Monday, July 04, 2011

The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

Saved by the Car Gods - by Nick van der Leek

On the 1st of July, almost 6 months to the day after moving to Cape Town, I packed all my things [barring rollerblades and surfboard] into my car and hightailed it to Bloem.  It was a crystal clear day, with the mountains of the high river valley resplendent, and almost sparkling in snow.Curiously enough, after Laingsburg the drive went seriously downhill.  Many sections of the N1 are being repaired, which makes the trip from Cape Town an unpleasant chore.  I honestly enjoyed my adventure by rail far, far more than the long slog by road, with its many momentum busting delays.  The frustration is such that you tend to drive faster on the sections of road that are still functional.  At one point I hit 170km/h.  And all for nothing because around the corner you came to a complete stop again.

On my second day in Bloem I decided to sit out a blackout [which started in the morning and ended sometime after 4pm] by going to watch a flick.  Transformers is essentially about machines fighting machines, with the stronger metal monsters being biased to human beings. It's entirely about veneer - 'Transformers' is - in that what something looks like is what it is.  Beauty, functionality, good and evil.  In 'Transformers' the good forces are civilised, and colorful, and eloquent, while the bad forces are uncouth, dirty and ragged.  Does that mean if you're poor you're simply considered evil? Even so, it's entertaining silliness, and fun, but it is also incredibly stupid cinema given that behind the silver screen countries are literally sending battalions to the Arctic in order to seize access to the world's last undiscovered oil fields. That the world's poor are starting to rise up in protest.  Can we really be so smug to say the poor are uncivilised?  Isn't rampant greed mankind's greatest evil, his ultimate arrogance? Transformers is about the gee whizz-ness of techno-enhanced machines.  But sadly, the filmmaker seems unaware that cars and jets and trucks run on a substance called gasoline. 

The filmmaker does acknowledge that this sometimes red colored liquid exists, but merely to illustrate either a salivating or a bleeding machine.  Not once do you see any of the 'Transformers' fuelling up, or repairing themselves, or reloading, or recharging.  Yet they are able to endure endless smashathons, launch an endless series of explosive weapons, and then reappear without a dent, not even a scratch. Infinite sustainability based on...nothing.  And the reason people, including very small children, fall for this bullshit idea is because in society we are made to believe that you can get something out of nothing, or something for nothing. You can get something for nothing, for exaple, if you're very good looking.  Look at the cult of the celebrity. In its worst form, the something for nothing mindset manifests in little brats who expect whatever it is they want from the world, or from their parents, based on the mere fact of their existence.  This includes a home, or a car, or a university education, or a job, or a meal.

In fact a cousin recently told me that her mother can't remember ever having said 'no' to her.  This is no gift parents are giving to their children, instead they are leaving their children to face a lifetime of misery, disappointment and therapy.  Another example of the something-for-nothing psychology is in the idea that God created the world.  Whether you believe he did it in a millisecond or a thousand years, the nuts and bolts of that belief are that God basically went Shazam, and spoke creation into existence.  Really? And you might think that's an impressive feat.  Actually, far more impressive is billions of years of organic evolution, sometimes random, sometimes responsive, into more and more sophisticated systems, all ultimately adaptive of course.  Creating a man out of a starfish takes a heck of a lot of painstaking response to the environment.  And the lessons learned over millions of generations, are hard wired into our DNA, making us impressively able to deal with plenty of life's curve balls.  And these multi-layers of adaptive technology is what ultimateky sustains the current species that populate the earth. 

The very heresies man walks around with stuffed in his back pocket ultimate undo millions of years of physical bargaining and negotiation made with the material world.  The very ideas of instant gratification, and instant creation, and believing ourselves to be very very special [for example made in God's image] are what are propelling us rapidly towards our own destruction.  Ultimately if God created the world, then the world's problems are his to sort out, and we are simply God's entertainment on His petri dish.  But what is more realistic - that God made the world and climate change is another experiment, or that we evolved into the world, conceived and created a mental construct of our world, a derivative of what it actually is, but whatever we believe, our actions produce the average problems we know as self evident around us.  Everyday reality it hard to argue with.

In any event, sitting in a cinema on a cold July day, while the power in other parts of the city are down, to watch a flick about machines running on magic - if this is how we entertain ourselves this late in the day, then God help us.  And if there is no God, will cars save us?  It is ironic that, as far as I'm concerned, one of the greatest evils man has ever known, is the automobile.  Perhaps it has made us independent, and ushered in things like a middle class, and suburbia, and seaside holidays, and commutes, and shopping malls, and traffic jams, but car wrecks also account for over 30 000 dead Americans every year [14 000 South Africans].

Civic life is now designed around cars rather than human beings.  We see highways, parking lots, drive thru takeaways, garages, strip malls - and these happen to be some of the grimmest, most unfulfilling places.  Our addiction to motor vehicles has come at a terrible cost to the way we live, to the way we see ourselves, to the way we inhabit the landscape, to our arrogant sense of entitlement when we go shopping.  The meat we eat without thinking was a living, breathing animal that moved and slept at night and had its own fears and desires.  Yet people are becoming increasingly machine-like in our simple, voracious functioning.  And in the same mechanical mindset as the machine, which after all has an on and off switch, we too terminate friendships or delete ideas or forget about conversation, or switch off when we should be listening to someone.

I believe we will learn the lesson on how to live properly once more, but that lesson will come against a severe backdrop.  The austerity we face, of course, has already started.  The good news is we will learn to treat each other - and ourselves - better than we have been.  The bad news is that most of won't be around to see tomorrow. In the meantime, invest in your community.  Learn to grow some vegetables.  Look up to see the Milky Way, and marvel at how insignificant we are, and what a vast and untellable story it is we find ourselves in...

No comments: