WELCOME BACK, Dr. Allan Schnaiberg! This is our second story by my long-time friend and scholar in environmental economics and
sociology. Click here to read Allan’s first story. He’s giving us fresh perspectives on the challenges we face — PLUS, Plus, he’s inviting
us to try an ongoing experiment with him! Here is his second piece … (And we’d really like to hear what you’re thinking.)
Here are two of my own experiences related to our experiment in re-exploring our communities.
Many years ago, I had a business trip that required I fly to the west coast on July 4th. It was a clear night. I could look out the porthole and see a variety of fireworks displays as we flew over communities. They were like Christmas ornaments on a giant tree — but they lacked sound and close-ups of colors, and especially the “oohs” and “aahs” of actually standing in a crowd of 8- to 80-year olds.
So it was a pretty but remote experience, a passive view at 30,000 feet. The reality was that I missed our local fireworks, the fun of being around other people and sharing warm patriotic thoughts. However hokey that may sound, maybe I am more amenable to those feelings as a naturalized U.S. citizen — perhaps more so because I emigrated from Canada, which places a lower-key value on “patriotism” and a divided one at that.
Some years later, I still was reeling from a divorce with all the social and economic changes that accompany such a change in life. Travel was a luxury I really didn’t have. I lived 10 blocks from Lake Michigan, a heritage of parkland that Daniel Burnham created in his grand plan for Chicago. But I rarely visited it, other than to take my kids to the activities there.
A friend I was dating had been a single mom for almost 10 years and had learned new frugalities. She used the lakefront in Evanston where we both lived for all kinds of activities, including picnics and barbeques. Accompanying her, I also got to view sunrises and sunsets that were exquisite, listen to the waves crashing against the revetments, watch her dog run around and visit with others nearby. We enjoyed activities along the lake, but we also simply sat and absorbing the sights, sounds and at mealtimes the smells. It occurred to me that hundreds of thousands of Americans come to Chicago as tourists and the lakefront that had taken for granted before was a key attraction for them.
Sometimes now, I just sit next to the lake in my car and listen to the radio with some windows open to hear the waves. I am there, and it is here, and now I never take it for granted. It’s a big lake, and takes some time to fly over, but it is also a big shoreline, and affords me a diversity of experiences, even after the degradation of facilities like steel mills and small airports many of which are shut down now.
If I turn around from the waves, there is a wonderful skyline, dominated at a distance by modern and often ugly skyscrapers. But if I walk, bicycle or drive slowly, tucked in and around the skyline is more than a century of innovative and appealing architecture.
With a pressing economy, millions of us will have to forego many fly-overs, but we can still extend our lives into the communities close at hand.
Not only is this a very helpful form of reflection in difficult times, but we also can learn a lot about the world we’ve built and the way our communities are stressed because of the decisions we have made.
There are many much larger issues at play in our little experiment. Many years ago, in the midst of some research, I began to consider the two faces of earthly “space.” We often experience space as a resistance in our life to be overcome with autos and airplanes. We drive or fly over these spatial obstacles, to reach our destination. Space is essentially our enemy, and transportation technology helps us defeat it.
I should explain that I am not a purist in urging you to try to use your car less and see how that changes your impressions of our world. This year, I’ve had major back problems and I’m more dependent on my car than ever. But, now, my recreational car “trips” are mostly local, so I do try to drive fewer miles, overall.
Because of the current economic downturn, lots of people will find their transportation restricted. One thing I want you to think about is how this smaller circle of mobility can contribute to depression as space “closes in” on us. In the 1980s I traveled to West Berlin to consult on environmental issues. While I found Berlin beautiful, everyone talked about their efforts to travel as often and as far as possible away from it. They felt closed in by the Berlin Wall (until it was torn down in 1989-90).
What does this account of exotic Berlin have to do with our current lives in a deepening recession? In a way, the cooling economy has built new walls around our communities, making it harder for us to travel more widely. We are driving older cars, and even though gas prices have dropped back for a while, so too have our incomes. Already there are fewer and often more expensive airline flights as airline companies encounter higher costs and fewer passengers.
What do you think about all of this?
Have you ever experienced a feeling that your control of the space around you relates to your feelings about your life, your community, your country?
Do you plan to travel less in 2009? Or to take as many trips outside of your home, but perhaps travel shorter distances?
Please, tell us what you think. Did you start our exploration experiment with a stroll, a longer than usual dog walk or a bike ride around your community — what did you see and hear and feel?
Before you leave this Web page, please click on a Comment link and tell me how this story matches your own
assumptions about our situation here in America today.
Please, add a Comment, even if it’s brief. Or, if you prefer, drop us a quick Email.