The Mobility Illusion

Mobiliy, it would seem, is king. I have always loved to ride, drive, fly, and travel. Early on, racing my bicycle around the neighborhood or taking a longer trip through the orange groves in the foothills sufficed. Soon enough I wanted more. Those Boy Scout camping trips in the mountains and deserts of Southern California with long hikes satisfied part of my early wanderlust. Then it was sailing over to Catalina Island on a 30-foot sloop owned by my friend’s father. That hooked me on sailing. Movement itself was part of the allure, which is why I always wanted to fly airplanes. But getting to another place also drew my adventuresome attention.

Going Fast and Far

 I learned to drive a car before I was old enough to get a Learner’s permit—unsupervised no less. After all, I grew up in the great Los Angeles metropolitan area, the seat of the great American car culture. My interest in cars, airplanes, motorcycles and boats seemed a natural part of growing up in what may have been the most dispersed metropolis in the nation. The key difference between those attractions and that of running on the beach, sailing, or biking, was the speed and distance that motorized propulsion allowed.

Bugatti Model 100 Racer

Once fully educated and professionally set, I finally took up flying, which I had wanted to do since I was a kid. Piloting an aircraft is the ultimate freedom of mobility, though it takes a good deal of skill, practice, and discipline to do without fatal consequences. That is especially true of helicopters, dubbed the most unstable machine invented by man. Flying is something I have never been able to achieve boredom in doing. Nor have I ever been bored riding my bike down a hill as fast as I can.

Unnatural Motion

Today, Americans think nothing of a long cross-country road trip or flying across the sea to Europe, Hawaii, or somewhere on the other side of the Earth. We, more than any other modern industrial-consumer population, are fully socialized to expect and engage in frequent and extensive travel. The more we do, the more we expect to do so; we even start perceiving unlimited mobility as a natural right.

We live in a mobility illusion. We moderns have little or no grasp of what life would be like living in one place and rarely traveling further than a day’s walk. In that, we are unique among humans in history. The happiest people on the planet typically do not travel much beyond the next village. A fast pace is a hectic pace, causing stress whether thrilling or not.

Robinson Helicopter

The invention of the wheel did not really make the biggest difference. The development of wagons and chariots allowed much faster travel, but a man on horseback could get just about as far and often faster. The crucial change was the harnessing of combustion-based energy. Once coal-fired steam engines were developed, traveling across oceans took on a whole new meaning, whether for trade or military conquest. Speed and distance traveled in a particular amount of time took on a whole new meaning. The technological race was on, for speed and distance in the ‘transportation sector’ and in the rest of the economy as well.

From Frantic to Tranquil via Chaos

If we look back on the history of mobility, as British sociologist John Urry (2011) has, we can recognize that this modern condition of hyper-mobility is way out there, that is, an outlier in the ‘normal’ range of human ways of living on the planet. For most of our history, humans used either their own energy or that of a horse, oxen, or even dogs to move them about. Despite all the advanced technology, the bicycle remains the most energy-efficient means of transport.

Okay, “so what?” you say; we have better technology now. Well, the difference is that due to the exceptional human capture of energy and its profligate use in transportation and industry, we have driven the entire Earth System into disarray, disorder, and chaos. That will ultimately cause the collapse of industrial civilization, amid the collapse of ecological and climate systems upon which we depend for everything. We have all participated in this great adventure in invention, innovation, production and consumption leveraged by fossil fuels, but it will soon end.

If we do not intervene in our own blind course of self-destruction via profligate energy consumption and waste, our “lifestyle” of constant mobility will come crashing down. If we do take control and massively reduce energy use (not just make its production “renewable”), then we will have to live in very different ways. That will necessarily involve massive reductions in the kinds and extent of our mobility that we have come to expect as natural and right.

Fast Energy-Efficient Human-powered Machine

Put that in your Lamborghini and see how fast and how far you can get. I’m going back to biking on country roads.

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Urry, John. 2011. Climate Change & Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.


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