Walk to Work, by Dan Coffey | One Solution to the Energy Crisis

Unlike most Americans, I only live a mile or so from work. So if the weather cooperates, I can walk or ride a bike. Over a year’s time, I found that if I walked, I got to see the seasons progress through the yards and gardens of my neighbors. I also lost weight. Once I started riding my bike, the trip was too short to make much of an impact on my weight, and the yards and gardens went by too quickly to attract my attention.

Because it even occurs to me not to drive, I am sort of an oddity in my community. Ivan Illich, the Marxist Wendell Berry of his time, wrote about this way back in his 1970s essay, “Energy and Equity.” He mused about all the ways the automobile had harmed human life, in the name of Progress.

“Man, unaided by any tools, gets around quite efficiently, and is more thermodynamically efficient than any machine and most animals. Man on a bicycle can go three to four times faster than a pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. The bicycle is the perfect transducer to match man’s metabolic energy to the impedance of locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals, as well.”

So you’d think Illich would be a champion of bicycle riding, but not necessarily. Comfortable and safe bicycle commuting demands roads, and once you build them, there’s no way to stop sliding down that slippery slope of ever-faster transport. Once you build bike paths, can Hummer Highways be far behind?

Illich spent the last 20 years of his life walking around Asia and South America, meeting people and lecturing when asked to. As a Marxist, he was mostly interested in the inequities of development, the hidden costs and injustices borne by the poor. In my travels in Central and South America, I’ve seen plenty of the same, and I’m inclined to agree with Illich that it would be great if we could all get a handle on this addiction to Development before we destroy everything in the name of Progress.

Even poor Oskaloosa has seen some of its finest homes destroyed by the fact that the streets they line are now highways. They widen the road so that even more semis full of grain or hogs can speed through the center of town. There goes another tree-lined street, and another hundred historic houses.

Illich says it beautifully: “All those who plan, finance, or engineer other people’s housing, transportation or education . . . claim their power is derived from the value their employers place on acceleration. But the real solution to traffic congestion is beyond their grasp. Their belief in the effectiveness of power blinds them to the disproportionately greater effectiveness of abstaining from its use.”

To translate such a notion into the folksy Midwestern terms, “We’ve put the fox in charge of guarding the henhouse.” And to further mix our metaphors, “If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” 

I’m glad I’m just a writer, and not a politician or a city planner. Because I think if I espoused such beliefs I’d be very unpopular. Why, if we didn’t have such good roads in Oskaloosa, we might not have a Super Wal-Mart!

Speed limits are hard to impose and even harder to enforce. Some sort of higher wisdom has to take effect, and the majority of people have to both understand and agree to it. In Nicaragua, for example, the re-painted Iowa school buses lumber along at 10 miles per hour, full of people who are sometimes carrying their animals to market. Every once in a while, a $40,000 vehicle bearing rich people or government experts will pass the slow bus. Illich says, “The development expert who looks down compassionately from his Land Rover on the peasant herding his pigs to market refuses to acknowledge the relative advantage of feet.”

It’s hard to see that advantage, at first. The peasant is probably not just herding his own pigs, but those of his neighbors, freeing them up not to have to make the journey. And he’s certainly not burning any fossil fuels in the process.

Because not everyone enjoys the same level of access to speed, it’s going to be hard to reach a consensus on limiting speed. Illich writes, “The critical threshold of speed is too low to be taken seriously by the passenger, and too high to concern the peasant. . . . it exposes the addiction of industrialized men to ever higher doses of energy, while it asks those who are still sober to abstain from something they have yet to taste.”

I’m not sure the solution to our energy and speed addictions will come from anything but personal choices to get off the merry-go-round and wander off somewhere so we can kneel down and start smelling the flowers. Maybe that’s what happens when a people are finally brought to their knees!   

Visit the Index for more essays by Dan Coffey and other witty Iowa writers.