Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Unapologetically Utopian

 If you look up terms like "effective altruism" and study the many characteristics derided as "woke," you will find, in addition to ominous interpretations that project a future in no way pleasant to the majority of people who would find themselves living in it -- however briefly and uncomfortably -- common threads of utopian fantasy. These go back well into the 20th Century. The principles in some of them stretch back as far as recorded language, but by the 20th Century a lot of technological developments were well established and evolving to support many of the practical underpinnings of a society based on the greatest good for the greatest number.

Because greatest good and greatest number are elastic terms with no universally agreed definitions, the uses of these technologies diverge into the various earthly paradises and hellscapes explored in futurist academic and fictional narratives and analysis. They also underlie the current privileged areas and existing hellscapes that we have already established.

I have said for years and will repeat with tiresome persistence that human-powered transportation, most notably using bicycles, has always been a game that any number could play. The more people using bikes and their own muscles to get around, the better the world becomes. It is unapologetically utopian.

More than 40 years ago I set out to demonstrate how much easier it was to negotiate the crowded streets of Annapolis on a bicycle than in a car. What the other road users saw instead was just some idiot exposed to weather and traffic hazards, not a thought leader and influencer. They put up with the few transportation cyclists in town with varying levels of tolerance depending somewhat on the neighborhood. The further you got from older residential neighborhoods and the center of town, the more likely you were to have friction with an irate motorist. But no place was safe. A skirmish could break out anywhere. Still, the struggle seemed winnable.

By the time I left Annapolis, the local cycling group could put 15 or 20 riders onto the road in a group ride on a summer afternoon, but their consensus was that the traffic was so hostile that they would meet at the mall parking lot on the west edge of town rather than start somewhere downtown, as we had done when it was four or five plucky road racers from 1979 to 1982. Of those four or five racers, three of us also rode our bikes for transportation, because none of us owned a car. We would have to borrow one to drive to a race. By 1987, I was the last one who was living without a car.

Racing was always secondary to transportation for me. Transportation cycling provided a baseline of mileage and saddle time on which to build whatever recreational riding I had time for. Meanwhile, one of the other car-free riders invested his spare cash in carpentry tools to prepare for when he eventually started his own highly regarded contracting business, and the other one saved up enough money to make a down payment on his first home in Annapolis. He didn't buy in the most expensive neighborhood, but in Annapolis there were no cheap ones. Transportation cycling improved their lives to the point where they could give it up and never look back. The fact that they gave it up is unfortunate, but it does underscore how not everyone can use a bike to get around. Although one of them started out as a naval architect, they both ended up working as carpenters, and that requires a truck and tools.

We need people who build things. What they build depends on their vision of the present and future that they want to create, or the lack of any sorting criteria. The trap is that someone might stake their savings on tools and training to build things, and have to take jobs building things that are ultimately harmful, just to get the money to live. Principles are a luxury. To make that happy future, the human species needs more than infrastructure and tools. We need to agree on where we're headed, informed by all kinds of investigative thinkers who study the interactions of all life and environment. We need someone to design and build the transportation network that can accommodate all vehicles, including thousands of bike riders who will eventually be taking advantage of the vast benefits of simple, human-powered transportation.

I guarantee that if the human species had chosen back in the 1970s to focus its efforts on making a long term plan instead of knowingly forcing crisis after crisis in order to generate profits and duel for global dominance we would have fewer young people scornfully dismissing Boomers. Not trusting my own generation's better judgment as I saw how they were progressing I didn't add my own cannon fodder to the future that looks increasingly likely. Meanwhile, my 30-mile commuting days on rural roads and highways here in New Hampshire look less like proof of concept and more like proof of insanity. My system is stretched to its limit to try to maintain all of the things I've come to like a lot -- not to say love -- in my life. But this rickety economy depends on the considerable savings of even a half year of bike commuting compared to uninterrupted motor vehicle use. So it does demonstrate that one can still stretch a dollar a long way using pedal power where possible. It's worth expending my waning strength on it.

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