2009_toyota_prius-pic-3163

Rock Island, IL

Walking through an overfull parking lot at the farmer’s market Saturday (now there’s an alliance that needs breaking: the eat-local movement supported by the drive-separate habit) I see a green Toyota Prius with a license plate that reads “EZ2BGRN.” Before I have a chance to guess what other difficult social stances the driver of this Pious (as I like to call it) has taken, my sight drops to that place where all the uncostly morals of American political life are proudly displayed: the bumper—made for impact (and made of foam).

Ah, yes. Much as I expected. One sticker announces support of the lesser of two evils who did in fact win the general election awhile back. The other, helping itself to symbols from several different and apparently incompatible traditions, bids me “coexist.”

A Unitarian, probably. Breed her with a Jehovah’s Nitwit and you’ll get a kid who knocks on your front door for no apparent reason.

Now (for the sake of full disclosure) I was about as pleased with the result of the general election as a man of my disposition can manage to be, though it should be noted that I didn’t cast my vote for the winner. It should also be noted that, not wanting to be implicated in either version of the proffered lunacy, and steadfast in my indifference to those who are fond of telling me what my “duty” is, I didn’t cast my vote for the loser either. That is, I abstained.

And it should also be noted that I’m all for coexistence. I prefer peace to the bellicosity that for the last century has passed for patriotism. I know and like and work (and live) beside people whose beliefs differ from my own. We sometimes end up at picnics together. We eat one another’s food, though I notice pork chops are often unwelcome. But that’s okay. I like alive pigs as well as dead ones.

And now, on a beautiful Saturday morning, possessed of several plump heirloom tomatoes, a luxuriant tuft of sweet basil, and a dozen ear of sweet corn, I should, as I leave the market, be cutting the fool like King David before the ark. I should be singing the nunc dimittis joyfully.

But alas for my weak, weak soul and my wicked unpardonable pleasure in judging others! The smug Prius—the GRN one in particular—has pissed me off again.

But let that be for the moment. Let us imagine an alien visitation four hundred years hence. Let us imagine these pale hairless three-eyed telepathic creatures looking about as they disembark the mother ship and notice heaps of rusting metal all tricked out with odd hieroglyphs affixed to the same proximate feature—I mean the bumper—of these rusting heaps.

What must these aliens think? Perhaps in their intergalactic travels they have probed hundreds of dead civilizations. Perhaps they have discovered and deciphered intricate alphabets and grammars well-preserved in repositories of what appear to be shrines of high learning. But here, on Earth, what they find is that the height and depth of moral expression among Earthlings is the short cliché reduced to the space afforded by a sticker affixed to a bumper—made for impact and made of foam—on heaps of rusting metal.

I don’t Believe the Liberal Media.

Jesus was a Liberal Jew.

I’m Catholic and I Vote.

I’m Atheist and I Vote.

Support the Arts.

Darwin Loves You.

Eternity. Smoking or Non-Smoking?

Insured by Smith & Wesson.

If you Love Freedom, Thank a Veteran.

If you Can Read This, Thank a Teacher.

Repeal Obamacare.

Friends Don’t Let Friends Vote Republican.

Drill, Baby, Drill.

No War For Oil.

Such learned teachings! What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed!

Where else but on a car’s bumper can a man declare his most cherished beliefs–where else but on the hind-end of his most cherished possession, where precise moral thought can be compressed and made articulate without diminution?

Which is to say that one problem with morality in our day—aside from its conspicuous absence—is that it is apparently reducible to slogans, which means it is no morality at all. All of it is as easy as being outraged at some slightly well-known person’s use of a racial slur.

From the Left: “Can you believe so-and-so opposes a woman’s right to choose? I’m like, what?”

And from the Right: “Did you know so-and-so believes in evolution? I’m all, you’re kidding me!”

That kind of claptrap, it seems to me, works in and conduces well to a world where it’s also EZ2BGRN. It’s easy, in the first place, because “green” is a word that, like “environment,” hardly signifies. “Green” is no better or more nuanced than the equally unsubtle blue and red into which the know-nothing pundits divide the country. “Green” means you like trees and rocks and water, even though rocks and water aren’t green, and trees are mostly grey (and all grey a good part of the year)

Which means that if you say you’re “green,” what you mean is that you’re in the habit of rendering simple what is complex. You’re saying that all the complexities of living peaceably and harmoniously with the ultimately unknowable mysteries of nature’s ways can be reduced to a color, which is to say that such living can be painted over and given that patina of peace and harmony amid warfare and discord.

It’s easy to be green if being green means you get to keep driving so long as you’re driving a Prius. It’s easy if it means making only slight technological adjustments to an otherwise unimpeachable way of life.

I look at this license plate and I begin to worry, once again, that environmentalists are, in the main, well-meaning people who are unable to abide the thought that our standard of living must change. We seem to think we need only tweak it, which is why for so many of us it’s EZ2BGRN.

I’m for better fuel efficiency. I’m for using less oil, though it does seem to me that doing so will only drive down the price of fuel, increase its consumption, and demonstrate yet again how inadequate to the moral life an unfettered free market is.

And this, I think, is one reason that it’s important to insist there’s no morality that’s easy. There’s no easy way to tread the narrow path. The standards of efficiency that many of us may favor, being as they are matters of law, cannot make a man righteous. And they can’t solve the problems brought on by a relation to energy that is essentially immoral.

Immoral how? Long ago Wendell Berry said, “we would use a steam shovel to pick up a dime.” Let us think of that ponderable sentence—a sentence reminding us of the body’s complex moral condition—the next time we would ask an explosion of ancient sunlight to do the work of the body. What displaces the work of the body sets the body at a discount. It also (therefore) puts us in danger of practicing an ancient heresy.

The license plate troubles me long after I’ve taken my leave of the farmer’s market, a place so like vanity fair sometimes. Does the monetary exchange I engaged in there put me in danger of practicing an ancient heresy? Perhaps it does. Good and evil are never at a moment’s truce, said Emerson. Our whole life is startlingly moral, said Thoreau. Virtue climbs the hill, according to the proverb, but vice, preferring the easy way, runs down it.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bryan August 7, 2013 at 2:45 am

As a veteran who well understands that, yes, young American men and women are sent to die for the sake of inexpensive US gasoline prices, I say: burn all the oil, and the sooner the better. Pump it out, refine it, bottle it up, and use it–every drop, right now, as soon as possible. Then let’s see who thrives in the new, utterly carbon-free Green Utopia. You want more greenery? Plants like carbon dioxide, right? So let’s lay it on ‘em, fast and furious, thick and treacly. More greenhouse gas. More burnt oil.

All bluster and resentment aside, I honestly don’t understand. What do these people–the energy efficiency devotees, the Prius drivers–think is going to happen to the fossil fuels which are supposedly saved? Do they think that all the world’s nations, industries and militaries are just going to leave some oil in the ground, maybe put up a fence around the world’s last remaining oil fields so people can tour them like historical preserves? “There it is, folks, the last 5 million barrels of oil, safely underground. And there it’s going to stay. Now hop on your Segways and ride home safely. We’ve saved the planet.”

That oil is getting used one way or another. If I don’t put it in my big, loud, obnoxious pick-up truck then it will just eventually be used to fuel a bigger, louder and violently obnoxious military tank or jet (and very possibly not an American one.) Either way, it’s going to get burned.

The only thing I can see being accomplished with the American “Progressive” liturgy of government-imposed carbon asceticism is a general domestic populace (here on a broad swatch of one single continent) of deluded grazers walking around in a human reindeer pen; a flock of carless, jobless, iPhone-glued zombies being kept and herded about by military ranch-hands who will never, ever have any compunctions about burning oil, and plenty of it, for the sake of National Security, i.e. having fun playing with their planes, trains and automobiles of war, while back here in reality American public sporting events are terrorized by teenage immigrants with pressure cookers.

I’ll conclude my bitter screed on a lighter note, with a crude anecdote, but hopefully not so bad as to get me censored. During the 2004 election season there was a ballot measure having to do with so-called gay marriage. I don’t recall the specifics because at that time I was busy living a life. But there were ubiquitous bumper stickers around Portland with the slogan “One Man, One Woman: YES on 36.” They were everywhere and I never really gave the stickers much thought.

But once in that same year–and just once, the only time I ever saw it–I was driving up a main boulevard in the city and a sweet cherry-red El Camino came roaring up from behind in the other lane. As it passed, I saw that it was fully-restored and in pristine condition, beautiful paint job, but it had a bumper sticker, which is rather unusual for a restored muscle car. Smack dab in the middle of its chrome bumper was the phrase: “One Man, One Woman: YES on 69″

To this day I still laugh when I think of that.

avatar David Smith August 7, 2013 at 7:08 am

“A Unitarian, probably. Breed her with a Jehovah’s Nitwit and you’ll get a kid who knocks on your front door for no apparent reason.”

Priceless!

avatar Mark C August 8, 2013 at 12:59 am

“I’m for using less oil, though it does seem to me that doing so will only drive down the price of fuel, increase its consumption, and demonstrate yet again how inadequate to the moral life an unfettered free market is.”

The fossil fuel industry is about as far removed from a unfettered free market as one could imagine. And even if it were, the reserves of “cheap” oil are just about gone.

avatar James Matthew Wilson August 9, 2013 at 9:31 am

This may be Mr. Peters’ best essay to date, outclassed only by Bryan’s superb comment.

avatar RiverC August 12, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Don’t worry guys, we’re not running out of fossil fuels, ever. Once they figure out how to harvest methane ice cheaply, we’ll probably move to using a lot more natural gas than oil, but it still doesn’t deal with the Problem of Sloth.

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