Thursday, July 28, 2011

Following the herd

Watching a video of a lion chasing a gazelle, it struck me: no wonder it's hard to ride a bicycle when everyone else is driving. I want to be in the middle of the pack. This want is separate from physical discomforts like being too cold, hot or wet. It is a base-level craving to simply fit in. Perhaps it's genetically coded. Who wants to be the most vulnerable thing on the block? A weakling to be culled? I want to follow the crowd.

Survival is not the issue of course, at least not usually. There are no lions hunting down bicyclists. With a reasonable amount of attention, care and safety equipment, most commutes end safely. So why do I fidget uncomfortably at crosswalks? Over-apologize for showing up at a nice lunch with helmet and messy hair? Drive at the least little excuse, even when the weather is beautiful and there is plenty of time? A young friend who is living in China put it well, noting that she enjoys being car-free in Beijing, loves walking and is used to taking extra time to get places, but that's partly because everyone else is doing the same thing. When she visits home in California she goes back to driving even though walking is easy, comfortable and practical, and even though she is one of the most intelligent and environmentally sensitive people I know. "We do what everyone else does," she said. "It's as if we can't help it."

This made us both laugh a little guiltily because, the thing is, we can help it. We are not gazelles. We don't have to follow the crowd. This is one of the cool things about humans.

No disputing though. It ain't easy.  The herd instinct is  strong. How many compromises does spawned? How deeply ingrained is the willingness to go along with the flow, even when it doesn't make sense? What does it take to change directions?

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