There are several reasons why I’m revisiting the idea of giving up personal automobiles now. Mainly because I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege and inequality for a long time. Cars represent environmental privilege.
The massive concentration of wealth in the hands of a very small number of people is well known. But less attention is paid to the significant imbalance of wealth among “the other 98 %” of us. There are significant differences in wealth and economic opportunity based upon race, gender and/or social/economic status.
The industrial revolution needed a vast number of jobs for manufacturing. That created the great migration of people from rural areas, where they were self-sufficient, to cities to live where the jobs were being created. People were no longer self-sufficient, instead needing to purchase food, clothing, transportation, and shelter from their wages. When those jobs were replaced with machines, we did not adapt our economic system, which meant that those who were once self-sufficient no longer had a way to meet their basic needs, and the welfare state came about.
There is a great variety of work that needs to be done by society, but we haven’t successfully found ways to connect those needs to people who can meet those needs and be rewarded for their work, so they can survive.
Also, no discussion of the economic situation in the United States can ignore the vast amount of our economic resources spent on militarization. We can go a long way toward a more effective and humane economy by investing even a small percentage of that money in the civilian sector.
All of this raises basic questions about how our government and economy should work. When did things change, or was it always the point of government, to protect wealth and business instead of serving the common good?
I experienced economic inequality as soon as I left Earlham College to join the Friends Volunteer Service Mission (VSM) in an inner city neighborhood in Indianapolis in the early 1970’s. It was quite an education to experience how much different, materially, life was in the inner city from what I was used to. And we thought we were living simply in Iowa. Most people in that Indianapolis neighborhood didn’t have their own washers and dryers. No one owned the place they lived in. No one had central air conditioning. Most families had a car, but it was always an old, used one. Few people traveled or went on vacation.
I stayed in Indianapolis after VSM. It was uncomfortable to see how hard my best friend, Randy, worked, and how little he was paid compared to my salary from the hospital. While some feel additional education entitles them to a higher salary, I’m not sure about that. But I do feel that it is not worth 4, 5 or more times greater. I came to think of that as educational economic privilege.
Which comes back to personal automobiles. I do not believe there is any way environmentally, economically, or morally to justify personal automobiles. Thirty years ago I gave up having one, and am really grateful that I did for so many reasons. Not the least of which has been the benefits to my spiritual life. When Friends believe something is wrong, they try to change their personal lives to address that.
I feel our economic system is wrong, in that it no longer aligns the needs of society with opportunities for us to address those needs. We need to find a way to somehow address these problems of meeting basic needs by finding ways to compensate people for work that really needs to be done, such as child care, care of the elderly, education and mentoring, environmental cleanup, growing gardens and food, etc. Financial contributions to agencies that address these issues helps move in the right direction.
One idea would be to create another national work program similar to the Civilian Conservation Corp, which was a very successful model. We need to call attention to how broken our economic system is, and work to create one that works. In the meantime, we should examine our own economic situation. How are our decisions and actions based upon materialism?