Sunday, January 24, 2016

Snow and the Two-Faced Machines

The most beautiful thing about the 20 inches of snow that blanketed Princeton was not that our aging patio furniture got a fresh coat of elegance, nor the recycling of winter's meagre light as it bounced around the landscape. The most beautiful thing was that the blanket of snow brought with it a blanket of silence. What few cars ventured out Saturday were further muted by the snow beneath their wheels.

The first flakes of snow fell Friday night, as we emerged from August Wilson's The Piano Lesson at McCarter Theater. A day later, we could have used the rhythm of the extraordinary railroad worksong scene as we excavated the sidewalk. And the unaccustomed peacefulness of a Harrison Street without traffic brought back a couple climate-relevant lines from the play. In one, a railroad laborer describes the frenetic pace of travel in America's railroad heyday, with a train heading every direction one could possibly want to go, and the people he would sometimes see jump on a train without checking to make sure it was going where they wanted to go. He concludes from a lifetime witnessing all the helter skelter coming and going that just maybe it would "be better if people stayed in one place." It sure felt like that out on snowy, peaceful Harrison Street Saturday afternoon, in a world that is being taken by machines to a place far different than we would wish. The storm's an inconvenience, but it also brings a brief respite from a perilous status quo. Might we not be in so much of a hurry to return to the "normalcy" of pouring fossil carbon into the atmosphere?

A couple days prior, I happened to photograph the machines that would later clear our streets of snow. A great and necessary service, and yet the two-faced aspect of machines, serving today's needs while foiling tomorrow's, brings back the other climate-relevant quote plucked from The Piano Lesson. Describing just how lacking in common sense someone is, one character says the man would "stand in the water and watch it rise until he drowned." That's a pretty good description of what we're doing, collectively, by seeding the atmosphere, decade after decade, until the oceans rise up to engulf the coastal cities. The machines are both faithful servants and radical climate revolutionaries, contributing to the overthrow of global stability.

How to live with this greatest of contradictions? Some, in order to avoid feeling a great burden of crippling guilt, convince themselves either there's no problem or no solution. I take a pragmatic approach, seeking productivity and pleasure in ways that steadily squeeze out dependence on fossil fuels. For a town government, it would mean having machines for when they're needed, but steadily shifting policy to squeeze out the unnecessary uses machines are put to. We are all stewards of climate-changing machines that are doing a big favor for the planet, for future peace and present peacefulness, when they are sequestered in the parking lot. Our culture values the visual stimulation of movement, but there is beauty in the stillness of a parked car, or a landscape cloaked in snow.

The challenges imposed by the storm--the preparations, the shoveling out--also tend not only to bring out the best in people, but to bring people out, of their houses. Shoveling the sidewalk is when I tend to meet the latest set of tenants next door. Stories come over the internet of neighbors helping each other out. A storm could be a teachable moment, in which we discover that the machine-enabled restlessness known as the status quo is not necessarily the best place to be.

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