On the means of propulsion

As a man of the 13th century, I may not think it goes nearly far enough, but the present vogue for electric cars at least takes us back more than one hundred years. I am gung-ho: not necessarily for the cars, because the world has more than one thousand million too many, and they were only ever appropriate for remote and rural districts; or as limousines to relieve excessively wealthy persons of the burden of their money. Rather, I’m enamoured of electrical propulsion.

Though littered with unnecessary, high-tech gizmos, our private cars are actually rather shoddy. They cost too little, and do not endure. The “urbane” replace them with the latest (obnoxious) models every year or two, whereas any vehicle should be designed to last, for a quarter-century as an absolute minimum, and normally half-a-century or more. They should of course be functional off-road, like tractors and other farm equipment, allowing us to retire many million miles of (tediously) paved highways. (A street worth having will be attractively cobbled.)

Ideally, we might return to horses, and bullocks, but I am a practical man, and not opposed to mechanical contrivances, so long as they have a reasonable purpose, and can be made environmentally discreet. I make the classical distinction between town and country, urban and rural, but would have neither territory crisscrossed with multi-lane speedways, or pocked with sprawling parking lots. The roadsters that use these are themselves dirty, noisy things, as I have observed before, and let me add that they are very dangerous to children and animals.

How, then, should we deal with the problem of moving large numbers of people about (to say nothing of their baggage)?

We had this problem licked more than a century ago, when the overwhelming majority never went anywhere except on foot, and those with a need to travel grand distances could take the railway — which, incidentally, had baggage cars. Taking this Province for my example, and my wanderings through it for my research, I am constantly impressed to discover evidence of how well it was served by the railroads, back when it had a fraction of its present population, and incomes were much lower. One could get from almost any little place to almost any other along them.

The obliteration of our railroads did not happen by chance. Starting with Roosevelt, on this side of the Atlantic, and Hitler, on the other side, a grand concerted effort was made to promote the automotive and paving industries, and build autobahns, specifically at the expense of rail. Cars had already become too numerous by the 1920s, but the idea of what Trump and I might call “biglification” — the totalitarian impulse — was to choke the planet with “people’s” cars, trucks, and buses. It became the one big economic pseudo vision, as the Depression wore on. What had been fairly useful vehicles — very local extensions from the train stations — became the most awkward and wasteful mass-transport system imaginable. The intention of the captains and politicians of industry was, from the beginning, to compel everyone to buy and drive these voracious machines, and become permanently indebted thereby.

I doubt not the whole scheme was inspired by the Devil, though as usual, however obvious, this cannot be proved. It was part of his continuing project to reduce humanity to an interchangeable mass of human cyphers, who would readily exchange their freedom for the occasional dubious luxury or treat — to invent the “mass man,” the “man without qualities” who can be governed by statistical methods, and is always ripe for social engineering.

It is time to do this global megaproject in reverse.

As Ivan Illich argued, the average speed of private cars, once the total distance they cover is divided by the work hours spent in the range of (degenerative) activities to produce and drive them (from iron mining and oil drilling forward), is three miles per hour. This is about the same as walking. Horses, at twelve miles per hour — much faster at a gallop — were always more efficient, and sailing vessels, too, but the modern, mass man does not understand efficiency. He works from assumptions that are invariably false, owing to his intoxication with money.

He will, for instance, think that a 2$ loaf at the superstore is cheaper that the 6$ loaf I just bought in a farmer’s market. (It was a potato salt bread.) But the latter is nine times more delicious and nutritious. Gentle reader may check my sums: the 6$ loaf is thus three times the better bargain, and keeps a superbly independent baker in business. (And if you can’t afford it, just eat less.)

So it goes with transport. A journey that may cost as much as three times more, per mile, may be in truth a much better journey. The slower it goes, the more we can appreciate a magnificent countryside, and be humanized by contact with our fellow man.

Intelligent signalling devices could allow a great variety of railway stock — from single-car trolleys to long freight trains — to share narrow bands of track, carrying our busiest traffic along the tranquil line. And all we need is general agreement on etiquette and the track gauge.

A branching, mycelial, thread-like hyphae, spreading organically through the human arbour; meandering through the fields, bridging the rivers, tunnelling under obstacles and crowded city streets. Short, pleasant walks at either end. Carts and (electric) buggies to provide doorstep-to-doorstep for the halt and feeble. The odd electrical hay wagon.

No need to sacrifice even the automotive factories, which are anyway already being converted to the manufacture of private electric vehicles, in unconscionable volume. Divert the production to rolling stock, instead.

Everyone will be happier. Trust me on this.


A reader asks if I’m aware that railway trains make a terrible clatter, to which I reply, that there are ways to make them much quieter, which I am prepared to divulge for a modest fee. (My suggestion of electric is gratis.) Note, too, that the clatter is only heard while the train is passing; that children and poets turn excitedly to watch it pass; whereas a busy car highway is no fun to watch, and emits a numbing, unending, and unmerciful, audio drone.