Rumination on changing the oil

This morning I took advantage of a break in the weather to change the oil in our car. [05 Corolla, “hairshirt edition”.  I think I’m the only person left without power windows or locks.  Despite all the recent Toyota acrimony, I’m still a fan – great mileage, great reliability, brakes and gas pedal work fine. ]  I confess that I relish the funny looks I get from passersby on the brick sidewalks of Harvard street in Cambridge, who are not  accustomed to seeing guys in coveralls grubbing around under cars in their neighborhood.  But it’s honestly cheaper, faster, and more convenient than driving over to some shop and getting it done.  The whole project takes less than half an hour, costs around $15 ($4 for the filter and $11 or so for the oil), and I can do it whenever I feel like, without making an appointment or wondering whether there will be a line at the Jiffy franchise.  Despite the low clearance, there’s plenty of room to get a socket wrench on the drain plug without jacks or ramps, and the filter is accessible from above.  I buy the oil and filters several at a time when I happen to be passing by an auto parts store, and the used oil goes back to the same place.  All in all an entirely satisfactory solution.

I got to thinking as I was working on the car about how central the availability of effortless travel is to our sense of possibility.  Obviously, from “go West young man” to Rt. 66, the ability to hit the road, visit new places, and maybe make a fresh start there is part of the American mythology.  But even without the frontier mentality, I wonder what sort of subtle changes to the modern psyche will result if it becomes significantly more expensive and less convenient to get around.

One of my earliest memories when I was a kid was of a couple of trips we made as a family, by train from Maine to my dad’s family in LA, where we would spend christmas.  My folks would buy an old but rust-free car for $400 (usually one of those old station wagons the size of a tugboat, wood grain door panels optional), and at the conclusion of our visit we’d drive back east in the dead of winter.  Later on, several times we drove west during summer vacation, to go backpacking in the Rockies or the Cascades.  In college my friends and I continued the tradition, with weekend trips to the White Mountains and summer mountaineering adventures.   I still remember the sense of elation of getting on the road, of days of enforced scenery and contemplation stretching out ahead, of complex responsibilities reduced to simply getting from point A to point B.  And for the last five years, the quality of my life has been profoundly improved by our ability to flit freely about New England at less than thirty dollars a tank, in simultaneous pursuit of education, renewable energy engineering, recreation, family, and agriculture.

Of course, both for sheer conveyance power and for the literal perspective it provides on human affairs, nothing beats air travel.  When I was a kid I’d do everything in my power to get a window seat, and I’d spend the entire flight with my nose pressed to the glass, staring down at the houses and towns and watching as the landscape changed from trees to fields to mountains and desert.    How different a person would I be if I’d never left Georgetown Island; never made it west of the Kennebec river?  Is the experience of having “money in the pocket and gas in the tank” that much different from the feeling that with nothing more than intention and time a person can change jobs, build a house, start a company, or go back  to school in a completely different subject?  Contrast that with the sense of constraint embodied in statements along the lines of “I owe my soul to the company store” or “I’d like to get out of this town and make a fresh start, but seems I can’t get my head above water”.  It’s not hard for me to imagine that in addition to literally expanding our horizons, the experience of moving freely over the countryside translates metaphorically into an expanded sense of possibility.

At the same time, all this freedom of movement has serious environmental costs.  At some point in college I calculated that fully half of my personal energy use was taken up in driving back and forth to New Hampshire to go hiking – a deeply ironic result for somebody who purports to care a lot about the environment.  And air travel is a singularly effective way for individuals to turn their disposable income directly into global warming.  The ice caps are melting, the seas are rising, and the deserts are expanding, in large part because of the ubiquity and low cost of fossil-fuel powered transportation.

Of course, there is a win-win possibility that has some bearing on the situation, and that’s public transport, and especially electrified rail.  Having functional public transport is in my view a basic minimum requirement of any city worth living in, and it’s not just for cities – when I traveled in Japan (a country as long as the eastern seaboard) I was struck by how easy it was to get from place to place on the trains.   Not just the Shinkansen electric bullet trains, but sleepy mountain towns surrounded by mountains and rice fields, served from the main trunk lines by little diesel subway trains that looked for all the world like a misplaced Red Line train trundling through the countryside.  But given the inability of our political system to respond to its various crises with appropriate direction and sufficient magnitude, I don’t have a lot of optimism that we will take the sort of actions that might mitigate the situation.

Absent lower-carbon transport systems, given that so much of the transportation we consume is discretionary, and because the impact is so great, from a moral and ecological standpoint we should decrease the amount of transportation we consume.  And with liquid fuel resource constraints looming, we may not have a choice in the matter.  But I wonder whether losing that freedom of movement will have a more profound cost than we realize.  I don’t consider myself especially well traveled compared to most of my friends, I don’t especially relish travel for its own sake, and I love working on the land – there’s a reasonable chance that I’ll end up a farmer before I’m through.  But when I contemplate in my mind’s eye the prospect of giving up the car, settling down in even the nicest hamlet with the best of friends, and contenting myself with going about my business all within bicycling range, it comes with a profound sense of freedom lost.


One Response to “Rumination on changing the oil”

  1. Minimalism in its place « Five Islands Orchard Says:

    […] was tools – good tools are a key to thrift and functional independence. I have for instance previously argued that even for apartment dwellers with street parking, it can be faster and cheaper to change your […]

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