Saturday, 21 January 2017


[This post can be read independently. But if you are interested, the story starts here:]

Since we were heading to Chicago in the evening we decided to carry our weekend luggage with us to the university and head out directly from there after we were done with our day’s academic commitments. We packed simple and light: just changes of clothes, some CDs to put on during the drive and some munchies to snack on on the way. Although our usual backpacks that we used to take books, etc. to the university sufficed for this purpose and the extra weight really wasn’t all that much we still decided on taking the bus till Downtown Lafayette that morning. There was a bus that ran along our street and the stop was just a couple of minutes away from the apartment. It would drop us near the footbridge we used to cross the Wabash and we would walk the rest of the way. As was usual on this route, the bus wasn’t crowded at all. We got seats right away and covered the short trip comfortably.

Although public transport buses and metro trains (whichever cities they ply in) in the USA run on time and are reasonably comfortable, I don’t think the Americans use their public transport enough. There is too much of a reliance on individual vehicles in that country in my opinion and this lifestyle pattern, that has now essentially pervaded pretty much the whole world, has played havoc with our fossil fuel resources, environment and public health owing to its impact on air pollution as well as global warming.

For the longest time I believed that a large scale switch from personal vehicles to public transport was the core change required to try and restore balance in the manner we are utilizing our natural resources and impacting our environment and lives. I still believe that such a shift would be very commonsensical and will go a long way in restoring the balance I have just referred to (yes, it will require us all to bear a bit of inconvenience at our personal levels for the larger good but I am convinced that we have it in us to find the necessary large heartedness within and do this). However, I have also come to believe that there is something more fundamental that has gone wrong.

Just as for all historical accounts one hears I suppose, this one too will require verification; but here’s something I have been told recently: Apparently several decades ago an automobile manufacturing company in the USA actively encouraged the idea of people living far from their places of work as a lifestyle to push the requirement of purchasing cars up in society. Now whether this indeed happened or it turns out that this is a rumour / myth: it is actually a fact that this lifestyle has set in nice and proper across the globe now. For some scenarios such as people working in noise/pollution generating factories or hazardous environments such as mines, chemical plants, etc. it makes sense to live a fair distance away from one's place of work. But for others it seems to me that it makes zero sense if you think about it in some depth.

Here’s elaborating on an aspect of this lifestyle pattern that impacts us at a very immediate level: the hours and hours we spend on our daily commutes add up to a significant magnitude of time that could well have been spent with our loved ones as well as on our own personal growth but are just lost, not to mention the severe dip in the quality of our life, health and time owing to the stress and fatigue all this commute generates. And all of the negative stuff at every level: fuel consumption and consequent expenditure, environmental impact, pollution related health concerns, time wasted, stress and fatigue generated – all of this stuff – could just be avoided if we lived close to our work places. Just one change and we could suddenly be living better lives and not hurting either the environment or our health as much.

Is this doable?

I truly believe it is. It is our society and our world that we are talking about. And we are in control (or at least ought to be). We can very well structure it in a way that improves our collective life experience as well as the quality of life that we bequeath to future generations. It’ll certainly require energy and effort to bring in this shift but if I have seen one thing in today’s youth it is that they are sensitive and committed to environmental concerns and there is certainly no shortage of energy or willingness to put in effort in them once they set their minds on something.

The shift won’t happen overnight of course. But this is a five year plan worth conceiving and implementing in my opinion: Let’s set an aim for ourselves that five years from now we would have set a different lifestyle pattern in place on this planet; one in which people would live close to their workplaces and, say in five more years, there would be schools, colleges and health care centres so well spread out that all the commute time that has today become “unescapable” would get slashed and we would all have more time to ourselves and for our loved ones. There would be some exceptions of course: people working in noise / pollution generating factories, for example, would still be better off living a little distance away. But these exceptions would be minimal if you think about it and long commute times pretty much for everything would no longer be the norm.

I anticipate that such an effort will find resistance from, yes you guessed it right, automobile manufacturers and people in the business of selling automobile fuel. It’s alright, I’m sure they will adjust from being multi-multi-millionaires to just millionaires. They would still have business as even in the new lifestyle pattern I expect that people will own and use automobiles: only that they would now use them to go out with their families in the evenings or on weekend trips instead of killing several hours a day just to get past the bare essentials of life.

Some may ask: Well what about the trickle down impact this would have on workers in automobile manufacturing plants and those working in service centres and repair and maintenance units. My response is: Look, once our fuel and maintenance expenditure is reduced (not to mention that we may not need to own multiple automobiles in a single household), we would perhaps spend the money we save in other directions. Maybe we’ll be able to invest a bit more in our childrens' education and healthcare; maybe we'll be able to spend a bit more in tourism and see different parts of the country and world; maybe we’ll buy more fruits and spend more on health food; maybe we’ll buy better clothes, better jewellery, better furniture, better artefacts to decorate our houses; maybe we'll have money to go to more concerts and theatre performances, buy more music recordings, more books; maybe we’ll have more time and money to go to gyms and sports facilities and perhaps attend Yoga classes; maybe we'll have the time and money to learn martial arts, or maybe a dance form or two, or perhaps to sing and play a musical instrument, and we would need facilities and instructors to pursue these interests. So there’ll likely be a diversification and an increase in business / employment opportunities in other sectors. And this shift is not going to happen overnight. There is going to be time to readjust, for people to seek opportunities and grow in other directions, for the demand for other activities and products to increase thereby creating a need for increased supply and the consequent growth in opportunities for economic growth. Add to this potential shift that I'm pointing out in the demand-supply scenario a commitment from the government to (a) assure quality education and healthcare to those below a certain economic status and provide small recoverable seed grants with some sound advice to the really poor to enable them to start their own small scale businesses and (b) sustain and nurture endeavours that are known to be meaningful (eg: classical music, historical studies, archaeology, languages, fine arts, theatre, knowledge systems such as Yoga, etc.) but may not always be energetic in the popular imagination.

And that, to me, would be a "developed" society in the true sense of the term "development", wherein a whole spectrum of activities, interests and pursuits thrive, there is economic assurance for a whole range of professions, endeavours and crafts, and the human potential expresses itself in a multitude of ways, each adding colour and beauty to society and the experience of life itself. Who in the name of all that is good and wonderful fed us the present day interpretation of what it means to be developed, and how in the name of all the good sense there ever has been did we swallow it down without raising our hand to pose a question or two? Yes we need core manufacturing / industrial enterprises to become and stay self reliant in sectors such as energy and defence but why would we conceive of a society in which economic sustenance is linked to such a narrow field of activities and professions?

So I repeat: I think it is possible to bring in this lifestyle shift and it would be well worth setting about doing so with a serious intent to make it happen within the next five to ten years. And if we can do it, and I truly believe we can, I assure you we would have made a fundamental shift towards living more meaningful and healthy lives with lower level of personal stress and fatigue. And we would be living this better life in a far cleaner environment on a far healthier planet.

And in the interim period, can we please increase our use of public transport and reduce our usage of personal vehicles as much as possible. Please please __/\__ thank you kindly :).

We passed Vienna café on our way as we walked the distance from the Wabash to the university. Although I didn’t have time to hang out there that day, I did drop in to pick up a cup of their classic black coffee. Hussain, the owner, was around and so was Umud, poring over the day’s newspaper as he worked on his cup of coffee. I said hello and chatted with them for a couple of minutes. As Prosh, Lan and myself got ready to move on towards the university, Umud decided to join us as he had to be at his department in a bit too.

The four of us ambled along together as we talked about our plans for the weekend. Umud remembered that we were headed to Chicago that evening. He also, of course, remembered his “Local Area Network” wisecrack and remarked with a wink just before heading off to the Math department: “So Brij, do remember to log out over the weekend – lest you get pinged right in the middle of a good guitar solo.”. I grinned back, waved him goodbye and told Lan: "Wait till I tell you what that was about!"

On that note we all headed to our departments and set about taking care of the tasks that lay ahead of us. The plan was to hit the road at around 5 in the evening so that we would be at Ptom and Sonali's place before 8 and in time for dinner. And there was much that had to be done before then so that we could all enjoy the weekend with an easy mind.

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