Skill, in the best sense, is the enactment or the acknowledgement or signature of responsibility to other lives; it is the practical understanding of value. –Wendell Berry, “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture”
Eating and moving our bodies are everyday acts that connect us to the source of life. In Wendell Berry’s book “Culture and Agriculture” the author discusses the relationships between technology, responsibility and skill. I am impressed with the parallel’s between Berry’s observations on agriculture and the dynamics of human movement, or transportation.
In the sixth chapter, the use of energy, Berry notices that introducing machines in agriculture complicates our relationship with the life-giving soil. In particular machines bring more power and consequence, but do not impose restraints or moral limits on the exercise of their power. So humans have to bring responsibility commensurate with these mechanical powers that increase our impact and consequences on the soil. To complicate things, machines speed up our work, “but as speed increases, care declines…We know that there is a limit to the capacity of attention and that the faster we go the less we see” (Berry p. 93). So being responsible for our machine-aided work becomes even harder, and necessitates greater foresight and moral restraint on the part of human beings.
Skill is the connection between life and tools, or life and machines. —Berry, p. 91
Driving skills are based on our knowledge of the machines we are operating, the driving environment and conditions, and the potential consequences on our own life and the life surrounding us. When I went to commercial driving school at age 21 to learn how to drive 18-wheelers, I had an instructor named Jim. He made a moral argument. Jim had driven trucks over a million miles, and he’d seen a lot. Jim said that as truck drivers, we are the most powerful on the road and therefore must be the most responsible. He had a certain authority based on care and experience that stuck with me. Five days a week for three months, Jim and a team of instructors trained me and my classmates on the skills we needed to be the most responsible users of public roads. We learned how to manage our speed and adjust it so it was appropriate for conditions. We inspected our vehicles before every trip to ensure proper maintenance, and practiced turning, backing up, and negotiating in traffic to protect all human life around us. The skills we developed had nothing to do with always going slow, rather knowing when to go slow for safety, and how to modulate our speed, which effectively makes the whole transportation system work so much better, and enacts our fundamental values of safety first. Driver training for me was not only about mastering and controlling my vehicle, but also about mastering myself.
In the traffic safety field, there is an overwhelming body of evidence that suggests we need to increase driving skills to have a safer transportation world. The National Transportation Safety Board noted in a recent report that although “Speeding—exceeding a speed limit or driving too fast for conditions—is one of the most common factors in motor vehicle crashes in the United States”, there is no national program to communicate the dangers of speeding like there is for other crash factors such as drinking and driving (NTSB SS1701). All drivers need training to understand and follow the basic speed law, which “requires drivers to operate at a speed that is reasonable and prudent, taking into account weather, road conditions, traffic, visibility, and other environmental conditions” (NTSB SS1701). We can do a better job of providing specific education and guidance on how to anticipate and take into account the dynamic conditions of the road, the most important being the presence of people.
A complimentary action we can take is encouraging citizens to engage in activities such as bicycling and walking. Bicycling in particular is a kind of technology that deepens and enhances our engagement with our local communities and the greater world. It is what Scott Slovic calls a “technology of contact”, one that enables us to “connect with the world and think more deeply about our relationship to the world” (p. 358 Literature). I think in part cycling works so well to engage our senses because we are supplying our own biological energy. Going so far on our own energy is one of the magical things about cycling, and makes it such a rewarding technology to use, not to mention, cycling is almost completely renewable. Cycling reminds me of organic farming. It allows biological energy to flow at a sustainable scale and it gives us exactly what we need to be well and productive. It’s about quality more than quantity. Cycling does justice to what it means to be human pursuing happiness.
In this age of technology, it is not a question of always abstaining, but a question of wise and respectful use. It is a matter of education, public training, and living within our biological limits. To me, this is a beautiful challenge, or what Rachel Carlson called “a shining opportunity”. Carlson wrote: “Your generation must come to terms with the environment. Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and a sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery–not of nature, but of itself. Therin lies our hope and our destiny. ‘In today already walks tomorrow'”.
Wendell Berry wrote “The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture” in 1977 and still enacts his values on his small Kentucky farm
Scott Slovic’s Literature chapter appears in the “Routledge Handbook of Religion and Ecology”
NTSB SS1701 is a landmark safety study. Produced by the National Transportation Safety Board, the working title is “Reducing Speeding-Related Crashes Involving Passenger Vehicles”
The Rachel Carlson quote is from her 1962 address to Scripps Institute. She was influenced by Albert Schweitzer’s “reverence for life” philosophy. The address is called “On Man and the Stream of Time” and appears in the book “Literature and the Environment: A Reader on Nature and Culture”.