At the end of 2017, a shiny new Audi crashed into my little old car while I was stationary at traffic lights. I’m fairly sure the driver was on his phone. My car was a write-off, but after going through the initial frustrations and hassle, I’ve now arrived at ‘Blue Monday’ — typically the most depressing day of the year — with happiness.
There were practical benefits of course — compensation money (meagre, but more than if I tried to sell the car with its 150,000 miles on the clock), and no more payments for breakdown cover, road tax, insurance. I could stop worrying about where to park if I didn’t manage to get a space in the small private car park next to my city-centre flat. I could stop worrying about whether it would pass its MOT, and what work it would need this year. In short, I could stop worrying about the finances and practicalities of owning a car, and do something else with that brain space.
People have asked when I’ll replace the car, and what with. I answer by telling them that I’m replacing it with membership of Co-Cars, a local community-benefit society car club. One of their fleet of cars is parked right outside my flat.
But deeper than all that practical stuff, something else has been lifted.
Imagining an alternative to ownership
The comfort zone of ownership was convenient. But I suspect that convenience — which has come to be expected in our culture — is one of the biggest destructive forces of our age. Convenience created single-use plastics for example, which are choking the planet. And alongside convenience, ownership seems to be a false aspiration of our age.
“Sell all your possessions and give to the poor, then follow me”, Jesus said to a rich man, and again to his disciples. John Lennon asked us to Imagine doing so too. The very fact that it takes imagination, and is placed alongside other inconceivable aspirations in his song — no war; people living in harmony — speaks of how unreal the idea of having no possessions has become. Whether obvious corporate greed, or more subtle ‘FOMO’ (Fear of Missing Out), or even supposedly ‘wise’ ownership like property and investments to see us into old age, ownership has become normal.
But ownership is not normal for much of the world’s population. 75% of the world’s population cannot prove they own the land on which they live or work. Women own less that 20% of the world’s land.* Ownership here in the UK is something we have come to aspire to, via many years of owning a mortgage (a term from old French meaning ‘death-pledge’), or other kinds of debt. If not ownership via debt, we own by hoarding, storing, protecting. Home ownership doesn’t have to mean huge space and huge debt. There are other ways. I think owning less means we come to rely on community more — we share; go out of our way more easily, and focus on collective vision. Community sharing projects like the Library of Things (London, and Frome), or the Remakery in Edinburgh are connecting communities and their things, and showing the way beyond ownership. If we personally owned less, we’d have to find security elsewhere. Benjamin Franklin challenged, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” And novelist Alice Walker said: “activism is the rent I pay for living on the planet.” Maybe through engaging in some of the kaleidoscopic ways of being an activist in this world, we come to tie ourselves to the things that matter — and in doing that; we find meaning, liberty, purpose, and a new kind of security.
I realise that having someone crash into my car does not equal being an activist. But choosing not to replace my car with another one has catalysed thinking and action on alternatives to transport, ownership and more.
Of course, no longer owning a car has made my life a little more inconvenient. I can’t spontaneously drive up to Dartmoor to camp wherever I like. I can’t drive to to load up with food at a supermarket. But I remembered that I don’t want to load up with food at supermarkets anyway! — I want to take regular short walks to a community-owned farm shop. I want to re-localise my way of life. And I can cycle, take a bus or use Co-Cars to get to Dartmoor. The bus becomes a temporary, transient community. I like immersing in it.
I feel lighter, more peaceful. I appreciate the freedom that my bike brings. I walked a fair amount before — but now I seek out new adventures on foot. It’s surprising where 3 or 4mph can take you.
I now look from the outside in to the fume-pumping, expensive fishbowls that line up the roads, forever causing traffic jams, often only one person per car. I feel happy that I can break into a jog past it all if I so wish. I worry that the focus on driverless cars is missing the point — surely carless roads would be a better goal for our health and our planet. Or at least re-imagining cities to move people, not cars.
That Audi driver ridding me of my car was like a wobbly tooth finally being pulled out. A plaster being ripped off. But the air that now gets to the wound is healing. Imagine that.
* see World Economic Forum report