A Difference that Matters

I am writing these words on the train from Zurich to Geneva, looking up from my keyboard to see snowcapped mountains hanging over the lake. The train was scheduled to leave at 9:32, and indeed it left at 9:32; I have little doubt it will arrive at 12:44, precisely as promised. Because it’s fast, comfortable, and reliable, it’s also well-used; most of the seats are full. It’s impossible for an American to sit on this train and not think: Why can’t we have this? What’s so backward about our country that the best we can do is Amtrak, lurching along, late again?

The answer, of course, is that there’s no good reason. Barack Obama has put a slug of cash in the budget for 10 new high-speed train routes. Someday, one hopes, we’ll be able to travel as easily as most other citizens of the developed world. But the answer, of course, is also that there’s a very good reason. Which is that America has allowed itself to become a hyperindividualized society. That’s why we’ve done more than anyone else to wreck the planet.

That hyperindividualized domain flows from one place: the oil wells and coal mines that have provided us with cheap energy. The society we’ve built is an artifact of that cheap energy—it’s allowed us to sprawl endlessly out across the countryside. The American dream for 50 years has been to build bigger houses farther apart from each other. We’ve succeeded so thoroughly in that dream that the oversupply of starter castles for entry-level monarchs has now cracked the economy. And the more we’ve grown apart, the more we’ve grown apart—the average American has half as many close friends as 50 years ago. When you’ve got no neighbors, spend two hours a day commuting, and work all hours to pay for the mortgage, friends are hard to come by.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2009
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