Is the motor car driving the world to destruction?

Two Billion Cars, like many modern green tracts, mixes demands for restraint with celebrations of techno-solutions to the problems we face. And as always, the restraint wins out.

Austin Williams

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Musing about Easter Island, Jared Diamond famously asked: ‘What were they thinking when they chopped down the last tree?’ Diamond’s polemical book Collapse, written five years ago but based on a 1995 article, argues against the unthinking exploitation of nature which allegedly led to Easter Island’s downfall 300 years ago. He concludes that we should be constantly vigilant to prevent the similar downfall of modern man due to our stupidity and intransigence. While there is nothing to be gained by advocating stupidity and ‘transigence’ in response, it is worth dismissing Diamond’s conclusions for the contemptuous Malthusianism that they are.

Fast forward to today, and Stewart Brand, the godfather of environmentalism, seems to argue a more enlightened line. He confounded reviewers (spiked’s Rob Lyons being a notable exception) by arguing in favour of risk-taking, as opposed to Diamond’s caution. When it comes to ‘exploiting’ nature he quotes Charles Mann on native American Indians: ‘Faced with an ecological problem, the Indians fixed it. Rather than adapt to Nature, they created it.’

However, don’t be fooled. What seems like opposing arguments in fact turn out to be the flipside of the same coin. They both agree that there’s human-caused ‘harm to undo’. For Diamond it is a question of social engagement; for Brand it is a technical and rational issue. Diamond wanted us to rein ourselves in; Brand wants to experiment… but only because, he says, ‘the whirlwind is coming anyway’. Both come together under the mantra of stewardship and restraint.

Brand’s positive spin is the more contemporary, reflecting modern environmentalists as go-getting, innovation-led, positive and future-orientated technophiles. Driven by ‘science’ and ‘engineering’, their solutions include geo- and bio-engineering, natural sciences and modern technologies. It is important not to get too carried away, though, as all too often this is an approach that can sound futuristic while demanding a significant brake on real, meaningful innovation. For instance, Brand’s kind of innovation is that which innovates within narrowly defined environmental parameters. In terms of engineering solutions, for example, he supports them provided that they respond to a proscriptive evidence-base.

Unbeknownst to Brand, this actually undermines genuine creativity. First of all, if your parameters and end goal are set, it is simply a matter of finding evidence to fit. Secondly, engineering is about responding to social and aesthetic concerns, not simply constructing to scientific diktat. The fact that Brand lauds the Chinese Politiburo because they are all engineers exemplifies his mainstream technocratic approach to the art of engineering. To engineer creatively, free-thinking is essential.

And so we come on to Two Billion Cars, the latest iteration of the environmental debate by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon. The Malthusian asks: ‘What will we be thinking when we drive the two-billionth carbon-belching car out of the showroom?’ The techie suggests there are engineering solutions that can cater for it. This blend of the Diamond/Brand debate offers a little bit of responsible restraint with a pinch of technological improvement to sugar the pill.

First, the problem. ‘Cars have become so dominant in many countries that most travellers no longer reflect on their mode choice – they just routinely step into their personal auto every morning.’ This glib assumption that we should all pontificate about our ‘mode choices’ omits an exploration of the essence of personal convenience exemplified by the car. Without considering the fact that most of us don’t want a daily tussle with carbon calculators to work out the most ‘responsible’ travel mode for picking up the kids from school, the authors automatically assert the need for a bit of self-control for us modern-day Easter Islanders.

That said, they suggest that ‘cars are here to stay’ and so we should also develop alternative technologies. But if the motivation for technical innovation is to stop us driving (in order to reduce the implicit harm caused by mobility), surely it is much easier to bang on about the restraint model? Indeed, while the authors conclude that ‘there will always be a need to travel’, they state that we need to ‘balance mobility with sustainability’. It is in this unassuming equation that the needs and desires of people come a poor second to the ‘demands’ of nature.

Actually, a lot of what the authors say is eminently sensible in its own terms. We need better public transport networks; we need more efficient technologies; more experimental fuels; greater investment in R&D, etc, etc, etc. In these terms, there seems little wrong with the authors suggesting that we set ‘the goal (to) provide high-value, clean mobility while discouraging the use of low-value travel in dirty vehicles’. What’s wrong with that? After all, the switch to the catalytic converter was reasonably painless back in the 1993. Nobody voted for it; there was minor pressure from vintage car enthusiasts, but generally it was accepted as a step forward.

Similarly, outlawing leaded petrol has been undoubtedly beneficial to air quality and to the personal health of those living nearest the site of exhaust fumes. Advocates of reducing the use – and allegedly harmful impact – of the car regularly cite these and other examples as the benefits that have accrued as a result of reining in the personal choices of the public.

Indeed, the Clean Air Act of 1956 clamped down on dirty, sulphurous coal fires and implemented ‘smoke control areas’… whether we agreed to it or not. Isn’t this demand for high-value transport just the same, inoffensive thing?

No. Clean Air Acts were introduced as public health initiatives and efficiency drives, whereas the focus on clean mobility for Sperling and Gordon is in order that we leave a ‘much smaller societal footprint’. Undoubtedly there will be benefits from driving hybrids rather than Hummers, but the authors put these forward in moral rather public-health terms. Commenting on consumers who buy hybrid vehicles, they say: ‘The purchase of a Prius tells the world they want to be frugal.’ The object of Clean Air Acts was not to stop people heating their homes but to make sure that they didn’t kill themselves in the process. It wasn’t about stopping us using energy – in fact it encouraged us to use more in order to be more comfortable, more efficiently.

The objective of technological improvements in engine technology and hydrogen fuels is a good thing in itself, but rather than argue for it politically, the authors demand restraint. That restraint, they suggest, should be placed on Big Oil’s greed, OPEC’s shadowy practices and consumer gullibility. Given the magnitude of the first two, unsurprisingly it is easier to restrain the third.

To be fair, the authors are good at unpicking the failures of the petroleum market, in which, as they say, ‘the flabby and out-of-touch US automakers had created an oligopolistic cocoon’. The potential collapse of the Detroit’s Big Three (Ford, GM and Chrysler) and the subsequent bailout are well explored. But fulminating that we need to cure our ‘addiction to fossil energy’ is not the same thing as a strategic innovation plan; in fact it undermines the chance of developing one.

In the end, for all the technological spiel, Diamond’s miserablism wins out and there is a strong implication that it is our – or at least, some of our – idiocy as consumers that is the real problem. What were we thinking?

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of Enemies of Progress: The Dangers of Sustainability. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon, is published by Oxford University Press USA. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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