“Then they set out along the blacktop in the gunmetal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other’s world entire.”
― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Humans have been blazing trails for millennia. Our early ancestors followed the tracks of large migratory mammals who easily forged routes through the thickets of the wild. Then came the more orderly block pavias of early civilizations to resist the wear of the wooden wheel. The Romans made the roads straight and long, weapons of empire. Then, eventually, came the blacktops, McAdam’s sealed and tarred roads that we have come to expect today. Engineered to a T, with a hard surface of asphalt and aggregates mined from tar sands and quarried from glacial deposits, they are designed for the traction of rubber tyres spinning at speed. They exist for the motorcar and transport lorry, and perceived as a human right. They shape our streets, our broader habitations, our income, our shopping habit, family structures, schooling; the way we eat, live; the way we love.
Roads allow us a self-willed freedom to travel at will, as far as the land will take us; as long as we have the money, and we’re not stuck in traffic. We even celebrate conquests over water and wetlands by epic concrete and steel bridges and gravity-defying tunnels. Roads are so deeply entwined with our modern sense of ‘progress’, that we light many of them up at night like theatre stages. We pour millions of tons of salt on them in colder climes and spend billions on regular maintenance. Keeping the roads open, whatever the weather, has become a societal anxiety.
Emergency services rely on them. Tax and insurance thrives off them. Stumbling across non-paved roads seems novel; terrifying to some. Imagined destinations are only a part of the story; the road trip is as much in our psyche as the end point. Families can disperse widely, then be brought together again with just a tank full of fuel. Jobs seem plentiful when the radius of potential is widened by four wheels and an internal combustion engine. Employers can rent huge car fleets at discount, whilst fuel levies raise cash to build even more roads. New roads have become a symbol of economic pride and anything less a mark of underdevelopment.
Stop. Just stop.
Given all we now need to do to reconcile our place within nature, to exit the Anthropocene and enter the Symbiocene, it’s beyond time to re-evaluate roads and their place in our modern psyche.
Roads are one of the worst forms of human chauvenism, exclusively for human purpose, even when transporting livestock. They may as well be tall border walls to wild animals. Any attempt to cross is a deathwish, known or unbeknown. I want to make their profusion a thing of the past, the end of the road for roads; McCarthy’s critique of the symbolic American dream dying a death.
Cars and lorries, even buses, kill and injure people and wildlife both along and perpendicular to route. Particulates suffocate others, causing respiritory disease and death. CO2 emissions from journeys contribute to climate chaos, and all the pain and suffering that stems from that. Even the heat stored by the darkness of the tar eventually rises into the atmosphere. CO2 and other gases, metals and compounds are pumped out in construction and maintainance, concrete supports, in vehicle steel and plastics manufacturing and maintenance, in fuel refining and logistics. The industry causes all kinds of mayhem. And those nightly stage lights drain huge quantities of energy from our national grid, even with newer technologies. Light pollution disrupts wild life flows in all kinds of ways. So does noise. The disturbance is rife. Harm also comes by erosion, the chemicals and salts, the leaked oil that pollutes the run-off and poisons the adjacent land and watercourses. More, by the litter flying out of car windows and doors, blowing into those same hammered water courses, feeding plastic to the rivers that lead to the oceans.
Roads are human chauvenism to extreme. Catching a bus or driving an EV does nothing to prevent so many of these harms. The planners, the engineers and contractors surely can’t know fully what they do. If they do know, it is for the expedience of modernity, the discount of life for the sake of a wage. I want them to, at least, stop and think. Roads are the fleshwounds of symbiotic terrafirma. They gash the soul of soils and then smother them to lifelessness. They fragment and divide ecological communities, trapping species onto millions of mini-biological islands in a sea of human development, shrinking wild genetic pools over time and causing competitive stress and poor immunity.
Salmon, bison, grey whales, red bats, monarch butteflies and arctic terns. Just a few existent vestigial species of migration, borne of the need to move great distances. Their dynamism is also the material embodiment of flow between places, linking the essence of life in one location to another, and back again. The nagorasphere is fizzing with exchange along these routes, and ecological niches multiply across space-time. Even dung and urine enrich, and with the loss of large herbivores and predators, this is particularly on a steep decline. Such sky-land-water disturbances can mean opportunities for species laying in wait along the way. Migration routes can mean more life, not less. The act of moving in nature should be ecologically fluministic.
Humans cheat the natural rules of terra-transit, by getting from A to B not as we were born to do, but by using roads and vehicles as quick as cheetahs with the stamina of pronghorn antelopes.* Instead of creating ecological unity between social groups and different places, as the bison and the zebra do, we destroy it, flatten everything in the path of our industrial-leaden vehicles, divorcing ourselves from the natural pace of bipedal movement. Speed is a thrill, an adrenaline rush. We race each other easily, we compete on luxury. We are seduced through design and marketing to buy into those organic curves, sparkling colours, exciting sounds and plush new-leather smells. Economic and social status is tied to the success or failure of the newest car advert. They are designed to bewitch.
Despite well-known migrations of the wildebeest, zebra, bison, caribou and antelope, terrestrial animals are less likey to migrate large distances. It takes big energy on slow pounding feet for forward momentum through gravity. It’s tough and needs flexi-tendons, fat reserves, power and durability. Other animals, it seems, understand entropy even more than we do. Movement through air and water, despite friction, is more efficient over distance, the locomotive aided by favourable winds and currents. Bipedal humans, with their flat plantigrade use of feet, are relatively slow at moving across distances, but we have been so clever as to replicate a four limbed, friction reducing, rolling method of movement – the motor vehicle. Clever is not the same as wise.
We’ve disrupted the floloca by lacerating interconnectedness and by bringing disturbances along in linear passage ; hunters to the wolf, loggers to the redwoods, gas-garchs to the prairie to frack and spew poison. And then, to transport the aggregates, the asphalt, the ore and even more cars. Roads are made to make new roads. It’s nothing less than a globalised atrocity, the antithesis of fluminism.
More still ~ highway robbery. Roads have brought massive social and personal pain to many indigenous and rural people, through exposure to new markets and social pressures, land theft and forced re-settlement. Any economic benefits from infrastructure projects have been iniquitous and unfairly distributed. These tarred intrusions are the long, bony fingers of plutocracies, gouging and exposing floloca to abuse, to exploitation, and of submission to the power. This extends, literally, to roads for extracting road tar.
Ecologists refrain from being totally frank about their destructive nature. They call them ‘linear infrastructure intrusions’, hard human lines carved through soft ecosystems, including highways, power lines, railway lines, pipelines, firebreaks, walls and fences. I’d like to call them ‘occasiones ad mortem’, opportunities for death. Because, really, that’s all they are. Each time we go on a road trip, we are taking our chances, along with those of many other beings, human or non-human. Even our ambulances and fire engines are not immune from crashing and causing harm. That’s why they ring those ear-splitting alarms, to lessen the chances. It’s all about risk. Why do we do this?
McCarthy chose a road as symbol, the American highway, bastion of the Fordist dream represented as a dystopian nightmare. Cars, lorries, vans, each driven by a single person in an idealised state of self-determination, rumble along the blacktops, heating the atmosphere, igniting fires and creating the ash that falls like burned snow. So where’s the utopian dream, the bringing together of human and ecological community?
Now is the time, I contend, to let the main roads rot. Let the verges spread out to re-connect community and encourage us all to really step up in transit-creativity. Gather together. Look at maps. Decide which roads we can do without. Do it in phases. But do it. Put our heads together in collective ambition. Demand from the city planners that any new or re-development needs to be designed around public space, footpaths and cycle routes. Rural villages can become whole villages again, not commuter satellites to towns and cities. We can still have systems for emergencies, a framework of narrow electric monorails that will take us swiftly, smoothly and safely to hospitals and care facilities. Historical linear streets can be redesigned with organic walk and cycle ways, gardens and wild corridors. We can still use disability scooters. Herald an era of localism, an era of clean air for our children, for living, work, food growing and leisure time. It’s a new ethology for a kinnage dweller.
And for when we really need to travel distance, we can build unsealed, habitat-connecting permeable routes, with hemp concrete mesh and native grasses, that aid ecology not hinder. We can ride electric bicycles on them, and use light trams, with eco-bridges for perpendicular, ecological connectivity. We can use cable cars with beautiful views, and water balanced rail with feeder lakes full of aquatic life, and other methods low on technological complexity, high on pleasure and life.
Stop the blood-letting, the pain brought to bear so severely upon life. Mend the scars. It is nothing short of mutiny. Let us be wise again like our animal kin, and arrive at the end of road, soon.
*We use large trains too, on huge tracts of land poisoned with pesticides and cleared of vegetation on purpose to keep lines clear (another blog, perhaps).