• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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Sub/urban subjectivity

I've pretty much given up on the mega-corporate media as sources of objective information with one exception -- they do report objectively on the subjective. They trumpet conventional attitudes and "conventional wisdom", amplifying aspects of both which serve a particular set of interests (not necessarily the interests of you or me). I was gobsmacked by one specific instance of that this Sunday.

September 27, 2009
 

I've pretty much given up on the mega-corporate media as sources of objective information with one exception -- they do report objectively on the subjective. They trumpet conventional attitudes and "conventional wisdom", amplifying aspects of both which serve a particular set of interests (not necessarily the interests of you or me). I was gobsmacked by one specific instance of that this Sunday.

An article by a writer with the Associated Press seemed to have no other purpose than to promote sales of "crossover" vehicles as cool, financially attractive and environmentally responsible. The item focused on a suburban mother of two who intended to buy a new crossover sometime in the next year. This woman's situation was presented as typical, her response to it logical, the case described thereby instructive. Yet nothing about her story made objective sense even for her, much less as an example for anyone else.

To put things into perspective, this is a 34-year-old woman with two daughters (one nine years old, the other nine-months), a husband and two small dogs. She currently has a 1997 Nissan Quest which she calls "excellent" in terms of reliability, but "ancient" in styling and insufficiently versatile. She lives in Carteret NJ and frequently drives to visit relatives in Queens (NYC); the article makes this sound like a long trip by emphasizing that she has to cross two rivers (the Hudson and the East) along the way.

OK, look. I don't know where in Carteret or where in Queens, so I don't know which of many possible routes this lady typically travels. But a quick check of Google Maps tells me her whole trip is probably no longer than 36 miles one way. Even to someone who grew up in the Northeast, that's not a long way. An hour there, a couple of hour visit (I'm guessing), an hour back. The dogs will be OK on their own for that duration. (Trust me, I've owned a lot of dogs.) And in this case, the scenery goes from less urban to more urban to moderately urban -- not a lot of vehicular versatility required, as I understand that concept.

But there's a very real chance that this particular mom defines "versatility" somewhat differently than I do. She says that living in NJ means that she drives everywhere. Maybe driving to the school requires different vehicular capabilities than driving to the store or a friend's house, at least in New Jersey. It certainly doesn't in Backboro. The NYC area is pretty flat by my standards. And all their roads are paved (at least nominally -- do potholes, patches and steel plates count as "pavement"?). Anyway, the quote that seems most revealing is the one where the subject explains why she won't consider a sedan. "We can't get the strollers, an overnight bag, and a couple of other things into a passenger car." What other things? Full-sized refrigerators? Four-by-eight sheets of plywood? The original prop Time Machine from the Rod Taylor/Yvette Mimieux movie? And "strollers"? Why more than one? Who needs a second stroller? The nine-year old? The dogs? The husband? And who says a sedan won't do? I know lots of people who carry that amount of stuff (OK, not the Time Machine) in sedans, especially when the trip is only an hour long.

The real truth comes out in the last paragraph. "Everyone's driving a crossover; you don't see many minivans. They're not the cool car for moms to drive anymore." Sounds a lot like a subjective rationalization of a desire to cave in to artificially stimulated demand -- the overwhelming urge to spend money on the solution of something which (in objective terms) isn't a problem. She's got a minivan. It has enough room. It runs reliably. It probably gets slightly worse gas mileage than the crossover she's lusting after, but not enough to make up for all the energy required to build a brand new vehicle and deliver it to New Jersey. It's not even a case of money "burning a hole in her pocket(book)", because she's not rushing out to buy right now -- she's planning to purchase sometime next year.

Personally, I hope she takes the intervening months and asks herself what, in her current transportation situation, is broken. Because if nothing is broken, nothing needs fixing. And that's instruction we could all take from this case.

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