Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Snapshots of California II

If you squint hard and hope for better things, it is easy to imagine that the Bay Area's persistent haze is a peculiar manifestation of the city's famous fog. Particulate matter forms a dullish grey veneer over the Bay, altering the light so that everything seems simultaneously hyperreal and distant, like a scene from a film. The unique geography of the hills and water create an inversion layer, which, in layman's terms, means that the crap you breathed in yesterday is the same crap you will breathe in today. The nine million people who live and work in the Bay - apparently exclusively in their cars - don't help things. Respite comes only in mid to late fall when conditions change and the inversion layer goes on vacation for a month or two. Better suck in deep and hold your breath, because it doesn't last.

Environmental degradation and pollution is constant and pernicious in American cities. Whereas Australia is saved by our inability to sustain dense populations in our inland regions, the US suffers from the good fortune of having sufficient water and arable land to populate the center. Were it not so, the fumes and funk of the cities might have a chance to dissipate.

Still, it isn't as if the Americans aren't pushing the process along with their lifestyle choices. The reputed left-wing, enviro-friendly views of Bay Area locals appear to be a myth the moment you step out of the airport. That is until you realise that, unlike in LA or Chicago, the ubiquitous Sports Utility Vehicles are plastered with brightly colored stickers warning of civilization's downfall if global warming goes unheeded. Is that Nero I hear playing fiddle in the background?

Automobiles seem now to be a symbol of social and cultural status in almost every society on earth. Nowhere is this more true than in the good ol' US of A. As with most things in America, bigger is is better when it comes to cars (exceptions to this rule - cell phones, PDAs, cheerleaders, absolutely nothing else). Driving a car that doesn't require the wholesale excavation of a middle eastern country every time you fill up is a definite sign that you are athletically incompetent, socially awkward and impotent. And it is even worse if you are male. As with most culturally compelled irrational behaviours, there are a couple of coherent sounding justifications that get trotted out when you bring up the monstrous size of the average vehicle over here. First up, they are definitely and unquestionably safer. I looked into this. It's true. In multi-car collisions. For the driver of the larger vehicle and definitely not the other guy or gal you hit. So the justification for driving a big car is essentially that US drivers are involved in a selfish arms race to survive. Noone mentions that the probability of being involved in an accident in the first place increases with these larger vehicles. Despite all this, the social meaning of driving a car smaller than an Abrams tank seems to be "I don't care about myself, my family or any other passengers I might have. I want to injure myself. I am a kind of crazed suicidal, homicidal maniac." It's any wonder that Ford Fiesta drivers aren't given a bunch more space on the road.

The other justification that gets brought up is the occasional off-road foray. Let's put to one side that these forays seem to be largely fictional. What really beggars belief is that people think that reasonable size hatchbacks, when confronted with unpaved road or exposed to minute quantities of dust, immediately begin disintegrating before spinning out of control into a ditch/tree/expectant mother and bursting into flames, consigning the occupants to premature cremation. Having driven US cars, I would posit that this is a real risk, but not one that is averted by buying an SUV, whether or not its poorly designed drivetrain is 4X4 or it includes seventeen feet of clearance from the chassis to the ground.

Here is a thought: The US has been struggling to supply appropriate armoured personnel carriers to its troops in Iraq. Why not buy up the domestic stock of ridiculously big and over-engineered cars? (This would restrict them to mainly Japanese models, but whatever). Now, bolt steel plates onto the exterior panels, put bench seats in the back and voila. Instant troop carrier and much tougher than what they have now. Even better, keep the tinted windows - the Iraqi's will be reticent to shoot at a car that might contain their favourite rap singer. Why doesn't hatred of America ever seem to extend to P Diddy?

Meanwhile, patriotic citizens who have done the right and noble thing, selling their oversized lard wagons to the men in uniform can spend the windfall they receive on bikes and offsetting their carbon emissions for the past quarter century.


Blogger timboy said...

Loving the 'Letters from America'

Did you ever listen to Alistair Cook.

Always interesting. I can't quite believe he's dead- I used to listen to his letters every Sunday night for five or six years.

I still remember his final letter.

When you get back I'll lend you a book containing a collection of essays from his programs.

4:23 PM  
Blogger C-MAC said...

Thanks dude. I've heard of Alistair Cook but never listened to him. Looking forward to seeing that book.

7:10 PM  
Blogger larson_b said...

yep. am also enjoying your correspondence. is your premise for visiting business or pleasure?

4:02 AM  

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