Saturday, December 17, 2005

SUV spirituality

Consider the appeal of an SUV (what we in England call ‘4X4’s or, more to the point, ‘Chelsea Tractors’).

You are strong. You are safe. You are independent and self-sufficient, accountable to no-one. If there is a collision, the other car will come off worst. You are elevated above the common herd, able to look further into the distance. You can trek across exotic locations, you can even cross the Strood when the tide is high.

The appeal of an SUV is to a particular mentality – a mentality which owes just about everything to Modern philosophy. It is the Cartesian ego transformed by the parameters of the internal combustion engine. Iris Murdoch describes it as presented by Kant:

“How recognisable, how familiar to us, is the man so beautifully portrayed in the Grundlegung, who confronted even with Christ turns away to consider the judgement of his own conscience and to hear the voice of his own reason. Stripped of the exiguous metaphysical background which Kant was prepared to allow him, this man is with us still, free, independent, lonely, powerful, rational, responsible, brave, the hero of so many novels and books of moral philosophy.” (From ‘The Sovereignty of the Good’)

This man drives an SUV, for the SUV expresses all those virtues in kinematic form. The culture which reveres these attributes calls forth in mechanical expression an embodiment of it’s own soul – and so we arrive at the crisis of our culture. We are, in James Howard Kunstler’s words, up a cul-de-sac in a cement SUV with an empty tank.

This is a spiritual problem: the roots of the crisis are spritual; the only possible solution is spiritual. Consider those virtues expressed in the SUV; consider most of all the virtue of autonomy – the independent man, accountable to none, moving off to decide by the light of his own conscience and his own reason what is good. The child of Martin Luther permanently protesting against external authority.

Now consider the voice of a Modern atheist: I do not need an external authority to tell me be to be good. I do not need to find a purpose for my life from a religious tradition. I choose my own tradition! I am the master of my destiny!

The point of a religious tradition – the definition of one perhaps – is that we are accountable to a higher authority. That authority need not be a God as understood by theistic tradition. It might simply be ‘the truth’, or – as with Plato and Aristotle – ‘the good’. The key thing is that it is not amenable to personal choice. A person is accountable, and shall give an account. The person is open to being engaged by other people who also consider themselves accountable, and that shared accountability and shared purpose provides the irreplaceable glue of human society. It is precisely that communal glue which the driver of the SUV repudiates. For the driver of the SUV must at all costs be a sovereign ego at the centre of his body – the homunculus this time, not watching a screen, but behind the wheel.

The SUV – sport and spiritual, car and soul - symbolises all that will be left behind on the other side of Peak Oil.

Bob puts it well:

You may be a construction worker working on a home,
You may be living in a mansion or you might live in a dome,
You might own guns and you might even own tanks,
You might be somebody's landlord, you might even own banks

But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
You're gonna have to serve somebody,
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody.

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