Common Sense
Liam Moriarty
May, 2008

Recently, on a bike-related listserv which I've inhabited for some years, we were discussing the current skyrocketing fuel prices and what--if any--moral imperative they placed upon consumers. A fellow lister noted that things that seem "common sense" to him are totally uncommon in society at large.

He wrote, "It seems obvious that synthetic fertilizers are bad--they disrupt the fertility cycle, they are manufactured from finite resources, they pollute the ground and water and food--but this is apparently not common sense. What sense should be more common than the realization that a more efficient car that still runs on a finite and increasingly expensive resource is not a solution? Or that polluting your air and consuming all the world's resources (iron, oil, etc.) is not an acceptable tradeoff for fast transport?"

His trenchant observation reminded me of a moment of clarity I experienced some years ago....

I was stuck in rush-hour traffic in Interstate 5 in Seattle. It was a blistering summer day, hot and so bright it almost hurt your eyes. I was sweating in six lanes of stop and go traffic (mostly stop), and suddenly I had an external viewpoint on this most mundane of American experiences....

Here I was, sitting in several thousand dollars worth of industrial machinery that had been extracted, manufactured, transported, and purchased at great expense--monetary and environmental--every step along the way. I was sitting in this machine, burning fossil hydrocarbons that had also been extracted, transported, processed, and purchased at great expense--monetary and environmental--every step of the way. I was on this federal highway system, the materials for which had likewise been extracted, transported, constructed, and purchased at great expense--monetary and environmental--every step of the way.

And I was going nowhere. The only thing I was accomplishing was polluting the air and losing my patience.

Worse, I was surrounded by tens of thousands of others who were in similar machinery, burning the same expensive, irreplaceable fossil hydrocarbons, polluting the same air, and also going nowhere.

And I thought, if some alien intelligence were to look in on this spectacle, which for us is normal daily life, they would consider us mad.

You'd be hard put to design a system more wasteful of money, natural resources, time and human mental well-being. To add insult to injury, it often even fails to deliver its basic stated purpose: convenient transportation of goods and people from one place to another.

Yet, this scene--played out every day in cities across the nation--is totally normal, "common sense." This is "reality."

And those of us who see the insanity of this way of doing things--we who ride our bikes to work, who don't own cars, who walk to the grocery store to do our shopping, etc.--are perceived as oddballs, or as quaint eccentrics, or maybe as pathetically deluded fanatics. In certain more progressive quarters of the nation, we may even be seen as well-intentioned idealists, people doing the kind of things "normal" people wished they could do but "can't," for a variety of perfectly plausible reasons.

What we're not seen as is realists, pragmatically doing what is most sensible, most sane.

I dunno, but sometimes I think the only reason we as a species are still alive is that you can't directly die of cognitive dissonance....

Liam Moriarty
Photo by Richard Risemberg