Natural Life Magazine

Saint Francis of Assisi and the Deep Car Culture

Saint Francis and the Deep Car Culture
By Gene Sager

I do not believe in serendipity, but I cannot explain why I awoke at an ungodly hour (or was it a godly hour?) last Sunday morning. I brewed a strong cup of coffee and went out to catch the sunrise. The dull roar from the nearby freeway had not yet begun. Such moments of stillness had become all too scarce in my life.

The rising sun was too bright between the tangerine trees, so I looked away for a moment. When I looked back, a monk was standing in front of the trees. That must have been some strong coffee! The monk came walking towards me, a Franciscan monk. To my questioning look, he responded, “I am Francesco Bernardino. I am curious to what your life is like.”

Saint Francis of Assisi is sometimes known as the patron saint of Nature and the environment. Occasionally, he joins writer Gene Sager in a quest to understand modern culture.
I told Saint Francis I could show him the place where I work, the market where I shop for food, and the church where I go. He quipped, “Perhaps I should go to church...I have not been to mass in 800 years.” As we set off down the freeway towards my workplace, Francis smiled at the eight lanes and asked if this were not fit for airplanes. I told him this freeway is usually filled with cars and trucks, sometimes stopped or just creeping along to get from A to B. We face “carmageddon” at least twice a day.

“This is the college where I teach,” I said as we drove into the nearly empty parking lot. “No classes on Sunday, but a few local religious groups use some rooms for services.” Francis paid no mind to the mention of religion but was fascinated, even bemused, by the vast parking lots. I explained that almost everybody – students and staff – drives solo to the college. “The college has more space allotted for cars than for classrooms.”

We were parked right next to the college bus station, so I had to admit that we have a special bus station and a station for the “Sprinter” – a new, diesel passenger rail line. Since the Sprinter is one of my pet topics, I added that a professor in our physics department has done the math. He figured out the average cost of driving a mid-sized car to the campus from an area where many of our students live, and compared it to taking the Sprinter from that same location. There are two Sprinter stations in that area. The detailed calculations show the Sprinter saves a student at least $100.00 for the school year. Basically, it’s a matter of the cost of the gas for the car as compared to the Sprinter fare. The college parking permit fee was added to the cost of gas for the car, and the frequent-rider pass discount was figured in, reducing the Sprinter fares.

“Is the train or bus not better for Sister Earth?” said Francis. I knew the answer was “Yes” –provided that enough people ride the train or bus. When well used, public transit has a smaller earth footprint (using less resources and polluting less per rider). But I had to tell Francis the sad fact: “Most Americans transport themselves solo, in gas guzzling cars.”

We left the college on that sad note, and Francis added more embarrassing questions. “Why do the students drive themselves solo in a car? It is a school to learn. Professor, do they not learn to not waste?” I had a sudden impulse to punch him, but one does not punch a saint. Besides, he spoke with such compassion and sincerity. 

Once on cruise control on the freeway, I calmed down and tried to answer Francis’ questions. “Maybe public transit is not feasible for some people. Let’s cut some slack for people who have no nearby stations or stops at either end of their trip; and sometimes there are long waits for transfers.” We do need more public transit lines and public transit vehicles. Governments, from local to federal, need to shift more support to public transit instead of subsidizing big car corporations. Still, the stubborn reality remains: Most North Americans are caught up in the “car culture.” It is mindless conformity to the ideas of independence, hyperactivity, convenience, and speedy mobility. The single occupant car represents these ideas, but I have to say, “How independent is mindless conformity?”

My passenger remained quiet and pensive as we drove to the church. I said, “It’s named after you: Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church.” The parking lots were full. Church parking spills over into the Bowling Center lot next door and the strip mall across the street. We finally found a good shady parking spot behind the Bowling Center. Francis sat gazing at the cars, mostly SUVs and luxury cars. “Are you fixated on cars?” I said. Francis responded slowly: “Someone should think upon these cars.”

“These are the cars of the people who go to my church,” said Francis. “These expensive chariots are treasures on earth.” I made no comment. He went on softly, “What if the pastor would say to the members, “These cars are hurting God’s creation. Maybe we should think about this and pray about this.” I told Francis that the priests don’t say such things. There are published statement by Popes and bishops about protecting creation, but the local priest is not likely to challenge the car culture. “We are not taught to care about such things,” I said. After a long pause, Saint Francis said, “We go to the market to buy bread and wine.” I was not going to wag my finger at Francis and say, “You go to mass, you naughty monk.”

The food market where I shop is considered to be a “health nut and tree hugger store.” It carries organic food and gives a whopping big five cent discount for each cloth bag you bring to use instead of their paper or plastic. But most of the produce is from the big international food corporations. For example, mangoes from Peru are shipped to LA and trucked to our tree-hugger store, a total of nearly seven thousand kilometers.  The organic bell peppers are from Holland!

I was prepared to tell Francis that the store was caught in the “shipping culture.” I was going to say I should think cosmically and buy local products. But Francis was on a mission. He ignored the cars and trucks and shipping issues and went straight into the store to buy wine and baguettes of bread. We were out of there before I could apologize for anything.

We arrived shortly at my home where Francis had appeared to me at the beginning of our journey. Now he was bent on breaking bread and “kicking back,” as he put it. We settled down in the gazebo among the tangerine trees. He gave me a piece of bread and poured our wine. We raised our glasses, and he said, “To Brother Sun and Sister Moon.” All this seemed rather like the Communion or Eucharist we had missed when we went to Francis’ church.

Time stopped for a spell as the bread and wine had their way with us after a long day of running here and there. Finally, Francis broke into the silence: “So, Brother Gene, why didn’t we go today in the bus or train? We went in the car culture.” He was right, of course; we went in the car culture. We were no wiser than the people we criticized on our car culture journey. Francis and I let ourselves laugh at the irony of our foolish ways.

Francis thoroughly enjoyed the true story of “the cost of fitness.” Bobby, my son’s coworker, is a member of the fitness center across the street from their office. He likes to go for a short workout during the lunch hour. Instead of walking, Bobby drives his guzzling car from the office lot to the fitness center. It is “so close” (his words) that he drives over without his seat belt. The bottom line of the story is a heavy ticket for a seat belt violation.

Saint Francis said he heard of a macho man celebrity who harnessed the power of four hundred and fifteen horses to impress the girls when he arrived for the debut of his latest movie. Francis went to observe the spectacle but was disappointed. The macho man drove up in a metal box with rubber wheels. It was called a “Mustang.” Francis let go a peel of laughter and poured us another glass of wine. He declared that we should think comically and correct our actions on all levels.

We recited a serious litany of car culture costs. The personal costs include, first of all, health and life itself, since auto accidents are the leading cause of accidental injury and death in the United States. Also, some of us use a car even when walking is feasible, and this can contribute to health issues and Nature-deficit disorder. After the cost of a car, including the interest, there is the registration and license, smog checks, gas, and maintenance. Environmental costs include the use of scarce natural resources, noxious emissions, global warming , and oil spills. Alternative fuels and plug-in cars are helpful but no panacea; they still use natural resources. The carcasses of all these vehicles – green or not – end up as unrecycled waste. Other costs are parking fees, traffic hassles and stress, and searching for a parking spot. The spiritual costs include alienation and a deep sense of ill-ease. 

Saint Francis felt that spiritual costs are the most important. He said our history is a series of alienations: One tribe alienated from and excluded by another, women excluded and seen as second rate, blacks and white alienated, Islamic peoples alienated from “the West,” and so on. Some of these alienations have been partly overcome, so that we can see each other as brothers and sisters – one family, in an expanding circle of inclusion. But Nature is still excluded by the car culture; it is to be used, abused, and excluded. Natural beings like air, water, and land are not yet treated as our brothers and sisters.

If we alienate ourselves from Nature, we inevitably feel estranged deep inside. We are part and parcel of Nature, as Nature is of us. Thus, alienation from Nature means estrangement from ourselves. Francis looked at me intently:  “Know yourself down deep,” he said.

Saint Francis treated me with compassion, and never spoke in  a harsh tone. He had filled me with bread, wine, and good humor – I had new insights, and most of all, new resolve to do battle against the car culture and shipping culture. But he cautioned me, “Many people who are caught up in these cultures are not mean, but only asleep. Don’t accuse them, just wake them up.” He then looked at the horizon and said, “And look at that sunset.”  I feasted my eyes on the colors, and when I turned back, he had disappeared.

Gene C. Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California. He is a prolific and thoughtful writer on environmental and philosophical issues.

Saint Francis has appeared in a number of other articles by Gene Sager about modern life, including this one about simplicity, this one about mall culture, this one about about cell phones, and this one about dishwashers.


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