My friends Andy and Alice recently bought a new car. This is a big deal. Not because of the ride itself—a mature, utility Saab with a few clunks and quirks—but because they are not what you would call “car people. Andy hikes the Olympic peninsula and rides a bicycle to his job at a local high school. Alice comes home from giving music lessons to tend the plants in their small apartment. When I met Andy he sported a bandana and a long beard (he still has the beard). Alice once gave me a bottle of homemade absinthe for Christmas. They are fans of Orion magazine and devotees of public transit. In other words, they would be among the first to intelligently argue that human beings don’t need the destructive, energy-sucking luxury of a personal vehicle.
And yet the Saab. I suppose we should have seen this coming. A few years ago they traded in a bus pass for a 125-cc scooter. They said that Alice needed it to get to her work, which was too far from Seattle’s skimpy bus lines to be practical. But the scooter was a gateway drug. Before long we saw them zipping through traffic in a pair of sparkling helmets, the grin of motorized speed unmistakable. Energy efficient living couldn’t compete with two wheels.
I can’t point the finger. Shortly after they joined scooter nation, I had to purchase a car for the twenty-five-minute commute to my new job. As I signed the check, I could hear my former self scoffing at that “had”—“No one has to drive!” I imagined him saying. “We are all free to imagine alternatives, to live simply so that others may simply live.” For someone who didn’t drive, my former self really liked bumper sticker slogans.
But I found that there was still a big part of me, like Andy and Alice, that believed in the clichéd ideals of my former self. Our species had become inseparable from obscene and hitherto unimagined energy consumption. We needed fossil fuel so badly that we were now pumping millions of gallons of salt water into the earth to crush out tiny pockets of natural gas. It was as if we were literally undermining the ground we stood on simply so Andy and Alice could look cute in their matching scooter helmets.
Still, a year after buying the car, my wife and I became a two-vehicle household. The hook this time was an old motorcycle, and of course, my justification was, again, practical. Two wheels, after all, burn less energy than four. If I must drive (I had recently moved to Cleveland, certainly not a city for the foot bound), then I might as well get fifty miles to the gallon. Good intentions wear out fast, and no one buys a motorcycle for the sake of the polar bears. Bikes are associated with excess and danger, and, well, my fantasy life, like that of so many Americans, is populated by rebels, not environmentalists. Soon I found myself riding the two miles to work on my bike, not my bicycle. This was, paradoxically, an inefficient use of my time: parking across campus isn’t nearly as quick as chaining one’s pedals to a rack right outside the classroom. More time, more energy, more money, and certainly more danger—yet I choose the motorcycle nearly every time. A purchase in the name of efficiency led to an even larger carbon footprint than before. My former self won’t even speak to me anymore. How has this happened?
I ask myself this every time I hit the starter button and listen to the miracle of internal combustion roar beneath me. I wonder how I can throw myself into speed and lean through curves when somewhere in the world the seven billionth living soul is approaching his or her first birthday. I try to imagine the justifications I can give for chrome and rubber when the Pennsylvania streams of my youth are being poisoned by the heavy metal run-off of fracking wells. Most of all, I wonder whether my three-year-old son will be able to ride his own motorcycle someday or whether our collective actions and the decline of oil reserves will deny him that prospect.
And I’m sure that Andy and Alice ask themselves the same kinds of questions as they load up the Saab and head off on road trips across the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps we are unhappy actors in a drama of cultural decadence, playing violin with Nero while our ecological Rome burns. When the future is unimaginable, societies tend to become spectacles, indulging in cakes and carburetors. Our grandchildren will likely look at us with the same distaste with which we view 1950s gender politics or the institutionalization of the mentally ill.
Or perhaps they will turn a kinder eye. Søren Kierkegaard famously argued that there are two contradictory paths in life, two ways of being in the world that are equally compelling and yet fundamentally incompatible. The ethical is one such path; the aesthetic is the other. We can live our lives according to the dictates of the good or the beautiful but not both. Kierkegaard was only partly right. I think that goodness and beauty, like responsibility and excess, safety and danger, moderation and indulgence, are both fundamental to human consciousness. Too often, we are told (mostly by self-help speakers and other questionable types) that the answer to these dualisms is an appropriate “balance,” the right mixture. But balance misses the point, throwing out the possibility of excess and indulgence altogether. Striving for such balance results in something less, in something that’s somehow crabbed and uninspiring. Perhaps, in the days of peak oil and the waning shadow of Occupy Wall Street, it is our glaring inconsistencies, our moral imbalances, that reveal the most. Our dangerous passions, for better and worse, inevitably drive us to make a world.
That split consciousness—neither ethical nor aesthetic—can be seen as I swing through the curves of Chagrin River Road outside of Cleveland, the aging leaves and late-summer sun painting me in something primal. I smell it in the exhaust of a used Saab.