Muscle Power As Fuel For Our Creative Juices
We are surrounded by machines, but it is still only through the earnest efforts of homo sapiens that anything ever actually gets done here. Our fuel, the most important source of power on this planet, (forget fracking), is measured in calories, a beneficial by-product of our neighboring star's long-burning fires. These handy green shoots live in the earth, until their synchronized internal clocks order them all to break out into the air and begin their transformation into Cheerios and cheeseburgers. Not that long ago, most of us spent most of our time tending to this element of our lives. In more recent years, the whole system has appeared to be on automatic pilot, seamlessly delivering the fruits and vegetables, grains and spices that we crave and need. Our re-created Eden often feels just right and few question the inevitability of all this or our qualifications to enjoy its benefits.
In the 1950s, with the rest of the world struggling to re-build and lots of wartime technology to translate into consumer goods, this made sense. In the 21st Century, with the fortunes of the most fortunate and everybody else seemingly heading into different dimensions, the social fabric is stretching to the breaking point and only the most oblivious deny that we are in a heap of trouble. Good jobs are as scarce as hen's teeth and four-leaf clovers. Nobody wants to leave their current positions, no matter how tired they are of doing it, lest the economy suffer another sharp blow and their protein is called cat food. This dismal situation leaves fewer and fewer good opportunities, so recent college grads are moving in with their parents in record numbers, postponing starting families and wondering if anything will ever change. When you add the accelerating effects of automation and the out-sourcing of nearly everything, the clouds that have been gathering, threaten even darker days ahead.
Owing to a growing sense of uncertainty, we have begun to focus more on our futures. Where does it leave us, if we are fashioning machines to run our machines for us, when the next generation of robots, automated cars etc. appears to move us one full step further from the processes that are responsible for the manufacture of all of these products? Since this meant smokestacks and mines for a century, we heaved a great sigh of relief when more and more of this got off-shored, grateful for the freedom from the conspicuous burdens that accompany this dirty activity. Much later on, it sunk in fully, that there were no ready replacements for all of those missing jobs and whole regions of the country took a drastic nose-dive, while the rust-belt finished rusting. Compared to the noise and dirty dust of the Industrial Revolution, clean service industries like hair-dressing, retailing and food-serving, often paid less but, in some important ways, beat the pants off of dank factories, nasty chemicals and the endless repetition of the assembly line. We thought we were moving ahead.
If you are at a broken stop-light though, how does high tech save you? If you are Detroit and you can't keep your streetlights on, how long will it be before the water stops flowing? We take everything for granted and we are not prepared for the next phase, whatever it may be. Tending the same burger grill or passing paper bags filled with low-nutrition, highly-processed treats, loaded with sugar and salt and an amazing number of chemicals that you have never even heard of, is also deadening, and it doesn't take long to realize it. Since you must attempt to project a pleasant demeanor, no matter how you actually feel, there are special demands from this kind of work that even exceed those extracted previously. Monastery-like prohibitions on certain kinds of speech is ordinary, the recitation of insipid conversation, “Have a nice day” etc. is widespread. The loss of individuality and personality beneath a blaze of motivational messages and unending uniformity is the result of this model. A consumer is a puzzle to be solved or a piece to be moved. We are mysteries only to ourselves. Our habits and responses are carefully monitored and processed by a “Feedback Machine” that reinforces an artificial sense of belonging but robs us of our essence, our personhood.
I think the only remedy for this is a great burst of creativity. It is also important that this energy emanate from everywhere not just current centers of activity. When the tools, materials and skills needed are widespread, so should the ideas and projects be disbursed as widely as possible. Since the issue being addressed here is transportation, the moving of persons and their goods, it is a universal need and a vital factor in the economies and social lives of all those living on this rock. Our growing reliance upon fossil fuels to enable us to get around and grow our crops can not continue. It will either bankrupt us or turn us against one another in the struggle to maintain our lifestyles and the identities that they give us. Droughts and storms are disrupting the supplies of essential foodstuffs and Beijing and Shanghai live in places so polluted that people wear masks every day just to stay alive. The climate-change denial goes on, like the burning eyes and the runny nose, without pause.
If you own a factory, you probably don't want to hear about “Paradigm Shifts”. If your products become obsolete, you are in trouble. You may even want to slow down the process of change altogether, since this is one way to prevent your fade into history. On the other hand, if you are a person looking to have a future, you are paying attention to the shifts in demand and fashion that are going to shape that future and to determine your role in it. This difference in agendas is inevitable, given the difference between institutions and individuals, the pull of the past and the needs of the future. It is more common for individuals to be carried along on the waves generated by institutions than for those organizations to yield to the needs or desires of mere people. There is a way to modify this relationship, to give more leverage to the individual and the key is scale and creativity. Working on the human scale, on lightweight muscle-powered vehicles for instance, does not require any institutional help. A hacksaw, a discarded bike and some epoxy or solder and you are in business.
Our hands and our imaginations are the portals to our alternate universes. The other essential ingredient is the appreciation, and help, that others can provide to a project. Cooperation is easy when you are an infant, impossible when you are a restless child and the path to progress when you finally grow up. It is most often brought forward when it is part of a sports program or other activity that is directed from above and requires you to relinquish your will in order to be provided with a role, one which was mostly pre-defined for you. Working from the bottom up without direction from above is uncommon, but that is where the action really lives. Expertise and experience is valuable of course, but initiative is the first ingredient, along with imagination, and nothing follows without it.
There are three distinct types of small, slow, human-scale and muscle/electric-powered vehicles which need to be re-conceptualized and re-designed. Bikes, work-trikes and wheelchairs are each deserving of their own study, but share more features than not. In addition, there are so many conditions, from weather to terrain, which are completely different from one place to another, that there is much variety that is absolutely necessary. Other differences, from access to financing options, to earning potential, can also have a major influence on developments. Conditions found in highly urbanized spaces, in developed countries, and those in places with poor roads and poor opportunities to re-charge batteries, demand different solutions. The aesthetic element, not as important as the economic, in locales where access to resources is severely limited, may nevertheless be the key to accelerating the needed conversion, from industrial scale to human scale transportation. When the public realizes how much color and graceful movement can add to their surroundings, they will insist that this process be nurtured in every way possible.
It is not just here in the dense urban spaces of the Northeast of the USA that this condition, the pollution, traffic delays, threats of harm, and all the rest occur. This is an important matter everywhere. Now that Amazon has announced that they want to provide same-day delivery for groceries, along with everything else, the number of cargo bikes needed is going to multiply quickly. The range of vehicles available to fulfill this mission is small. The ongoing effort to encourage creative design in muscle-powered vehicles, www.SharingUmbrellas.org is one venue through which designers and makers can expose and share their ideas. We are also using pedicabs that were designed in the 19th century to be used by disposable drivers, who are not even afforded a little protection from the rain. Using small electric-assist motors, this form of transportation can vault into the 21st Century and provide a healthy green form of mobility, much better than the current version of it does. Again, it is creative design that is the key to a more humane, efficient and colorful edition of this modality.
There are no prizes yet to mobilize this program and nobody denies the benefit of having plenty of resources to fuel activity such as this. It is also important though, to demonstrate that it is the energy provided by individuals, their muscle-power and brain-power, which enables us to take on and resolve the dilemmas that life puts before us. If we want to have our institutions serve us, instead of the other way around, we have to assert our priorities and act on them, not wait for someone else to do it. How many great designs for vehicles, the bike and trike in all of its infinite configurations, wheelchairs and new machines to help the transportation-disadvantaged, are already out there and ready to be evaluated and put into use? How many could there be, if we begin to give this development the attention and importance that it deserves?
The GM Futurama at the 1939 World's Fair, on the eve of a World War already swallowing up countries and populations, promised a perfect environment. It is not fair to criticize them for being so good at selling their vision, to a public tired of Depression and Prohibition and ready for a consumer-driven society and economy. One consequence of their eventual success though is a roadway system that fills almost all of our spaces. Some of them surround the original site of the Fair itself now, like the infamous Long Island Expressway, referred to as “The longest parking lot in the world”. The peninsula that they lead to now houses millions.
There are possible remedies. Could our highway emergency lanes provide for a continuous flow of slow, (but in many cases faster-moving), small, muscle-powered and electric-assisted devices, protected from the weather and provided with many of the creature comforts that we can no longer do without? The ELF and TWIKE are good beginnings - as is the mobile coffee shop featured above - but we need an infinitude of variations on the theme. This week begins our celebrations of the Fair that Automobilized our world, and www.SharingUmbrellas.org says that we need to apply ourselves, on a very broad basis, to redesigning the pedicabs, bikes, trikes and cargo vehicles (and cars) of the future around the human scale. This task belongs to many. At the same time, we should also be fixing the roads, turning some highways into safe 150 MPH speedways, so that our local streets can be turned back into the gardens and play-spaces that can sustain our lives and bring us together, instead of forcing us apart. Fairs not Fears.
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