I was driving to work this morning, something I have done for a very long time. I drive on city streets, and my trip is about five miles. There was absolutely nothing unusual about it, but in the middle of it I had a strange sensation, a weird feeling. I looked out, and there was the usual stream of cars going in both directions, folks going to or coming from work. Nothing different from the thousands of times I had done this before. This time, though, I was caught up in the absurdity of it. Vehicle after vehicle, each weighing at least two thousand pounds, was streaming down the street, each consuming a substantial amount of energy, and each carrying just one person.
Several things dawned on me. First, this is going on all over the country. In places like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, the stream of cars is many times greater than in my city, but the phenomenon is the same — vehicles gigantically oversized for the task moving just one person along the pavement. Each vehicle contains seats for at least five people, but four of them sit empty. And the stream goes on and on, like the mindless humming of the residents of a psych ward.
Science has made many discoveries, some of which have led to the ability to produce that stream of cars. To put that another way, we use this phenomenally inefficient method of travel because, well, we can. By that very same logic, we do many things. We feed the world, because we can. We make and explode nuclear weapons, because we can. We provide heat and light and mass communications to virtually all our citizens, because we can, and we pollute the seas and the land and the air, because we can.
Science makes its discoveries because it can. Science, by itself, makes no judgments about the propriety of the use of its discoveries. That task is left to us, and apparently we have more or less ignored it. That is what is odd. I am in my office now, and I look out on the street as car after car goes by, each with its singular passenger, each ignoring the insanity of it all. And note, I am one of them.
Odd. Odd, disorienting experience. It makes me realize something about all those folks and about myself. We don’t need moral leadership. We need moral participation.