things I do, I can convince us both to sell all our cars. I linked to this article on my blog: it’s not the first time either: you provide a lot of inspiration to this little monkey!</p>

  • Martina

    <p>I am the wife of a biking husband and no-car owner. What convinced me most was not reading articles, but a nice bike, the health benefits and the pure pressure that if I wanted to spend time with my husband, I had to bike! <br />
    I didn’t react very well to force-feed literature but I love the savings and the small things my husband pointed out to me: Contact to people on the street, the wind/sun on my skin, my legs getting into shape and the looks on peoples faces when I zoom by them on my bike… just a my female input, Ian!</p>

  • Ian Hopper

    <p>Martina, my wife will react the same way to you do to force fed literature. She doesn’t enjoy reading much anyway unless it’s a celebrity magazine. Fortunately she doesn’t take it too seriously. Your other points were valid and well taken: hopefully she will see the other aspects of biking are what make it so much fun: she’s starting to come around. I bought her a very cherry used Merlin <span class="caps">MTB </span>which she loves, and we may end up tricking her out with a stokemonkey and some Rivendell Parts. We live at the top of a rather intimidating and arduous 13-17 degree hill and she can just make it up on her own, but doesn’t see any way to ride up it with an xtracycle and baby adding to the payload. I tell her it’s just conditioning and it will take a while; kind of like learning to surf. She likes the idea of the stokemonkey thoughââ?¬Â¦ it might be the only thing standing between us and getting down to one car. (I just bought a Diesel 1982 Mercedes in Dec so I could run the biodiesel I brew in it). Thanks for the advice!</p>

  • Martina

    <p>Since I was one of the early female Stokemonkey testers, I am happy to provide her with some pointers on the female point of view (such as coordination between your throttle thumb and your feet or how to do a throttle start after stopping) I also have some tips on traveling with trailer and baby…</p>

  • Todd

    <p>Ian, Martina is my wife. Just so you know you’re not talking to a disinterested party, exactly.</p>

  • Martina

    <p>Sorry Ian, didn’t want to create the wrong impression… but even being Todd’s wife, I am also one of his hardest critics.</p>

  • Ian Hopper

    <p>Thanks you two! I guess the next question is: if I ordered a stokemonkey from you <span class="caps">TODAY, </span>how long before I could have it in my hot little hands? <strong>smirk</strong> <span class="caps">BTW, </span>this blog has been rather inspiring: many of the links you post are again linked on MY blog. Also: the “Open Source” and “highly transparent” nature of the stokemonkey endeavor have inspired me to once again pursue starting my own business in the recognition that done properly, a business endeavor can generate community! Martina, my wife is my greatest supporter <span class="caps">AND </span>my greatest critic as well. As Ozzy Osbourne once said “Behind every great man is a great womanââ?¬Â¦ with a great left boot!”</p>

  • <p>[...] One of the more lucid bits I came across in my early grappling with the concept of Peak Oil was Kurt Vonnegut’s Cold Turkey. Go read it if you haven’t already, or if you have. I think it’s perfectly spot on. Me and Kurt, we homeys. [...]</p>

  • [...] Peak Oil is here, or as good as here. I don’t believe that we’ll need to go back to Crisco candles, but then I must believe that people can make reasonable choices before the chance to choose is withdrawn. It seems strange to many that there can be anything profligate about blowing the energy equivalent of 500 human labor hours with every gallon of gas, but where reason and politics fail, thermodynamics will prevail. As many an oblivious bumper sticker puts it, Nature Bats Last. Maybe we should have heeded great-great-great grandma’s reservations about eating fake wax in place of butter, and never have abandoned the spinning wheels that make us strong. [...]

  • [...]  More red pills [...]

  • [...] dependency, the enslavement of body and mind to an expensive mode of transit that effectively curtails the right to walk or ride a bike in safety and ease. On bikes, Mr. Bloomberg has also favored softening the [...]

  • [...] very interesting, with such articles as this pulling apart the reality opening up via peak oil and why bikes make a lot of sense as a transition and here’s a top example of one: The Sport Utility Bike That Ate Detroit [...]

  • Dave

    Recovered fundamentalists unite! :)

    I think we've now seen this start to become a reality in a bigger way as transportation news is one of the biggest issues with Obama coming into office, we saw the big hike in bicycle usage across the country (and especially in Portland) as gas hit $4/gallon and above, and even in the midst of an economic recession (perhaps leading to a depression), bike shops all over are holding steady or even up in sales from where they have been in the past.

    I think we humans often learn best from crisis and resistance, and hopefully the combination of oil rarity (and thus high price) and our current economic state will push people to really begin acting on suspicions that there might be a better way to do things.