In Praise of Small Pleasures

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.

A Stroll Around the World

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.)


  1. Thanks. That's some great stuff, very reminiscent of Edward Abbey

    "Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can't see anything from a car; you've got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you'll see something, maybe. Probably not. In the second place most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast... -- from "Dessert Solitaire"

    "Car brains"
    -- by Horatio Algeranon

    Car brains
    Watch the cars go by
    Bird brains
    Catch the cardinals cry

  2. Because loud noise often heralds bad news, animals and humans have evolved a rapid response to audio stressors: the roar of a carnivore, the crack of a falling tree, the scream of a child. More recently: the explosion of a weapon, the wail of a siren, the crash of the stock market.

  3. Thanks Horatio, as always, the truth with humor, and what could be better than that!

    I'm reading some Anderies and Janssen which I thought was Elinor Ostrom, and is in fact her teachings, thanks to Fergus Brown. My particular journey involves close relationships with members of the underclass who care for my mother, and I can't help factoring in their lives and difficulties in the way I see our problems. I can't help feeling policy discussions aren't enough; not enough gets through to make a sufficient difference. I believe our habits can and must be changed, we can't just change the source of energy. Driving is such an essential part of my life that it is hypocritical to suggest it needs to stop, but I do so. And as to policy, proper public transit was replaced with cars at the beginning of the 20th century, along with the advent of easy fossil fuels, and that's a ship that won't turn around, precisely backwards.

    NPR's Diane Rehm was discussing hunger last night, and I was trying to think how we can deal with the vastness and emptiness of our cultural models in the context of 47 million going hungry.

    My direct experience is that almost everyone I meet is kind by nature, and will go to some lengths to care for even the strangers they meet. Somebody mentioned that there are more psychopaths among the wealthy, but in my daily life few people are mean, and most surprisingly generous.

    So how can we marry or exploit that basic richness available to the human spirit to meet up together and act for now and to improve the future.

  4. Susan,
    You are not responsible for living in a society which is, for numerous reasons, heavily dependent on automobile transport. That you have a car brain (by which I presume you mean that 'get in the car' is the default transport solution) is no surprise.
    Even if it is clear, after self-searching, that there really is no realistic alternative for you, most of the time, to using a car, there are still ways to make that use more efficient, and reduce the carbon footprint of journeys. Two urban solutions which, afaict are user-driven (excuse pun), are car-sharing and car pooling. Both have useful consequences.
    Then there is the choice of vehicle; vanity or practicality? Efficiency or Power? Then there are the more personal decisions, involving domestic round trips of less than 10 miles (a HUGE proportion of all car journey mileage). Is a bicycle at all possible, even for part of the year? How about an electric bike?
    Then there is the issue of speed, which I mention on my blog: reducing average speed by 10% could reduce emissions by more than 10%, depending on the benchmark speed; difference in time terms on a one hour journey will probably work out as a couple minutes at most.
    And driving style; there are ways of driving which make a difference, too.
    Just a few suggestions...

  5. Those are good suggestions and I should heed them, particularly slowing down on the superhighway, whether or not I like spending an extra hour or two twice a week. Coming from you it lends power to the idea, which is not new to me. As to carpooling, if anyone knows somebody who needs to go from Boston to Princeton or vice versa, please put them in touch. I am aware that guilt merely feeds the problem.

    Which brings me back to the point, which is to refer to Paul Salopek's powerful invocation not of the choice to use a car but the way it alters our perception in large and small ways and has entirely changed the way we inhale the world. His words are something I wish to internalize. I'm a bit of a slow person myself, and walk a lot, so it's familiar to me. For example, it is disturbing to find people on their phones in the middle of nowhere. [I was once nearly run off the road when biking in a sleet storm (no car then) by a jeering group throwing beer cans who seemed to feel I had no business sharing the road with them, but that's exceptional.]

    Responding with hate often poisons the hater more than the hated.

  6. Well I did it, slowed down, and as noted it barely made a difference, except for less stress which is another positive! My car is quite efficient and I love my little traveling box. That's another story.

  7. I believe that what we are seeing is that every innovation that grants us more freedom is used to the max, but the end result is not that our lives have improved that much (if at all). What I mean is that before, our parents used to live in the same town we lived in, and we could visit them easily on foot or bike. Then our mobility increased, and we started living further apart. Our circle of relatives has not increased, nor has our circle of friends, so the same circles that were local in the past are now simply less dense, more spread out. That means our connections with other locals have diminished in quality. Why talk to your neighbour if you can Whatsapp with someone halfway across the country? So the end result is that our sense of community has diminished. We are more and more alien to the people who live close by, and increasingly seek out relationships with those with which we agree. I believe a challenge for the future will be to reinstate those local friendships. As that happens, the demand for mobility will naturally decrease.

    In much the same way that technology didn't shorten our work hours, mobility didn't shorten our travel hours.

  8. Thanks Bart. I'd agree that more stuff does not produce increased well-being.

    I've been thinking a bit about the stated purpose of Planet3.0:

    "Honest, wide-ranging, scientifically informed conversation about sustainable technologies and cultures, toward a thriving future"

    It troubles me to find a way to talk about consumption and waste, along with the ethical or spiritual side of our changed culture, without being a wet blanket. It's discouraging that nothing seems to be able to rein in the expanding marketing cyclone, but we all enjoy these products. Now personally I'd ban leaf blowers, but I'd have a riot on my hands. Yesterday I saw one lone soul out raking! We all enjoy some of the products, though, no matter how concerned we might be. I know one person who has opted out, but I don't hear from him very often and even he uses the grid sometimes.

    There are so many things we could do if we had the heart for it and acted like a community of humankind, but how to remind people that heart is important? Well, I'll keep trying!

  9. Reviewing and tried Rabett's "If Not Now, When" again. (And Bart, I know my answer was sideways to your excellent point.) This is stolen from an early commenter over there:

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