Planes, Trains and Automobiles
March 19, 2002
By Patricia Heartland
Well, it's almost spring here, and I'm really looking forward
to it. I imagine many of you in the Northern Hemisphere are,
too. We sure don't get much news about the seasonal change
for people in the Southern Hemisphere (I suppose the fourteen-and-a-half
column inches allocated for "foreign news" in most papers
is already taken up with other stories,) but I hope you have
a good fall and not too much drought or rain. Do any of you
get pretty colors, the way we do here? We never hear about
stuff like that.
The big news in our family is the colossal fight between
my daughter and my son-in-law about the new car they're planning
to buy. She wants an SUV, and he wants an ordinary mini-van
or even a station wagon, which I'm not sure they even make
any more. He claims the kids will be safer than in an SUV,
and I think he's right. But I try to stay out of their "discussions."
I don't like those SUVs, anyway, they're as bad as trucks
to share the road with. Cut off your view of the next lane,
or what's ahead of you, or whatever. And the gas they use!
I just don't understand why people think they're cool.
I probably shouldn't bring up automobiles, should I? The
thing is, they're so central to just about every aspect of
American life and culture. You can't imagine, I'm sure. You
see, back when I was very young, we still had lots of public
transportation systems. You could get on a streetcar and go
practically anywhere in the city. And you could get to almost
any town on the train. You didn't really need a car
unless you lived way out in the country, or unless you were
a traveling sales person who needed to carry a lot of samples,
or a doctor who had to make house calls or something like
But we just fell in love with cars. And we took the money
and the resources that we used to spend on keeping up the
trolley lines and the railroads and the subways, and we put
it into interstate highways. And we changed the way we built
everything. Used to be, you could walk to a market in your
neighborhood just about anywhere you lived. Now we have these
big sprawly suburbs where the stores are all in huge, parking
lot-surrounded "strip malls," miles from most peoples' homes.
And the streetcars and trolleys are gone, and the buses don't
go most places, and rail travel is almost dead. We're in a
I guess why I'm explaining all this is to give you some background
in why we drag our heels so much about dealing with all the
pollution and environmental degradation that go with all those
cars. Besides being completely dependent on them for practically
every aspect of our economy, we've got nearly a hundred years
of popular culture equating cars with sexiness, with personal
power, with freedom, and other absurdities. It gets to you,
after a while.
It's not that we don't know we have to change. I think most
of us (well, a slim majority still, but certainly a majority)
of us realize that change will have to happen, whether we
like it or not. But there're still a lot of us fighting
it. And since we didn't really come to terms with it until
pretty recently, we don't exactly have a lot of practical
alternatives figured out. It's going to take years, maybe
generations, to work out a way to replace our complete economic
dependence on the internal combustion engine. And our dependence
on your oil.
I'm kind of abashed, really, to think of us self-reliant
Yanks being so dependent on someone else for the juice that
keeps our country going. I think a lot of us are. Maybe that's
why so many of us persist in believing that if we only rip
up enough of our own territory, we'll find some vast, inexhaustible
supply of oil. Or at least enough to keep us from having to
change our dependence on the internal combustion engine for
another generation or two.
Okay, I know it's silly, but remember, a lot of us believe
in UFOs, astral planes, and vortexes too. I can't explain
it, I was brought up Presbyterian. If someone wants to believe
that visiting a "vortex" in Arizona is going to make them
happier or healthier, it's okay by me. Who knows, they may
be right. But that's another letter, again.
What was I writing about? Oh, cars and oil, right. Trying
to give you some idea of just how tough it is for the ordinary
American to think about changing. But there are a lot of us
who are working on the issue. Please be patient with us, World.
I'm telling my government every chance I get that I'm willing
to make some personal and economic sacrifices to create a
new, more environmentally-friendly transportation infrastructure.
It's just that General Motors talks a lot louder than I do.
I don't know how to deal with that, but I'll keep trying to
do what I can.
So far this letter has been all about me, but you all have
been very busy too. I was so thrilled to hear that Saudi Arabia
is nudging the peace process along over there. Please, you
guys, at least listen, and think about it, please.
It's gotta be better than killing each other off until
there's nothing left but rubble and bunkers, huh? It hurts
to watch you, it really does.
That's it for now. With spring coming, I should probably
get out the rake and try to get some of the dead stuff out
of the yard. If I can find the rake, that is, since somebody
still hasn't gotten around to cleaning out the garage yet.