Butterflies not cars

What do butterflies and cars have in common?


Probably nothing and that is the point.


Recently I was in Cincinnati visiting a friend and as well as going to several art galleries we went to see the 2009 Butterfly Show organized annually by the city’s Krohn Conservatory.  Being among these beautiful and delicate, non-violent creatures I thought in contrast of the hardness of cars and the anger and twisting violence associated with them.  


Our entire environment seems technologized and desecrated by the metal rivers of cars flowing through our lives.  In his 1967 Whidden Lectures (published as The Modern Century) at McMaster University, Northrop Frye reflected that rather than communities of relations we live in what “seems more like a community turned inside out, with its expressways taking its thousands of self-enclosed nomadic units in a headlong flight into greater solitude, ants in the body of a dying dragon…” 


Cars insulate us not only from each other, but from feeling the pain, rhythms and joy of the world.  I am proposing that The University of Western Ontario take steps to eliminate cars from the campus for environmental and poetical reasons, and these are not unrelated. If we could allow all our senses to be alive, not encased for hours in alloys, we could increase the opportunities to feel the world through our heartbeats rather than the beat of the assembly line, standardization and consumer culture.


In recent issues of the Western News there have been a number of articles on the rising interest in making the campus an enviro/green-friendly space with one headline declaring, “sustainability ideas sprouting everywhere.” 


In all the ballyhoo over going green there has been no mention however of the most destructive contributor to environmental degradation, the attenuation of human sensibility, and a dwindling of aesthetic appreciation: cars. 


As soon as they appeared cars became enmeshed in our lives, shaping and rearranging the internal and external geography of the everyday. The literary theorist Roland Barthes compares the car to Gothic cathedrals: “I think that cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object.” 


In Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 novel, Babbittthe car becomes an iconic artifact: “to George F. Babbitt, as to most prosperous citizens of Zenith, his motor car was poetry and tragedy, love and heroism.”  For women the car offered the possibility of some release from a smothering domesticity and as Cameron Tuttle writes in The Bad Girls Guide to the Open Road (1999), the car “is your freedom fighter, your power booster, your ticket to ride. It’s a stimulant, an antidepressant, and a vroom with a view.” 


With the publication in 1973 of J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash and David Cronenberg’s 1996 brilliant film version about sex, car wrecks, mutilation and death, the car becomes a darker, a much more sinister and traumatic object. For Ballard and Cronenberg the car is now a desolate and antagonistic symbol of the postmodern nihilism of contemporary life. Novel and film portray a dystopia of abject gruesomeness haunting the coming together of hard technology and soft bodies. An emotional frozen coldness bathed in the grayish-blue twilight of the film suggests that our century-long obsession with the car may be a fixation with carnage, catastrophe, dissolution and decay reminiscent of French New Wave filmmaker Juan-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). The lead character in the Cronenberg film, played by the quirky James Spader, comments as he is recuperating on his balcony after his accident that occurs at the beginning of the film, that there seem to be more cars now as he stares at the freeway below. His sensibilities have been heightened but only to more metal and speed.  There is no new attunement to feeling the world in its many and varied registers.


In moving towards a sustainable urbanism, slowing the pace of adverse climate change, reducing damaging ecological footprints, revitalizing local neighbourhoods and improving community and personal health, a break in the pattern and way of life powered overwhelmingly by carbon-based fuels distilled from oil is needed.  With our cities drowning in cars, our senses numbed by cars, and our natural environment polluted and defiled by cars, it seems well past time for us to overcome our harmful love affair with the car and a first step is for Western to act locally and expel them from the campus. This admittedly dramatic action could give the university far more national and international distinction than even the planned new building for the Ivey business school.


Universities ought to be social and ethical beacons of responsibility.  If it is felt that ousting cars all at once is overly drastic, intermediate steps could be implemented: car sharing by only allowing cars on campus with four or more passengers, free parking for hybrid vehicles, a tuition-fee reduction for students who walk, bicycle or take public transit, financial rewards for faculty and staff who do the same, and each year, until they are no longer part of the landscape, the closing down of a parking lot. These areas could quickly be transformed into green spaces, gardens and sanctuaries for butterflies.


I do not own a car and find the walk to the university whether it’s in the morning or the evening to be restorative. William Wordsworth found that walking awakened and stirred the senses and was crucial to his creativity; over the past six years since I began walking everywhere I have experienced a new, often surprising, awareness of the details of my immediate surroundings. I am even optimistic I might encounter a musk rose in mid-summer, and if not, there are always butterflies to enjoy.  


The writer is a professor in the School of Social Work at King’s University College