As BP’s oil hemorrhage catastrophe unfolded, my wife and I tried to explain to our children what was happening in the Gulf of Mexico. It was mostly lost on our happy-go-lucky 3-year-old son. Our 6-year-old twin daughters, however, had an especially insightful response to the crisis.
“Cars use gas,” Eva said with a frown, “and gas is made out of oil. We need to stop driving cars so much.”
“How would we travel?” I asked.
“That’s easy,” Clare chimed in excitedly. “We could just ride horses!” (She conceded that we could keep one small car “for long trips.”)
Their response didn’t surprise me. After all, they live on an organic farm with conservationist parents. And like most 6-year-old girls, they are mad about horses. Horses figure into almost any book they read. Horses gallop through their dreams and appear on any scrap of drawing paper. Eva and Clare act out elaborate scenes in which their large herd of toy horses provides the main characters. And since we live on a farm, our girls want nothing more than to own horses.
The thought of taking on equine responsibilities does not make my heart sing. As a parent, though, I have learned never to dismiss out of hand the ideas of my children, however outlandish they may seem. There is always a grain of truth, and often a boulder of it, in what comes from the mouths of babes.
From the standpoint of energy and technology, horses are astounding. They operate exclusively on solar energy in the form of grass and grain. Their waste products are an essential resource for healthy agriculture and could yield methane fuel to boot. They breed their own replacements. They are completely recyclable, with no input of energy. Of what machine can such claims be made?
Of course, if my daughters had their way and horses became a significant part of the transportation sector, head-spinning changes would result. The slower pace of travel would prevent commuters from quickly driving long distances for work, goods and services. This in turn would require a shift from the current pattern of crowded megacities, bland suburbs and depopulated rural wastelands. Smaller towns and gutted rural villages would have to become their own economic and cultural centers.
I do not desire a return to bygone days. Nor do I romanticize the Amish (though I deeply admire them) or wish to preach a neo-Luddite gospel. However, I do think my daughters’ suggestion contains valuable insights for a saner path forward.
First, it embodies a kind of post-modern creativity that is essential to any ecologically and socially sustainable future: open-mindedly discerning, preserving and building on the best of the present and the past. Why not a future in which horse carts, high-speed Internet and rail and induced pluripotent stem cell therapies exist side by side? Isn’t such an approach the genius of Catholic tradition as well?
Second, Eva and Clare’s proposal implies sacrifice for a greater good: ceding some of the control and comfort to which Americans cling and for which we are rapidly destroying creation. Why should some degree of selfless sacrifice be anathema to those who follow the crucified Christ?
Finally, my daughters’ idea invites a conscious consideration of what kind of society we want and what choices would help or hinder that vision. If we keep all our cars but power hem with renewable energy, we would mitigate the climate problem but have done nothing to address the social and economic maladies that an individualistic car culture has helped create.
On the other hand, the limitations and sacrifices implied by horse travel—or other ways of life not subsidized by cheap fossil fuel—would likely make us need each other more, and needing each other more might actually make us happier and more content. As with the great Christian paradoxes, what looks like self-limitation might actually turn out to be strength (in numbers); what appears to be self-denial could become a path to fulfillment and even pleasure.
If we continue our current fossil fuel addiction, disasters like BP’s will continue to occur; and our overheating planet will soon become unlivable. If a lower-carbon future requires creativity, meaningful sacrifice and stronger communities, we win on every front.