April 10, 2012


I was driving this morning -- a green, spring morning in rural Ohio. There was a flash of movement in front of my left tire. No sound. No bump. But in my rearview mirror -- a small, dark object was flopping desperately left of the centerline. In a spasm, it jumped straight up. Again, sideways -- then into the weeds beside the ditch. A living thing in its last moments. A squirrel or a bird.

For a horrible second the mind considers: There was nothing I could have done. Should I stop? Should I put it out of its suffering? Is there room to pull over? No, there are ditches on both sides. It will die soon anyway... probably. Soon I am at the corner. I pause to check the traffic, and without any further deliberation I drive on. I have feelings, but they change nothing.

A story comes to mind. A friend once told me about a copy of Life Magazine he’d seen from sometime in the 1940’s. In it, he had said, there was a picture essay about a couple of farm boys beating a litter of fox kits to death with clubs. They were all smiles and blood, my friend said. This is, of course, a horrible cruelty in which I would never engage, and my friend was entirely convinced that we were better than that now as a society. He’s wrong, I think. Foxes do eat chickens – so regardless of the farm boys’ latent sadism one could not say their butchery was utterly without excuse. On the other hand, the animal I struck with my car this morning suffered just as much, if not more, than those foxes – for no one’s benefit at all. It was merely an accidental casualty of a culture that has made most Americans high speed heavy equipment operators. If you wanted to design a mechanism to visit steady, random, and often lingering deaths on wild animals you could hardly do better than to plan a grid of well-paved roads patrolled by millions of cars. We accept this. We could hardly imagine it otherwise.

Some years ago, on a late flight to Tucson, I happened to be sitting in front of a railroad engineer who was chatting up an off-duty stewardess. In the boredom and the darkness I listened. The railroad engineer said that he had spent several years training new people to drive trains. He told them all, he said, that sooner or later it was inevitable that each of them would hit a car and kill somebody. It had happened to him, and it haunted him, but after all there was absolutely nothing he could do. Trains, like cars, have momentum. They do not stop on a dime. What he didn’t say, and what I have only now grasped with such unexpected vividness, is just how rarely we consider the hidden price in suffering that we accept for our convenience. We know, in my part of the country, that a certain number of reckless teenagers will die every year in collisions with trains – but we do not realize that we also accept this kind of attritional loss as just something that has to be. We take for granted that the aggregate worth of our mechanized culture is worth more than any one small life. Or even any random hundred or a thousand lives. This makes me feel no better about the animal I hit this morning, about myself, or about the poor state of awareness that is common to my species. And, I know, it changes nothing.

We all ride the train, metaphorically speaking. We are accustomed to the momentum of our technological society. We love the speed. We neither look forward much, nor back much. We imagine that the future will be better, and we revile the past. From our perspective, it is almost impossible to know where we are going. Few of us will know what hit us.

1 comment:

  1. I think I'm that friend. :D And when did you go to Tucson?

    Stephen Pinker's "Better Angels of our Nature" makes a compelling argument for the truth that things are getting better. We don't just imagine the future will be better; for all of recorded history, it has been. We revile the past because it was worse than the present. The pure, innocent state of nature is (and always has been) a romantic fantasy. The Greeks looked back to a Golden Age, bemoaning their sorry age of Iron.

    Yes, our modern society has casualties; but they are less than the society that proceeded it. It would be interesting to compare the number of lives saved by ambulances vs the number of deaths caused by cars. And remember that when teenagers weren't killing themselves with cars, they were killing themselves in other ways.