We Can’t Wait

I’m deep into writing my new novel, and so not paying much attention to my blog… But here’s a short essay I wrote as an introduction to a pamphlet being published in Porto Alegre, Brazil, by Monstro dos Mares. It’s based on an impromptu speech I gave in a park called Rendencão at the end of a very spirited Critical Mass ride there in 2012. It was during the first World Bike Forum (this year’s is in Manizales, Colombia in case you want to go!). This intro may finally be all I put out for the 30th anniversary of Critical Mass which falls this September, 2022… amazing! (I’m old!)

During the ride in the middle of the city everyone stopped and began clapping and chanting “Mas Adrenalina, Menos Gasolina” (more adrenaline, less gasoline!)

We Can’t Wait!
Much of what we experienced in Porto Alegre back in those celebratory and defiant days a decade ago was vital and thrilling. To be among thousands of other cyclists, reclaiming and reinventing the urban space while we rolled through it, created new spaces in our imaginations. The dull repetitive madness of daily traffic dominated by cars and trucks and buses was forced to give way to a fresh, light, breezy, convivial space invented together by thousands of people who probably did not know each other before arriving at that moment. Critical Mass was a surprisingly successful experiment in inventing a new form to challenge the imposing edifice of modern life. But in all honesty, it wasn’t an experiment that successfully expanded into other realms, nor was it able to sustain itself on that trembling edge of potential indefinitely. In most places, certainly here in San Francisco where it all started 30 years ago, Critical Mass has long passed into irrelevance and obscurity. If it does keep rolling, it is a shell of what it was, an imposter lacking the vital pulse of subversive possibility.

Surprisingly, the amalgamation of ideas and possibilities once embodied in the Critical Mass experience gave way over time to the simple choice that untold millions made to use their bicycle as everyday transportation. The choice to bicycle was a wise and self-rewarding one for most, and today in cities across the planet, hundreds of thousands more people use the bicycle for their everyday transportation than did at the end of the last century. Every ride each day by every rider is as the saying goes, “one less car,” and in aggregate, tons less CO2 being poured into our shared air. But the cultural experience that was so available in decades past, of being a rebel, a subversive, an outlaw, by cycling, has passed into history. No one claims to be a “microwavist” for using a microwave oven, nor are there “hammerists” who use hammers. Similarly, far fewer people today describe themselves as “bicyclists” just because they use a bicycle occasionally or regularly. And that is as it should be, in my opinion. We should not be defined by the devices we use or what we own, but rather by what we do.

The bicycle has proven for many to be a great beginning. It has been a radical break with car and oil dependency, a personal technological choice that embraces the possibilities implicit in making a different decision about how to go from Point A to Point B. But having made that choice to bicycle, how many have gone on to question what actually do at Point A and Point B? For this is the heart of our modern predicament. Every day we wake up and reproduce this world, not the world we could make together if we decided to finally break with the madness of our daily lives. The question we users of bicycles have to confront: If bicycling is the key, what does it unlock? Or put another way, if bicycling is the window we go through first, what is on the other side?

As I said a decade ago in the park in Porto Alegre, bicycling is not enough. If everyone were to ride bicycles in most cities, we would still be destroying the planet in myriad other ways, whether through industrial agriculture, mining, fossil fuel extraction, or crypto-currency “mining.” And our brutality towards climate refugees, towards “others,” whether Black, indigenous, or otherwise, would be untouched, just as our easy acceptance of a world based on incessant economic growth ensures that our rapid destruction of the conditions for life on earth would continue unchecked.

Faced with such enormous obstacles, it is easy to despair and to feel deeply pessimistic. And that’s where we must find that special combination I call “radical patience.” We can’t wait, we must take action every day and in every way to bring about the deep changes we need. But we have to recognize how slowly history moves. We have to maintain our confidence in the face of daunting odds and regular disappointments, while holding the passion and strength to keep pushing for the changes we know are necessary. We have to combine our radical insistence with a deep patience for our fellow beings, knowing that some of us would go faster if we could, while others will always move a lot slower than we’d prefer. Ultimately, we have to do this together, with our friends, family, and neighbors. And we have to find our connections across neighborhoods, between cities, across national frontiers, among watersheds, from mountains to the sea, and including all the inhabitants of earth, not just the human ones! Take a deep breath, and then another. And then carry on!

—April 12, 2022, San Francisco, California

The organizers launched the World Bike Forum to dramatize the event that took place exactly a year earlier, when an impatient banker had plowed through 200 cyclists on the road. Miraculously no one was killed and the injuries weren’t permanent. The banker at the time of the event one year later remained unpunished. Since then I think he was convicted but served little or no time.

A view from the back…

In the middle

And rolling by…

2 comments to We Can’t Wait

  • Thanks Martin! Another friend had forwarded me a notice about that too… it’s wonderful and happy to see the term nowtopia having become a noun on its own! There was a festival in Christiana in Copenhagen that took the name too (they did ask me, and of course I was delighted), I think it was 2019… Apparently there is no reference to my book or blog in the notes of this new book… or even the essay I wrote in a Degrowth collection published a few years ago… no big deal. I’ll be long forgotten and the term will be widely used–if it turns out like that I’d say mission accomplished!

  • In his review of the new Verso book “the Future is Degrowth,” (which he calls a masterpiece), Timothy Parrique references a section in it devoted to “Nowtopias.” Though your name isn’t attached to that word in the review, I assume you and your book are referred to in the book, and that are happy to see your linguistic invention gain traction.

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