4,000 Miles of Confronting Comfort
“I wish I flew.” A few days ago, bathing happily as a clam in the plethora of pretty moments offered by freighter travel, these are words I would never have expected to come out of my mouth.
Yesterday, still green from the unceasing roll of the North Atlantic swells, I uttered them anytime someone would listen. Usually they were followed with another four: “like a normal person.”
If any of my friends were to have heard me uttering these words, I would have received a slap on the wrist. They would have reminded me of the many reasons that I’ve always wanted to travel by freighter: the more comprehensive understanding of the world that slower travel invites; the psychological, spiritual, and creative benefits of time alone with no distractions; and perhaps most importantly, the lower environmental footprint of my journey. These are all values I laud openly, and hold far above speed or cost while traveling.
But do I hold them above comfort? To my own surprise, that appears to be another question entirely, and it’s an interesting one to try to unpack: How much are our values influenced by our level of comfort?
Consider this: In his recently published book It’s All About the Bike (a brilliant, highly recommended account of the bicycle’s history hung around the narrative of his own personal quest to build his dream bike), Robert Penn writes about the revolutionary freedom and improvements to quality of life that the bicycle offered the average person upon its invention.
“For the first time in history, the working class became mobile,” he writes. “The health benefits of the bicycle met with an appetite for self-improvement that characterized the age: the same workers who pedaled to the factories and the pits founded gymnastic clubs and choirs, libraries and literary societies. . . . The bicycle met the demand of fin de siècle society for independence and mobility.”
Dubbed the “freedom machine” by historian Robert A. Smith, the bicycle even marked an enormous leap in the fight for the emancipation of women, so great was its power, writes Penn. He quotes Susan B. Anthony, the suffragist famous for being arrested in 1872 for voting in the presidential election:
Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. . . . It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance . . . The moment she takes her seat she knows she can’t get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.
But despite all these things, the bicycle did not explode into its golden age until one critical invention: the pneumatic (inflatable) tire.
Before that, bicycles had tires made of solid iron or wood, earning them the name “boneshakers.” Eventually they were covered in a strip of solid rubber, but were nonetheless still uncomfortable enough that, as Penn writes, “a simple ride could rattle a man’s molars free.”
But when John Boyd Dunlop tacked inflatable tubes to his son’s wooden bicycle wheels for the first time in history, the world of the bicycle changed forever.
“For the bicycle it was the last piece of the jigsaw,” Penn writes. “Finally Dunlop made the bicycle comfortable. It was perhaps a development as important as the arrival of the Safety [the first bicycle with pedals and known today as the first modern bicycle] itself. The pneumatic tyre made the bicycle popular.”
One would think that freedom, self-reliance, independence, and mobility would be enough to make the machine explode into irreversible popularity—surely these are things that are valued by most more highly than almost anything. But the bicycle’s tipping point did not come until the thing was comfortable.
Even when it comes to our health—the very thing that keeps us alive and able to go about life in a meaningful way—the same holds true. Today there is almost no excuse not to know the dangerous and unpleasant effects of a sedentary lifestyle and poor eating habits. None of us desire to be unhealthy, and the majority of us value the Western concept of beauty to the extent that we would prefer not to be fat.
But still, diseases that result from this lifestyle are so pervasive that researchers from the Australian, Canadian, American, and Britsh public health agencies and associations banded together to publish a paper with the matter-of-fact title “Diseases of Comfort: Primary Cause of Death in the 22nd Century.”
Part of the blame, they wrote in 2005, lies simply with the rise of comfort technologies like the automobile, or even the vacuum cleaner and washing machine, that have reduced the amount of natural physical exercise we get in a day. Simply walking to work or school, or cooking for ourselves, would be a massive start to a healthier and less obese population, but the comfort and convenience that the car and fast food offer are somehow tough competition.
This freighter trip was miles better for me and for the world than a trip on an airplane would have been. (I don’t pretend that containerships are not without their carbon footprint, but it is by no means my business as a passenger that is keeping the shipping industry alive.) The bicycle offered the working and oppressed in the late 1800s more freedom through mobility than arguably anything else that had ever come before it. Eating fruits and vegetables and walking is healthier and more slimming for all of us than eating fast food and driving.
Yet the draw of comfort and convenience is enough to drive us away from the things we otherwise value the most; the things that are best for us—let alone for the world.
Of course there are those with exceptionally steely self-discipline who do not give in to the cushiony call of comfortable alternatives. But for the rest of us, the average human beings of the world, the question remains: Will personal comfort always trump personal or collective values?
If so, what does it mean for the quest to build better, healthier, happier cities? Does it mean redefining comfort again, like the Anglo-Americans did a few hundred years ago? Does it mean forcing miserable conditions upon our worst habits? Or always approaching the creation of new alternatives with comfort as a top priority?
I invite your thoughts.
Photos (top to bottom): Christine McLaren; woman on bicycle, 1910, Galt Museum and Archives, Lethbridge, Alberta, via Flickr; Photograph No. 77-RP-7347-4; “Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model bicycle for two.” 1911-1912; Series Raising of the U.S.S. Maine from Havana Harbor, Cuba, compiled 1911 – 1912; Record Group 77: Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, 1789 – 1999; National Archives at College Park (College Park, MD) via Flickr.
The Comfort Crash Course is a two-week series by BMW Guggenheim Lab|Log blogger Christine McLaren as she journeys 15 days from New York to Berlin via containership, following the same cross-Atlantic route traveled by the Lab itself last fall. In the complete absence of city life, and armed with a library of diverse readings that helped inspire the theme for the Lab’s first cycle, Confronting Comfort, as well as others recommended by Lab|Log followers, she explores this theme at its core. The goal: to discover and understand the roots of the human quest for comfort—and why it needs to be confronted. More here.