Julian Baggini: A hard shoulder to cry on

A road does not have to be driven along just because it is there
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The Independent Online

It may not be on the same scale of Eyjafjallajökull's eruptions emptying the skies of aircraft, or weeks of snow blocking whole sections of the country, but the closure of the M1 has brought that same curious mixture of frustration for those whose plans and routines have been thrown into turmoil, and a peculiar soothing calm for the rest of us witnessing the temporary, local suspension of the normal hurry and bustle.

The empty road, which used to evoke the longing for escape and travel, now represents release from the constant need to keep moving, whether we want to or not. Not so long ago, motorways were liberators, not oppressors. The most familiar images of the empty M1 are those taken in 1959, when crowds lined bridges to witness the opening of Britain's first full-length motorway. Moses hadn't parted the Red Sea, but the way in which it cut a faster, clearer route to and from the capital seemed something of a miracle.

Like many conveniences, however, motorways sowed the seeds of their own problems. The reason for this were foreshadowed in 1865 by the economist William Jevons, who observed that, as technology increases the efficiency with which a resource can be used, we often use more rather than less of it. His explanation for what came to be known as The Jevons Paradox is that as something becomes cheaper and more plentiful, more people become able to use it more often and in greater quantities.

There is a similar paradox of convenience. The more convenient something becomes, the more people will tend to use it. Over time, however, this increased usage will only create new inconveniences. Car travel is the exemplar par excellence. As more people can afford cars and a wider motorway network makes the country more accessible, we spend more of our time in cars. But of course it is not convenient to actually be in a car travelling, nor to be expected to constantly move from place to place. And the more people avail themselves of the opportunities motorways present, the more congested roads get and the less convenient the whole business becomes.

The same is true of many other apparent conveniences of modern life. Local versions of supermarkets offer us shopping closer to home, meaning that many of us go to them most days, sometimes more than once, spending even more time shopping than we would in a big weekly trip. Smart phones offer the convenience of constant communication, which means we spend more time sending and receiving messages and become slaves to them.

But unlike Jevons's merely apparent paradox, this one contains a genuine contradiction. We do indeed both gain and lose at the same time because the inconveniences we gain are not the same as the ones we lose. Nor are the conveniences we acquire illusory. However much we might breathe in the calm of the empty M1, there is hardly anyone who would like to have relied on it over the weekend, or who would prefer to go back to the days when cross country driving meant single lane A roads for hours on end. Nor would I trade back my smart phone for the simple bell-and-whistles free device I was using quite happily until a few years ago.

If the paradox of convenience is to have a solution, it cannot be found by simply denying the real gains progress brings. The answer, rather, is learning to use them more wisely. A road does not have to be driven along just because it is there. Phones can be switched off as well as on. Food can be stored in your cupboards as well as on store shelves down the road.

When the M1 reopens, it is obvious why cars will fill its lanes once again. But it is not obvious why they should do so to bursting point. In order for car travel to become truly liberating again, as it was when the M1 opened, we need to remind ourselves that an inconvenience is often no more than a convenience we have over-used.

Julian Baggini's latest book, 'The Ego Trick: What It Means To Be You', has just been published by Granta