It would be easy to get a little scared of where we as a North American* society is going. Ever-increasing fuel prices and the promise of rising food prices are just two of the headline stories that have loomed overhead for the past few months. Combine that with the US economy and real estate market dropping, and the anticipation that Canada's markets may not be far behind, and there seems to be legitimate grounds for worry about what the future will bring.
That's if you're a glass-half-empty kind of person. If you're a glass-half-full, you are excited. Here's why I am.
It's no secret that the current, automobile-driven (no pun intended) way of life that has dominated North American society for the last few decades is completely unsustainable. From an environmentalist view, cars and their manufacturing process are responsible for rampant pollution. The roads they drive on ruin natural habitats and suck natural resources. From an economic standpoint, we throw away thousands of dollars a year on maintenance, fuel, and taxes to pay for roads. From a time perspective, millions of man-hours are lost in the everyday morning commute from the 'burbs to the office.
From an urbanist's perspective (Jane Jacobs, in specific,) suburban sprawl, which is only made possible by the overwhelming ownership of personal vehicles, murders communities and wastes land, time, and energy. From a health perspective, the ability to drive everywhere has robbed us of fitness and made our society overwhelmingly obese. The automobile is also partially responsible for the rise of diabetes, in that fast food chains have flourished because they have become so very easily accessible.
So we lose time, money, health, a sense of community, and damage our earth in various ways when we bow in homage to the almighty automobile. Ask yourself who wins. The answer is always the same... Big Business. As long as there is a profit to be made selling cars, they will be made. As long as the government serves as a marionette, with the industry and unions (CAW, anyone?) holding the strings, they will not begin to make the kinds of changes that are necessary. And until government (at municipal as well as provincial and federal levels) starts making changes, there is not much incentive to make the average person park their car and find a better way.
What kinds of changes need to be made is the next big question that everyone should be thinking long and hard about.
There's electric bikes... how cool are these? Or there is always the time-honoured bicycle. What about car-pooling, or even carsharing?
I see these gaps in alternatives as an opportunity, and I'm not alone. I posted a while back on my experiments with hypermiling, a concept I heard about on the pages of Wired magazine. This week it made headlines on CBC.ca ... the concept is catching on. (Incidentally, I've dropped from ~11.3 litres per kilometer to less than 10 lpk (what an unwieldy measurement) in my experiments... and I suspect there's lots of room for improvement.)
The point is that there's plenty of options to the solo-commuter car. Some are less convenient and practical, but eventually, government at all levels will need to step in to help its citizens to find compromises that most can live with. Better mass transit, more bike lanes, less urban sprawl, communities designed around walking, not cars. Answers to the transportation questions to be found when our backs are hard enough against the wall. If they're not now, they will be.
The same can and will happen for food, manufacturing, and other key industries. When the economy makes what we do or how they do it unviable, we will change. We will become more efficient, less wasteful, more respectful of limited resources, and more community-oriented. Despite the fact that rising prices forced our hand, I can't see these as bad things.
Margaret Mead says it best. "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
We are that small group of thoughtful citizens. Let's recognize that change is very much in our hands... within our families, within our communities, and eventually within our country. The dramatic news stories that threaten doom and gloom ought to serve as a wake-up call, and a hand gently guiding us to solutions implemented not nationally, but starting in our own homes. We have created these problems and we can surmount them.
*North America, for the purposes of this article, is the USA and Canada.