The Fuel of Choice

Sometimes an offhand remark makes you realize something that never occurred to you. This happened when I was telling the mother of a 1-year-old about choosing a school for your kid. In San Diego your choices are many, and you can end up sending your kid all across town to get just the right place.

That must have a big carbon impact, she said.

Well, I suppose it does. If my 8th grade boy gets into the charter school High Tech High, and we decide to send him there, that’s a 12 mile drive… and that’s the price of choice.

When I was a kid we attended the neighborhood school. It may not have been the best school in town but it was the one you went to because that was how the system worked and we didn’t question it. But then came school busing in a lot of big-city school districts, which ended up being a lousy idea. Then they gave us school choice, with magnet schools and charter schools.  The system was jury-rigged to try to achieve some level of class and racial integration. Admission to High Tech High, for instance, is based on a lottery and your chances are best if you come from a zip code that isn’t sending a lot of applicants.

But getting back to the old carbon footprint, transporting your kid all around town to attend school takes a lot of oil and gas. So does importing French wine and taking overseas vacations. It’s odd to think of myself as the kind of father that tells stories of how tough life was when I was a kid. It wasn’t tough because I grew up in a safe, middle class environment. But life was simpler and it was a lot more sustainable than today, from a standpoint of energy.

I walked or rode my bike to the neighborhood school. I ate Wonder Bread and Cheerios. My parents owned one car and one TV and my dad kept Budweiser in the fridge. Aside from one flight to New York when I was an baby, I never flew in a plane until I was 17 years old.

Today we suffer the tyranny of choice: Multiple schools to choose from and an endless supply of products that are a computer click away, which, of course, they aren’t really because somebody in a warehouse in Fresno has to put the product in a truck and send it to your house.

I serve on the board of a group that was just renamed Circulate San Diego. It’s a mix of two groups that had been called Walk San Diego & Move San Diego. The goal is to make our city less dependent on car travel and to encourage people to walk, ride a bike or use public transportation. I won’t go into the whole sales pitch but hopefully you can see how this can make people healthier, reduce greenhouse emissions and make our neighborhoods safer and more sociable.

Our biggest challenge is changing American culture from one that is fully dependent on car travel. But in order to make that change, what do people have to give up? Some convenience. Some speed. Some privacy. And… some choice.

The local school may not be the best for your child, but that’s what you settle for. Same goes for the local grocery store. To reduce air travel, and huge carbon impact that has, maybe a road trip to Joshua Tree or a fishing trip to Minnesota takes the place of a jaunt to London. It’s a journey back to the life I led growing up in a small town in the Midwest, or the life big-city kids knew when they walked to school, played in vacant lots and hopped on a bus or a streetcar if they were feeling really adventuresome. We didn’t expect a lot so that’s what we got.

Americans today have grown up in a culture that says you can have anything you want. All it takes is a little money. But this isn’t a true choice. It’s a tyranny of choice that makes choosing the right goods or services an obligation that’s more important than your physical health or peace of mind.

The freedom of choice demands constant decision-making even when it comes to trivial things, and it is fueled by an energy source that can bring environmental calamity. Maybe it’s time to choose something else.

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