My heart was stirred by some fine writing by Paul Salopek, new to me despite his two Pulitzers. It approaches a problem I’ve been interested in emphasizing, about our impaired ability to imagine other ways of being not based on consumption and growth. It’s unrelated but interesting that he was jailed in Darfur as a spy for three months in 2006 and has done some remarkable reporting. I hope as the original is quite brief that people will savor the original for themselves as fine wordsmithing: another small pleasure.
I am walking across the world … to retrace the pathways of the first anatomically modern humans who colonized the planet at least 60,000 years ago. ….
I’m writing dispatches along the way … on subjects as varied as human evolution and conflict, nomadism and climate change. The “Out of Eden Walk,” as I’m calling it, uses deep history as a mirror for current events. But even as I adhere strictly to my brand of bipedal journalism, … cars keep roaring into my awareness. They are inescapable. They are without a doubt the defining artifacts of our civilization. They have reshaped our minds in ways that we long ago ceased thinking about. ….
But once I crossed the Red Sea … I’d entered a region subjugated utterly by the vulcanized rubber tire.
In Saudi Arabia, I had trouble simply communicating with motorists who have lost the ability to imagine unconstrained movement to any point on the horizon. … Like drivers everywhere, their frame of reference is rectilinear and limited to narrow ribbons of space, axle-wide, that rocket blindly across the land. ….
the earth’s surface beyond the pavement was simply a moving tableau — a gauzy, unreal backdrop for his high-speed travel. He was spatially crippled. The writer Rebecca Solnit nails this mind-set perfectly in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”: “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”
I just call it Car Brain.
The incidence of Car Brain grows with rising latitudes across the surface of the world. (Then it vanishes at the poles, where Plane Brain replaces it.) …
Cocooned inside a bubble of loud noise and a tonnage of steel, members of the internal combustion tribe tend to adopt ownership of all consumable space. They roar too close. They squint with curiosity out of the privacy of their cars as if they themselves were invisible. … as if visiting an open-air zoo, gaping at the novelty of a man on foot with two cargo camels. Other motorists steered next to my elbow for hundreds of yards, interrogating me through a rolled-down car window. (Not to pick on Saudi Arabia, which is no worse than any other Car Brain society, but exactly one driver in 700 miles of walking in the kingdom bothered to park and stroll along for a while.)
More striking … are the slow pleasures it misses in life.
The Car Brain will never know the ceremony of authentic departures and arrivals. ….
Car Brains have lost all knowledge of human interactions on foot. …. A lovely courtliness marks these bipedal encounters.
AND then there is simply the act of traveling through the world at three miles per hour — the speed at which we were biologically designed to move. There is something mesmerizing about this pace that I still can’t adequately describe. While roaming …. a meditative trance that must be primordial.
These are natural, limbic connections that reach back to the basement of time — ones that Car Brains rarely experience. …. 2,500 miles annually … this ancient economy is one that dominated 95 percent of human history, walking that distance is our norm. Sitting down is what’s radical.
I have nothing personal against motorized travel. Cars build middle classes. They grant us undreamed-of freedom. [but] the internal combustion engine has affected more drastic changes on human culture — flattening it through the annihilation of time and space — than the web revolution. Indeed, the century-old automotive revolution prepared the way for the rise of the Internet, by eroding the capacity for attention, for patience, by fomenting a cult of speed.
It can be lonely out here among the Car Brains. Sometimes, out walking, I feel like a ghost. Already, I have to seek out society’s marginal people to find my way across the planet. Settled nomads. The ambulatory poor. The very ancient, whose mode of transport is still a donkey or maybe a cart, elders who haven’t forgotten about earned distances. They point to referents beyond the aphasia of paved roads. I take my compass bearings off their paupers’ hands.
Now here’s where it gets really difficult. I am a car brain person. I drive a lot (I care for my elderly parents and drive regularly from Boston to Princeton, and I’m also a competitive driver). So the question then becomes, how can I reach into my own mind, never mind the privacy and integrity of others, to point out that we are racing headlong to downfall if we don’t get a grip. I do not have the answer any more than anyone else.
If not now, when? And as Eli adds, if not me, who? (Thanks Eli for more on Rabbi Hillel.)