Why Thoreau Wouldn’t Drive a Prius

categories: Cocktail Hour


I guess what I’m about to do qualifies as cross-blogging.  The below originally appeared in Wild Life, my blog at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and then got picked up by Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Beast and the Wall Street Journal.  Now, more impressively, it has been picked up by Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.


The short answer: he couldn’t afford it.

The long answer: he wouldn’t afford it.

Let me explain:

Last weekend I spoke at the house where Thoreau was born, a talk sponsored by the Thoreau Farm Trust. I got out to Concord early and took a walk around Walden. The place was crowded on a fall Sunday, and what was once a one-man show was now a crowd of more than a hundred. The last time I had visited, during summer, SUVs crammed the parking lot and an ice cream truck played its seductive tinkling song.

During the warm months, the beach at Walden is usually jammed, chairs and umbrellas and floats and life guards and families yelling at each other: People yak into cell phones and boats putter about with the words “Walden Patrol” on their bows. Large sections of the pond are fenced off, and when you walk along the shore you are herded through paths as crowded as airport escalators.  Irony is always thick at the modern Walden, and to get to the site of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin, you often have to barge and dart and slide past the hordes that clutter the trails, the place having become a Disney recreation of its former self.

But yesterday was slightly less crowded than my summer visit, and if you ignored the fences you could almost imagine the pond as Thoreau had known it. The leaves glistened and the air was cold, and I passed a cove where the water shone a deep blue-green. The cabin site was marked with a great pile of rocks, a cairn, and a sign that informed me, among other things, of the fate of the cabin after it was removed from the site: “At first, it was used to store grain. Then it was dismantled for scrap lumber and the roof was put on a pig pen.” That sounded about right. The house itself was a single room, 10-by-15 feet, a kind of anti-trophy house.

As I walked, I thought about how Thoreau’s experiment of living by the pond, and in particular Thoreau’s personal math, is more relevant than ever. Everywhere you look these days people are singing the praises of restraint and bemoaning the failings of sheer excess. Frugality, that unfashionable virtue, is suddenly back in fashion. How do we make our own home economics, our personal ledger sheet, balance with what is happening in the larger world? Although Thoreau did his share of finger-wagging, it isn’t his moralizing that interests me. What is truly exciting is what you might call his celebration of the joys of restraint, his thrill in self-abnegation, as long as it is self-abnegation for a purpose. Perhaps most vital for our moment is his deep-seated and deeply-lived belief, that one can live a good life, and an interesting and compelling life, by consciously doing with less instead of striving, incessantly, for more.

His larger question was “how to live?” and his answer came down to this: since it takes great effort and energy to get the money to get the time to live as one wants — that is, in his case, to walk four hours a day, immerse oneself in nature, and find time to write — why not cut out the middle man? Why not attempt to set directly about doing what one wants to do?

But what about money and getting more? Well, what if instead of needing more, one has a talent for and takes pleasure in needing less? The thrill of this equation for Thoreau, and the challenge for so many of us that have followed, is that he, unlike the rest of us, seemed temperamentally suited to this reductive math. One day he might have three acorns for lunch and, rather than feeling deprived, Henry, thrilled by the momentum of austerity, would the next day cut that number down to two, and then, what the hell, have just one the next. Though he liked being extra-vagant in his language, piling on the sentences,  that was just about the only place he indulged in the excessive.

What would his reaction be to the recent news that growth has slowed? Hooray! It’s about time! Now we finally have to face reality and can no longer ride along on the illusive wave of eternal growth. And we don’t have to be grim about it, either. Our new ambition can be to see how much we can do with little — in other words, we have the chance to refine our ambitions. For Thoreau, as for a fanatic accountant, life was a giant ledger sheet. Of course it was many other things, too, including an arena for heroism and a place of beauty and wildness, but the ledger sheet was never far from his mind. What comes in, what goes out … What do we give up? What do we gain?

Which brings me back to the Prius. It’s true that Thoreau, loving the wild world as he did, would choose a car (assuming, for the sake of argument, that he would buy a car at all, an admittedly suspect assumption) that damaged the world as little as possible. But one thing that Thoreau the transcendent accountant abhorred more than anything else was debt. He wrote famously:

How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five feet by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture, and woodlot! The portionless, who struggle with no such unnecessary inherited encumbrances, find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh.

A barn, a mortgage, a car are all things we push before us as we creep down that road. And a Prius, by my estimate, costs about $400 a month, an amount that Thoreau would not just balk at, but probably laugh at. Much preferable would be a car that was far cheaper and still got good mileage, a car that would not require the monthly pushing of a barn, even a barn with wheels. After all, part of the pleasure of the car for Thoreau, even while working as a handyman, would be to see just how little he could use it. That would be fun! And better yet he would buy a used car. You see, he really liked re-using things. (He would have loved that his cabin later lived on as a grain storage bin and then again as a pig pen.) Why not take someone’s old car and make it his new one?

Personal addendum: I will end by admitting that the above was, among other things, a rationalization. When I was reporting in the Gulf during the oil spill, I got around in an old RAV4, a car that didn’t get particularly great gas mileage. Though I believe that we are all environmental hypocrites in this day and age, I was stung by my own hypocrisy, guzzling gas as I criticized BP. I vowed that when I got home I would buy a Prius, putting an end to  my hypocrisy. I put that decision off for a while because we could not afford a new car right away. We finally put the RAV out to pasture and lived with one car for a while, which was a good solution until the school term started and one car no longer worked. So I was now ready to buy my Prius and found myself facing … $400 a month. I do not keep as strict a ledger as my friend Henry, but I knew I was not ready to accept that level of debt. Suffice it to say that the used Scion that now sits in our driveway gets pretty good mileage.

  1. Tommy writes:

    Prius envy’s not a pretty thing.

    I’m gonna open up a hole ‘nother can of worms here, and suggest you (collective) buy American.

  2. monica wood writes:

    Dave, as a Prius owner (2004 and NOTHING has gone wrong with it, best car I’ve ever owned) I can still say it’s probably more earth-friendly to keep a low-mpg car for as long as you can than to buy a new high-mpg car. It takes enormous resources to build things, including cars. The best way to save energy is to drive less, no matter what you’re driving.

    • Dave writes:

      I’m really trying. I now live within a bike commute of school (though I don’t do it enough.) I’d love to own a Prius but that 400 a month would kill me. Once we sell Cocktail Hour to Google I’ll but one!

  3. George de Gramont writes:

    Wonderful essay. A bientot.