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Author of this essay:

Ven. Ming Zhen Shakya
(19 June 2008)

By Ming Zhen Shakya

It's happening again. After a decade's reprieve, the highway wars are back. Drivers are shooting other drivers in summary judgment of first degree tailgating, felony lagging, and an assortment of other crimes.

Yes, the old vigilante spirit has resurfaced - but with one confounding complication: candidates for gang membership are taking advantage of the combat to conceal their fulfillment of the initiation requirement to murder somebody. No one can be entirely certain whether a dead motorist was guilty of a breach of roadway etiquette or was the victim of the Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Streeters.

There used to be a strange kind of humor that attended traffic conflict. During the Highway Wars of the 1990's, newspaper cartoonists reflected the nation's puzzled attitude about the carnage in a few memorable drawings. Among their more poignant offerings: a California Highway Patrol officer is giving a ticket to a motorist for using a .45 caliber gun in a .22 caliber zone. In another, a husband and wife are driving on the freeway. He is behind the wheel and she is in the passenger's seat, holding a shotgun. He says to her: "Cover me. I'm gonna make a lane change." In a more thoughtful appraisal: two Highway Patrol officers are investigating a bullet riddled driver and car on an off ramp. One officer says to the other, "I wouldn't rule out suicide. He tried to cut into line."

Today's version of the conflict has a nastier subtext. We are stressed not only by highway congestion but by the galling knowledge that during each minute we spend with the motor running and the brake pedal depressed, we are squandering expensive gasoline. As though we had never heard of the law of supply and demand or that petroleum is a finite resource, we nevertheless express consternation at the increasing price of gas. Somewhere things must add up, and we need to do the math.

There are approximately 6,700,000,000 people in the world; and China, a nation that in recent years has become a burgeoning economic power, contains nearly 20% of those people. In 1980 China's Gross Domestic Product (U.S. dollars -in billions), was $300. By 2000 China's GDP had risen to $1,081; by 2006 it was $2,040.3; by 2007 it was $3,250. This increase parallels the rising price of gasoline. China's prosperity has continued its astonishing climb and so has its demand for oil. In 1996 China imported 166 million barrels. In 2006 China imported 1065 million barrels. Industrialization and citizen prosperity have also increased the demand for electrical power, 80% of which is supplied by burning coal. Since India is also emerging as an economic power, the price of oil and contributions to global warming are not likely to decrease.

The jolt in gas prices has highlighted a few of our bad cultural choices. Our first mistake was our unabashed embrace of big gas-guzzling vehicles.

Liberal parents with as many as one child would feel pain whenever a tree was cut down in the Brazilian rain forest - yet would not see a contradiction between decrying the causes of global warming and choosing to purchase a heavy Sport and Utility Vehicle (SUV) or a huge personal bus-van. Even Al Gore drove a Cadillac Escalade to a Sierra Club engagement in San Francisco in Sept. 05. (Busted, he harkened to the outcry of environmentalists and went hybrid.)

Previously, whenever we had a scare about gas prices, there would be a dip in SUV, pickup, and van sales; but then the old amnesia would set in as TV ads championed the causes of conspicuous consumption and family fun in the great outdoors. It never occurred to us that defining luxury in terms of horsepower was ludicrous and that family camping-out and road trips were rarely taken and were never fun.

And so we find them, the huge vehicles that usually transport only one person, clogging our arterial networks like so much plaque. Eco-eco-minded souls who bought compact cars in the interests of both economy and ecology wonder where the benefit is when a small car has to creep, brake, wait, creep, brake, wait, in occluded lanes in which the pace is slower than a funeral cortege. These folks seethe with resentment and the effects of carbon monoxide as they crawl behind those heraldic gas consuming vehicles.

Our second unfortunate error in judgment was finding ourselves on the freeways in the first place - the result of an infatuation with suburbia. We easily let TV sitcoms and glossy magazines convince us that the good life could be had only when we put 30 miles between our workplace and our residence. What were we thinking when we thought that moving to the suburbs was actually a good idea?

Our mind drifts back to those halcyon days... college life in the inner city... the near-campus apartment we shared with our new spouse. Life was good; but once we got the sheepskin, the job, and the head filled with upwardly mobile dreams, we began to prowl the sacred precincts of the Burbs. Our Inner Squire was euphoric at the prospects of meeting his fellows in a locale that bore a genteel name: "Stately Oaks Estates" or "Glen Haven Villas" or "Bel Air Farms." Ah, yes...

Though neither one of us could keep a chia pet alive for more than a week, we bought a house with a half acre of lawn. Though our experience with flowers had been limited to corsages and boutonnieres, we committed ourselves to maintaining a garden sculpted to some rather fastidious specifications. Though we had long deplored the evils of fascism and derived no small amount of pride in being stalwart supporters of the ACLU; we selected a development that was controlled by a Home Owners' Association. Insouciantly we signed on the dotted line, agreeing to the complete abrogation of our civil rights and to an expected lifetime of conformist tyranny.

Naturally we had gone house-hunting on the weekend - when traffic was light. We believed the salesman when he said we could drive downtown in twenty minutes. We timed it and thought he exaggerated - but only a bit. He told us of a country club which we would join so that on weekends we could devote ourselves to tennis and golf, a decision our Inner Sportsman applauded. Our map revealed a lake and marina in the vicinity; and our Inner Yachtsman rejoiced. We put "sailboat" on our wish list, right under the breed of dog that appealed most to our new gentrified status: English Springer Spaniel.

We joined the Club, and along with golf clubs and tennis togs, we acquired new furniture, a hot tub, a barbecue grille, an enviably appointed patio, and an adorable pedigreed puppy.

And all this wasn't just a dream. The debts were real. When we awakened it was only to the fact that the extra hours we worked to pay for it all had squeezed the life out of the style. Much of our "quality time" was spent in bumper-to-bumper rigor mortis. Threats from the HOA - whose fees we paid monthly - forced us to hire someone to maintain the lawn and garden, expenses which did not quicken our joie de vivre.

So here we are on the freeway - commuting to suburbia in staccato spurts, wishing we could zip along in the Diamond Lane on a Buddy Scooter or that Harley we always wanted.

Every now and then we look at the rusted barbecue, the cracked and shrunken cover on the hot tub, the patio furniture's chewed cushions that had once been our dog's only friends, and the fenced area we had to build for him to run in. He was dead now, having succumbed to hip-dysplasia, retinal atrophy, bowel obstructions, and other expensive sufferings that involved us in interminable litigation with the breeder.

And at such moments we remember our old life in the inner city. Why didn't we spend as much time and energy making THAT place fit for our Inner Human Being. We used to go to the movies whenever we felt like it; and there was a summer stock "Theater in the Park" we could walk to.... and a great coffee house.... and a comedy club. We loved those "Mostly Mozart" concerts... and the opera when Puccini was being performed... and the Van Gogh exhibition at the art museum! And there was always something going on at the University. We even enjoyed sitting out on the front steps in the summer, eating ice cream cones sold by the musical truck vendor. What were we thinking that made us swap that for this?

And so we join the throng of people who want to know how to tolerate the situation, how to cultivate a stoic "Zen of the Freeway" attitude, how to get to a destination without frazzled nerves and an urge to kill.

OK. Here it is. Zen's best advice: regard obstacles as opportunities. Music may be balm for short term discomfort, but for the long term, a better solution is to listen to recorded novels or to academic programs such as a lecture series on history, philosophy, religion, sports, or lessons in a foreign language. We've all been dying to learn Bulgarian. This is our chance.

Since the worst delays are caused by accidents, we can minimize our contribution to the carnage by getting up a little earlier so that we don't have to shave, or put on make-up, or eat breakfast, or use our cellphone to schedule appointments as we drive. In fact, we ought to turn our cellphones off when we're driving. If we were passengers on an airplane, we would not be happy with the pilot, if, as he began a runway approach, he was shaving, gargling, cellphoning his girlfriend, or writing down a list of groceries his wife was telling him to pick up on his way home.

Carpool whenever possible. This not only reduces the number of cars on the highway and defrays the cost of gasoline, but it helps the driver to stay alert. With the exception of children and spouses, passengers know to stop talking when the driver is in a particularly tricky situation. To find carpoolers, we can drive to their rendezvous parking lot at the nearest freeway entrance or truck stop. Hold up a sign or just go around and ask.

See if it is possible to change work hours, starting an hour or two earlier or later, or dividing the workday into two complete shifts - 7 to 3 and 3 to 11 or any similar variation. We live in a global economy with a business day that goes through many time zones. A workplace is not private space. Any business can operate more efficiently with half the office space and equipment if it uses that space and equipment twice as much in a single day. Working at home whenever possible also warrants consideration.

And finally we ought to re-focus attention on urban renewal and try to undo the mistakes we made when we stampeded to the suburbs. What? you say, as you envision slums, gangs, drugs, and garbage strewn streets. No. That is the way we rationalized our mistakes. Let's take a look at Philadelphia. While there are city blocks of decaying brick row houses in which the poor live, there are also city blocks of well-maintained, crime-free brick row houses in which prosperous classes live or which the rich use as town houses. The city's center is the prime location for those who work in the commercial downtown area, and for those who want to avail themselves of the city's rich academic and cultural venues. The townhouses off Rittenhouse Square or in Society Hill are well patrolled by the police and tended by city services. Streets have trees. Windows have flower boxes, and back yards are decorated with the care of a Japanese garden. Brass fittings are polished. Windows have shutters that actually close, and colonial charm is everywhere in evidence. With the inclusion of a parking facility, civic authorities can shepherd a decayed neighborhood through to healthy restoration. Make them do it.

Of course, we need to develop wind, solar, and tidal power generation and convert our cars to ethanol, hydrogen, and hybrid as soon as possible. We should have done this a long time ago. But haste shouldn't make us naive about transitions to alternative energy sources. Planes, trains, ships, and trucks need time to be phased out. We need to stop stalling the process.

Buying oil from foreign sources while refusing to develop our own sources makes no sense at all. Asian use of fossil fuels is so great that that our sacrifice will only increase our costs, and deliver more business to Asian polluters.

An investment in any large vehicle, whether a merchant ship or the family SUV, requires that the vehicle operate for at least most of its projected lifetime. Taxing existing sources of oil is also unfair and short-sighted. Many families cannot afford to pay for gasoline and home heating oil now, and slapping an additional tax on them isn't going to help their food budget. Likewise, half a million independent truckers are already close to extinction because of the high cost of diesel fuel. They deliver our food to us.

Nuclear powered submarines and arctic vessels are commonplace today; and nuclear powered merchant ships have already been successfully built - only to have been abandoned because they were more expensive to operate than ships that used "cheap" diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is no longer cheap.

Our military vehicles run on gasoline and so do our farm vehicles, garbage trucks, school buses, mail carriers, construction equipment, fishing fleets and barges, and so on. Until we can move a 747 with ethanol or put hydrogen in that Peterbilt, we're stuck with oil.

Two years ago CNN reported Cuba's agreement with China and India to drill for oil in the Florida Straits. The sight of foreign oil platforms drilling off our coast is not likely to improve our freeway dispositions. And while we grieve to think that someone's view of the Pacific might be spoiled by the site of a drilling platform, we will be no less saddened by the sight of someone's grandparents freezing to death in a Michigan farmhouse.

Humming Bird
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