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I’m Too Busy to Go by Car

 

I recently sent out a query to a wide range of people asking for stories and recommendations to use in an article I’m writing for an environmental newsletter about car-free erranding. I was overwhelmed with enthusiastic and detailed responses.

But there’s always the contrarian.

“I wonder if you could be persuaded to consider the viewpoint that bending over backwards not to use a car might not be good for the environment,” wrote one fellow folkie. “If doing without a car . . . means things take a lot more time and hassle, that’s got to reduce your productivity, keeping you from doing whatever it is that you do best. That ultimately will reduce the amount of wealth and time available for solving environmental problems in other ways.”

Dutifully, I considered.

On one hand, this argument hits close to the heart of a major critique of the environmental movement that I am fond of making: That it has become a lifestyle movement, in which individual middle-class consumers take on the responsibility for trying to “save the world” through their purchases and their habits, while polluting corporations, sprawl-producing policies, and poverty that forces people to chop down forests for fuel all go untouched.

In that light, it’s true that erranding without the car should not be put on a pedestal as the green behavior that will take us to the promised land. Someone spending several hours miserably trudging along the side of highway from her suburban development to the mall to avoid a drive could be making a far bigger difference by putting that time into fighting highway subsidies or improving the engineering on a plug-in hybrid. Unhappy, time-stressed people are not what the world needs more of.

Because after all, we’ve got plenty of them. And most of them spend a lot of time in their cars.

Here’s the thing about “productivity”: It doesn’t bear a linear relationship to time. Numerous studies around the turn of the last century showed that when you pushed workers over an eight-hour day/five-day week, total productivity declined. Total, not per hour. And per-hour productivity actually starts to drop off after 6 hours. One study found that if construction workers were asked to work 60-hour weeks for more than two months, the project they were working on ended up being completed later than it would have been if the same crew had been kept on 40-hour weeks. Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live, tells the story on his Web site of a Cincinnati firm that “extended its vacation benefits to three weeks, and the total cost was seven cents. Productivity and morale increased so much that the company was able to eliminate overtime and cut its retention and recruiting costs.”

In other words, we’re just limited beings who need a change of pace now and again. And right now, in this country, most of us don’t get it. If we have a job, we spend insane numbers of hours at work, don’t take vacations, and get ever-increasing numbers of obesity-related diseases. According to Take Back Your Time, an organization that advocates for policies that support a better work-life balance, American business loses $300 billion a year to job stress. For many of us, being more productive at what we do best may not mean devoting more time to it.

Now, if you’re stuck in a situation where you are seriously overworked and have no control over it, trying to carve out some wiggle time to push a cart of laundry to the Laundromat is not actually going to feel like a stress reducer. I realize this. Nor will it replace getting at least three weeks of paid vacation per year.

But if you are able to make some choices about your priorities (and more of us are able to do that more than we think), it’s worth considering working on something that involves getting away from the computer/phone/desk/cash register/ classroom, getting some exercise, bumping into neighbors, spending some time staring out a bus window, and having a chance to let your thoughts ramble. In fact, I’d argue that having some of this in our weekly schedules is exactly what many of us could use to nurture the “a-ha” moments, or just recharge the batteries, for doing the work of solving environmental problems.

In the meantime, the fact that we’re getting something productive done without a car adds a little feeling of empowerment (for me at least, especially when I can refine the process to make it work better). It can even cut out an additional item on the ever present to-do list: “Get outside/Get exercise.” Multitasking! Not to mention that by trying to live in a sustainable fashion, we gain valuable information about what the real obstacles are and why perfectly good existing solutions aren’t implemented.

Still, traveling, and even more so erranding, without a car in a car-based society is not an easy thing, especially depending on where you live. It’s no holy grail, but for many of us, the benefits go beyond preventing our own personal pounds of air pollution.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

www.mjoy.org

metroland.typepad.com/the_big_questions

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