Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Asphalt Cage

Every morning I have an hour-long commute from rural central Maryland to rural south-central Pennsylvania. This morning I began, as always, with a 10-minute stretch on I-70 East, blinded by the morning sun, battling seemingly angry and demoralized commuters heading to D.C. and Baltimore, before blessedly turning off on back roads, where the mountains and trees soften the sun and the few drivers on the road are a little slower and more relaxed. As I drove past all the familiar forests and pastures and streams and cows and goats and sheep and geese, my body and mind began to relax.

The great German social theorist Max Weber wrote of the “iron cage” of modernity. He was writing in the early 20th century, trying to envision where Western, capitalist, industrial society was heading. In part, he argued, it was headed toward further and deeper bureaucratization, efficiency, rationalism, and so forth. Where we become social security numbers instead of people, census and poll takers rather than citizens, and people whose time and ability to navigate life are in the hands of low-level state bureaucrats rather than family and community members. Eventually the iron cage will imprison us, Weber argued, taking away our freedom, autonomy, and joy. I think we can all feel that iron cage at times.

But this morning I was thinking of a cage made of asphalt rather than iron. How much of our lives do we spend hurtling down an asphalt road to hell, in danger from the crazy drivers around us, our backs hurting from sitting too long, our only window on nature the little blur of trees and mountains we can see through our windows and windshield? And have you noticed how complex parking lots have become, with divisions and subdivisions and stop signs and arrows marking the direction of traffic? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been trapped in a shopping center parking lot, unable to figure out which of the exit-like turns is actually an exit that will finally allow me out of the shopping center!

But this morning I was concerned even more with how much of nature is now carved up by asphalt. Take a look at how wide some of our multi-lane roads are now: much too wide for most birds to traverse, too dangerous for deer and other mammals to cross, and effectively cutting an ecosystem into pieces. I just googled some best guesses as to how much of the U.S.’s land surface is paved, and it’s probably around 61,000 square miles: about as much land area as the state of Georgia. As for the portion of the planet’s land surface that is paved, probably around 0.2%. That is small in quantity but potentially huge in effect. And I cannot imagine that this percentage will do anything but grow rapidly as populations swell, development of infrastructure increases around the world, more goods need to be trucked to more places, and urban centers require greater connection to each other and their hinterlands.

A part of me loves to get out in my car and drive. It feels like such freedom! But I fear that the asphalt cage, in addition to its negative effects on us and our lives, is gradually imprisoning nature, taking away its freedom, autonomy, and joy.


  1. This makes me wonder if it could be different if we worried about these things as we added roads to the land. For example, for every bit of asphalt added in a road construction project the same amount of land area had to be cultivated for wildlife. I can't see how this could be practically implemented, especially in big cities... but I think it's a nice idea.

  2. I heard an NPR a piece about asphalt and disappearing ecosystems. You bring up a really important issue. And it is successful because the writing is so crisp and the personal musings on an intellectual conundrum while driving in a car is very effective. I am really inspired by your ability to see through the ordinary and find the puzzle that needs to be solved.