My name is Arlene, and I’m a hypocrite.
Remember on April 29th, when I wrote about how the “peak oil” documentary The End of Suburbia, when I wrote about my determination to put up with the inconvenience of a one-car family so as to minimize my complicity with Big Oil? Well, the shelf-life of that principle was less than 60 days, because I’m buying a car!
Like many hypocrites, I have an ironclad self-justification: I haven’t had my own car for 27 years; there’s no grocery store within walking distance of my house; when I do use the car during the day, I always have to be back in time to pick up my husband from work; and I’m really sick of never being able to answer a spontaneous call (“Arlene, can you meet me here in half an hour?”) because I haven’t scheduled my use of the car that day. I wasn’t looking for a car, and it will be a stretch coming up with the money, but a friend who’s moving decided to sell her car and I suddenly found myself saying that if she didn’t find another buyer, I wanted it. At the last minute, her other buyer fell through, a coincidence I can easily spin into a message from the great beyond straight to me. For all these reasons, I feel really excited about this new purchase: it feels like I’m buying the freedom to come and go as I please, a delicious stretch.
Of course, I also feel guilty, as it couldn’t be clearer that the oil economy will not stand for long, so in social and environmental terms, I picked a bad time to put one more internal combustion engine on the roads. I can almost swallow the story that because it’s a high-mileage, fuel efficient used car, and because I won’t be racking up huge numbers of miles, it isn’t a terrible trade-off: freedom of movement for a little environmental impact. But it keeps sticking in my throat.
The truth is, there’s no entirely satisfactory private solution to my dilemma, only trade-offs. I can do more or less damage or surrender more or less freedom, but unless I learn to sprout wings and fly, it is not in my personal power to resolve this problem without personal or social sacrifice.
That made me stop berating myself for a minute to think of the brilliant sociologist C. Wright Mills, specifically his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination, a call to engaged social science and critique of the purposes to which such studies have been put in the modern era. (He must be spinning in his grave now!) Amazon features a 40th anniversary edition put out by Oxford University Press, a good sign that this wonderful thinker is still being read.
Mills makes an extremely useful distinction between the “personal troubles of milieu” and the “public issues of social structure.” We see every day how public issues are treated as personal troubles, as when young people struggling with urban poverty slip into illegal activity to help support their families, and the society’s entire response is to condemn them for criminality and throw away the key. For those who benefit from the status quo, dismissing public issues as private troubles has been a winning strategy (although they may have overplayed their hand in attacking Social Security). Listen to this, written forty years ago:
“In so far as an economy is so arranged that slumps occur, the problem of unemployment becomes incapable of personal solution. In so far as war is inherent in the nation-state system and in the uneven industrialization of the world, the ordinary individual in his restricted milieu will be powerless — with or without psychiatric aid — to solve the troubles this system or lack of system imposes upon him. In so far as the family as an institution turns women into darling little slaves and men into their chief providers and unweaned dependents, the problem of a satisfactory marriage remains incapable of purely private solution. In so far as the overdeveloped megalopolis and the overdeveloped automobile are built-in features of the overdeveloped society, the issues of urban living will not be solved by personal ingenuity and private wealth.”
My personal troubles with transportation would be most successfully addressed by treating them appropriately as public issues. Some of the responses mentioned in \The End of Suburbia\ would really help. For instance, I live on a part of San Francisco Bay that was rehabilitated in the last two decades to repair the massive environmental impact of the shipyards and factories that used to occupy this land. This is a fairly low-density residential area, evidently lacking enough population to make building local stores an attractive business proposition. In the neighborhoods that begin on the other side of the freeway about a mile away, there are few stores and amenities because the groceries and restaurants that used to be part of Richmond’s downtown pulled out due to white flight and stupid redevelopment policies that pulsed commerce away from downtowns toward shopping centers. Local public transportation sucks. So most of us have to drive everywhere.
If this were treated as a public issue, government would look ahead to the peak oil crisis and begin planning now by recruiting and subsidizing development of necessary commercial enterprises like grocery stores much closer to home; underwriting programs like Toronto’s AutoShare, with cooperatively owned cars; and underwriting conversion to biodiesel and other alternative auto fuels — to mention just three obvious examples.
If all else fails, I guess I can console myself that I’m a piker in comparison to Dick Cheney, who yesterday said of the prisoners at Guantanamo: “They’re living in the tropics. They’re well fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want.” Or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which yesterday appointed as president and CEO Patricia Harrison, former co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee; as Senator Charles Schumer commented, “To turn PBS into a political mouthpiece is disgraceful and contrary to its years of distinguished public service.” Or the doctors at Guantanamo (who, in order to become doctors, had to take the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm), who advised interrogators on ways to effectively exploit detainees’ fears, for example by sharing information about phobias that were reported in the detainees’ medical records.
I’m still a hypocrite, but I’m beginning to think it’s a public issue rather than a private trouble, no? I’ll let you know when I’m done beating myself up.