Of “Clean Green Cars,” Bicycles, Social Capital

Right now, lots of eco-minded folk are talking excitedly about a “Green New Deal,” where suddenly everyone is employed at clean green jobs and driving clean green cars. I’m all about shifting our economy and society to green, of course. And if the government actually manages to help us do that, I’ll be delighted and will support it to the fullest extent I am able.

Except. There are no pure magic “clean green cars.” Depending on your circumstances, the greenest option could be to drive (as infrequently as possible) the car you already have, til it wears out. And then buy a used one. Or better yet don’t replace it. Go car-free.

In my previous post “Rolling Again,” I talk about my lovely new (used) bicycle. I even share a link to a photo of the bicycle on my Deep Green Facebook page. And I talk about how my period of doing without a bicycle, getting around on foot only, turned into an experiment of sorts.

One thing remains the same: Bicycling and walking remain my absolute favorite forms of in-town transport. (For long distances, it’s bus and train.)

Electric cars and hybrid cars are probably being improved all the time (I don’t actively keep up with the details of new “green” technology developments, so I will need to dig up a resource for you if you’re interested in finding out). But they’re still cars. They keep us stuck in the same patterns of thinking it’s OK to live a car-dependent distance from our work, kids’ school, essential shopping, family.

It is not OK. Not if you’re the kind of person who cares about the environment enough to have found my blog and to have read this far. We want to stop paving the earth and killing wildlife. We want to stop the massive clearcutting of trees and stop replacing them with endless seas of parking lot and generic big-box store, turning our lovely unique bioregions into Anywhere USA.

If we stay stuck in car-dependent life, we can’t do that. Nor can we fix the many serious health problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle. Nor the deadly social problems associated with same.

In my book, I bring up the term “social capital.” I mentioned it in reference to choosing a bicycle over traveling behind car windows. Social capital is what you create when you meet people, interact with them, offer something of value. It’s a non-monetary form of wealth that we all build to a degree. It’s easier to build, the more out & about you are. It’s harder from behind a car window (especially since most car windows seem to be very darkly tinted and you can’t see who’s inside even if you stand next to them at a stop sign and squint and peer into their vehicle — which I don’t recommend!).

Not that building social capital from inside your car is impossible. Often friends/neighbors stop in front of my place (or stop next to me when they see me out walking), roll down their windows and shout hello, and often some further exchange takes place, like I tell them about the upcoming neighborhood meeting, or I offer them flower seeds or a lemon off my tree, or they tell me they have an apartment for rent and can I keep my ears open for a good person, and so on.

The value created through these exchanges is social capital. You build this form of wealth by giving. Note, it’s not something you do in a calculated manner. Like, “I’m going to offer something so this person will owe me.” That isn’t healthy; I know — I’ve done it that way too! Rather, this giving something you do out of a genuine wish to help and connect. And it feels wonderful. And it builds your social capital! It’s like a social savings account. Which, it turns out, is oftentimes a much more durable and flexible form of wealth than cash money.

While it’s possible to do this from inside your car, it’s not always safe or convenient to stop your car in the middle of the road. And it’s a lot easier to do on foot or by bicycle. And on foot or bicycle, the opportunities greatly multiply, since you end up using more varied routes and meeting/seeing more people on the way from point A to point B.

Another note about car ownership for my fellow greenies: The expense of owning a car requires you to work more hours to pay for it. If it’s a new car, you’ll probably have car payments and higher-priced insurance. If it’s an old car, you’ll have the expense of repairs (which is, furthermore, unpredictable — and that unpredictability leads to additional expenses such as taxis, needing to take time off work, etc.) That car-related work overhead, in itself, has a footprint in many forms.

For example, working more hours means you’re more likely to have a rushed lifestyle and feel the need to rely on packaged convenience foods, which have a higher footprint than, say, produce from the farmer’s market.

It also means you’re likely to be gone from home more of the time, which means you’re less likely to meet your neighbors and build that all-essential social capital.

If doing without a car just isn’t feasible for you right now, you could try just having one car for your whole household. With more people staying home these days, it might be do-able for you now where it wasn’t before.

A note about my car usage: Although I do not own a car, and hope never to need to again, I do on occasion (a handful of times a year) find it necessary or at least very helpful to have access to a motor vehicle. Needing to get to or from a mandatory meeting in hazardous weather is a prime example (though the age of Zoom meetings has largely relieved that burden for now). For such times, I take Uber/taxi, or pay a friend/neighbor to be my taxi. Or catch a ride with another attendee if they are on the way.

I also sometimes rent cars, though those times are few and far between, and it’s been a while. I rented a car to drive north for time-sensitive family business one time a couple years back. And I rented a small box truck to transport furniture, books, memorabilia, and other useful and wonderful items I chose from Mom’s house after she died, to my home here in Florida. (What a blessing to my home! I live in a space that’s uniquely mine, yet sprinkled with family memories.)

On the subject of social capital, there’s a lot more I can say, and I will. For now, I’ll just wish you a fruitful day of loving connection with the people in your world.