Thursday, March 20, 2008

My Year Without A Car (and why we all need to imagine what it’s like)

The essential energy we need to run suburbia just isn’t there, for everyone, any more

So people occasionally ask me: "You keep moaning about oil prices. What are YOU doing about it?" The answer is I've lived it. I've purposefully spent a year in SA without a car, and I've also been a strict vegetarian. Believe me when I say: IT'S NOT AN EASY CHOICE. Once my exile from the world had served its purpose, I must admit, I was relieved to be back in the world of bakkies and braaivleis. Unfortunately, that choice, the alternatives we now have, will not last forever. In fact we're likely to see in this generation, our lifetimes, how whole sectors of the population begin to find that although they felt entitled to a house, a car, a job, a family and kids - it's just not going to happen.


Even if we’re asked to gradually bid our cars farewell, it’s likely to be with plenty of gnashing of teeth. And what then? Will it be back to Platform 9 and a half, and minding the gap? Nick van der Leek goes on one of our toughest assignments yet, to compile this report.

Believe me, it’s not easy to let go of our entitlements: those things we feel we have a right to, like a house in suburbia, a car, a job, groceries and whatever else you want at a local supermarket, movies, laptops and gadgets galore. All of this stuff has been accessible to us because it’s been built on a foundation we’ve not even thought about (until recently): cheap energy. When energy becomes more expensive, everything else does too: from food to flying. Parting with, or even making do with less of any one of these luxuries is going to be really tough.

And what if we had to give up all our entitlements? I know what you’re thinking. ‘What could possibly happen to create a scenario where we’d have to do that?’ Well, the next generation, expecting the same life their parents had, will find that they have far fewer choices than we now have: the future will be about living locally, moving around a lot less and making do with less. We’re about to discover the limits of our world: it has finite resources (something scientists have been saying for at least a generation), even if our wants and demands aren’t finite. Humanity’s begging birdies’ beaks will find – during our generation – the essential energy we need just isn’t there any more, there’s just not enough for everyone (all 6 billion of us) any more, no matter how early the birds go out. What do I mean? Estimates differ, but the world is predicted to ‘not have enough’ oil from around about now.

Given the pace of alternatives (not even close to the pace of current demand for fossil fuel driven technology) the era of cheap, easy motoring and affordable everything else will soon be at an end. This year world oil production decreased. Demand increased once again, and shows no sign of abating. How can it when India and China – there’s a third of world’s population right there – coming online. The question is, will we be able to transition to an alternative project, or will the world fall apart in attempting to do so? The question is not: will we transition smoothly? It’s certain to be a difficult change. The Western world is used to convenience, and the next era will be everything but convenient. It will be tough, on a massive scale.

Woe betide the world when we suddenly wake up to discover: Ooops. Not enough oil for the world to get to the next station. And the world is some project. There are thousands of cities with black stuff running through their veins (pretty much symbolized by complex grids of black tar road radiating into suburbia.) I mean, just think about the daily demand of just a couple of cities out there with 30 million plus people (like Seoul, Tokyo and Mexico). And everyday those people have to go to work. There’s suburban sprawl everywhere, from Jozi to Jericho, that depends on cars swimming in and out to keep it fed.

Actual Experience

Living without a car is a snip if you don’t live in South Africa, or rural Australia, or most of the USA and Canada. I lived in a satellite of Seoul for four years and you know, I didn’t even want a car. London was harder, since taxi’s are so expensive there and buses aren’t quite as ubiquitous as in the Far East. But living without a car in South Africa is about as fun as chewing on someone else’s toenails. No, not something anyone would cheerfully volunteer for.

So how did it happen? Well, first of all, nearly a decade abroad got me into the habit of getting around using public transport, and doing some walking. In Korea in particular, plenty of those walks were through parks, and if you’ve seen how polluted and crammed full of people the streets can be, parks are just the tonic to restore the beleaguered soul. Busses in Korea literally pull up 5, 10 minutes apart, tops. And when I didn’t feel like walking, I cycled. I suppose I should admit, right off the bat here that I’m a triathlete, so finding a variety of ways and means to get around is something I’m sort’ve trained to do.
But training or not, there was a specific psychology I began to adopt during the second half of my two year stint in South Korea.

You see, I read books like Twilight in the Desert, Hubbert’s Peak; The Impending World Oil Shortage and the scariest of them all, James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency; Surviving the converging catastrophes of the 21st century. Were you taken in by Y2K? I was, but instead of babysitting a food cupboard filled with canned beans, I spent December 31st 1999 drinking and dancing at the Grotto Restaurant in Hermanus. Perhaps I overdid the dancing bit, because someone said: “You took two [ecstasy pills] didn’t you?” I nodded, but actually, I was just hyper. (With that short anecdote I hope I’ve demonstrated I’m not a gullible geek, a drug addict or boringly normal).

Like those who have tried to sell bottled sea water, or bought into dodgy pyramid schemes, or anti-aging creams, I got taken in by the Peak Oil alarmists. I even wrote to author James Kunstler (and still do), for advice on surviving the end of the world (of oil, but what’s the diffs), and on becoming a writer. He told me (to make it as a writer) I’d need a proclivity for punishment. I told him I did the Ironman in 2005. “Well then,” he enthused, “you more than qualify!”

So there you have it. Take a triathlete, add a propensity for suffering, the capacity to endure, and a governing psychology predicting a never-ending oil famine, and you have the perfect volunteer for this assignment. When I returned to South Africa in November last year, I naturally had to think carefully about these three vital issues: location, location, location. Where to live, where to work, where to be entertained. Bloemfontein turned out to be my first and best choice, not least because my girlfriend was based here. I’d met her at a gym in Bloemfontein in March 2005, a few days before my Ironman. The relationship rocketed to new levels when I picked her up in a royal blue, restored, long bodied gas guzzler: a Willy’s Jeep with big, silver, masculine alloy wheels. Thanks dad. And after a very romantic frolic on our farm, I jetted off to the Ironman in Port Elizabeth, then back to Korea where I completed the last chapters of brainwashing. The relationship went on the backburner, but the fire had by no means gone out. When I arrived in Bloem at the beginning of summer, we kick started the relationship against the background of my re-integration into South African society. I spent the first few months staying with my father. Meanwhile, I’d integrated the deeply held views about energy conservation, and developing local infrastructure.

The culture shock was intense. You feel it when you leave South Africa and arrive in Asia, and if you stay long enough, you get reverse culture shock in a big way, when you come back, too. For one thing, South Africa feels like early Sunday morning, every day, for the first few weeks. The roads just seem permanently empty, even if you’re in the biggest urban centre you can find. Even Jozi feels dead compared to the endless gridlock and snarling, belching of Korea’s monstrous traffic.

So how did I do it? Well, even Bloem, where you can cycle across the diameter of the city in less than an hour, sooner or later, you’re going to need a car. It’s abundantly obvious from the word go that public transport is virtually non-existent. Even if you were determined to use it, that might mean waiting an entire afternoon for a single bus. The alternative is the mini-bus taxi. I considered it once, but kept seeing very clear front page articles, titled: Stupid White Guy Left For Dead After Riding In Taxi, or Idiot’s Body Still Missing: Pair of Oakley’s in a field remain the only clue.

It’s not that I’m a sissy. I’ve done a very risky and illegal 5 hour trip at night along the Philippino island of Palawan in a pumpboat. A mini-bus taxi, you must understand, presents a death wish of another order.
So, from the beginning, I relied on the charity of dad. He has, after, five vehicles (3 four by fours). But after only a few days he became less supportive. He is, after all, a widower who is used to having things his way.
And one of the difficulties I encountered from the word go was getting to gym. Today (14 November), a consultant from Virgin Active called me to say I need to renew my membership. The first thing I did when I returned to SA was take out a new gym membership. But, with Virgin Active on the far end of town, around 8km from home, getting there, especially at night, was proving tricky. It proved too difficult to get regular transport so I wasn’t able to train (in the gym at least) consistently. I think I went 20 times this year, max.

Living without a car lesson #1: Forget gym

And to be honest, the effort to get around kind’ve makes the idea of gym obsolete. Thus, the future may be a world with no more gyms, fancy that.

After getting on my dad’s nerves eventually, I did what the middle son eventually must do, and got my lazy, good for nothing butt into a job. I taught economics at a high school, and conveniently stayed in the hostel which was across the road from school, close to gym, and best of all: home cooked meals down the hall. Nevertheless, my own stores ran out pretty quickly, and I tended to visit the shops on a daily basis for airtime, the newspaper, and the odd chocolate. It soon became clear that running out of food made the journey home that much more dangerous (imagine a plastic bag loaded with stuff, swinging dangerously, and heavily from handlebars. So, when I went out for dinner with my girlfriend, I’d stock up on groceries on the way back.

Living without a car lesson #2: Prioritize

Fill up with essential groceries whenever possible, and remember to get the sort of stuff active people eat (think fruits, vegetables and pasta, not bottles of wine, biltong and sushi).

Not having a car means the demands on you increase threefold or more. You not only have less time (since getting from a to b is harder), but less energy, and the result is you’re simply less mobile. To get around as much as possible, use your cellphone, know other people’s schedules, try to synergise your schedule, plans or one-off operation with what others around you are doing.

Living without a car lesson #3: Delegate, network, synergize

Those aren’t just pretty words – if you don’t intend to be miserable you’ll need to be very skilled at being in the right place at the right time in terms of yourself and other people. It’s not an exact science, it’s an art, believe me.

One useful trick that I used was test driving cars for a magazine I did some freelance work for. I got to test drive an Isuzu double cab, a Toyota Yaris, an Alpha Romeo GT – and I have to admit, when ever I got my hands on the latest in automobike technology is was hard not to be seduced by it. What a pity, I’d invariably think, that these wonderful machines run on stuff that we’re eventually going to run out of. Can you honestly enjoy life on the highway, air conditioned comfort, push button power when you know it’s built on a platform that can’t possibly last?

Living without a car lesson #4: Roll with the punches, and expect a few on the nose

Once I found myself in a situation where I was feeling dizzy and weak and unsteady on my feet. I thought it was just a mild case of flu. The rules at work required a doctors certificate if I was absent for more than two days, so I needed to get to a doctor. It was snowing (yes, snowing in Bloem) the day I needed to go to the doctor. Sure, I could walk or cycle to the doctor and risk pneumonia. I called just about everyone I could call. No one could help. That was when I realized how helpless I really was. When you really have to depend on someone, and no one can help you when you need help, you know you’re in trouble. I had to postpone the appointment, and when I finally made it he booked me off for the rest of the week, saying I had a serious bacterial infection in my lungs.

Living without a car lesson #5: Adapt

What are the options? If you don’t have transport, get the mountain to come to you. Get all the numbers for food delivery, you’ll need them. Just today I found a new place called Ouma’s Kitchen that delivers wholesome meals in Styrofoam containers by bike messenger – for less than R30!
Or, instead of getting fat on take aways, get yourself a mountainbike and get yourself around on your own steam.

Living without a car lesson #6 Become less independent

Realize how selfish we are, and those we seek to depend upon. Each person is expected to have their own car, own house. That’s new for this era. Think of cavemen. They shared everything, including the cave. Imagine cave people expecting to have their own cave to themselves. It is very hard to become dependent (once you’ve been independent) and it’s also hard for people who are independent to deal with you.

Living without a car lesson #7 Get used to wishful thinking

I think the future is going to be filled with reminiscing about ‘the good old days’. What’s not so good about now is that things are more important than people, and that our relationships with stuff have taken precedent, in many cases, over our relationships with people. People these days seem to think very little about scrubbing a friendship because of some minor transgression. Why? Because there are so many other diversions to occupy our time.

Living without a car lesson #8 Get grateful

The party isn’t over yet, so enjoy it while you can. Enjoy the fact that you can drive to a cycle race for the weekend in a faraway city. Enjoy that you can get takeaway burgers at a drivethru (without getting out the car). Enjoy the fact that you can drive for 10 or 15 minutes to the nearest supermarket, and have access to products from as far away as China, New Zealand and Finland.

Living without a car lesson #9 Take Deep Breaths

When it’s finally over, whole communities are going to become morbidly depressed and apparently powerless. Reality isn’t going to be pleasant. TV channels will be filled with practical DIY shows, including Plating Your Own Vegetables. Learn to handle plenty of extra stress and disappointment

Living without a car lesson #10 Reconnect

The good news is that our current lifestyles are actually cancer-inducing. Millions a year die of heart attacks. Half of married couples divorce. Reconnecting doesn’t mean turning on your cellphone or sending an email. It means the opposite. Look someone in the eye. Stop the clocks and give someone your time and full attention. More important, give yourself the time of day, and reconnect with who you are. One long walk is the first step in that direction. While some have a governing philosophy of ‘Kill a rhino before it becomes extinct’, I’m inclined to want to buy a Toyota Ay-go, and do a round-the-country-trip before the oil runs out. But I have a conscience, and I know a race is coming that will require preparation. I believe we all know that, but some of us are less willing to own up to it than others. To the extent that we can accept the coming reality before it engulfs us, we’ll be able to move safely and happily on our road – wherever it goes.

No comments: