Guardian contributor George Monbiot had an epiphany recently. “I’m struck by the amazing variety of ways in which cars have ruined our lives,” he writes, referring to the cancers, asthma attacks, and obesity epidemics caused in whole or in part by relying on pollution spewing transportation devices.
“Let’s abandon this disastrous experiment, recognize that this 19th century technology is now doing more harm than good, and plan our way out of it. Let’s set a target to cut the use of cars by 90% over the next decade. Yes, the car is still useful — for a few people it’s essential. It would make a good servant. But it has become our master, and it spoils everything it touches. It now presents us with a series of emergencies that demand an emergency response.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but burning fossil fuels to provide on demand transportation services is doing more than contributing to global heating. It is literally killing millions of people every year with a disproportionate effect on children. According to The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health,
“Pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world today. Diseases caused by pollution were responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015—16% of all deaths worldwide—three times more deaths than from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria combined and 15 times more than from all wars and other forms of violence. In the most severely affected countries, pollution-related disease is responsible for more than one death in four.”
With respect to the special dangers faced by our children, a study published December 23, 2017 by the National Institutes of Health reports, “Fossil fuel combustion by-products are the world’s most significant threat to children’s health and future and are major contributors to global inequality and environmental injustice.” It goes on to say,
“By impairing children’s health, ability to learn, and potential to contribute to society, pollution and climate change cause children to become less resilient and the communities they live in to become less equitable. The developing fetus and young child are disproportionately affected by these exposures because of their immature defense mechanisms and rapid development, especially those in low- and middle-income countries where poverty and lack of resources compound the effects.
“No country is spared, however: even high-income countries, especially low-income communities and communities of color within them, are experiencing impacts of fossil fuel-related pollution, climate change and resultant widening inequality and environmental injustice. Global pediatric health is at a tipping point, with catastrophic consequences in the absence of bold action.
“Fortunately, technologies and interventions are at hand to reduce and prevent pollution and climate change, with large economic benefits documented or predicted. All cultures and communities share a concern for the health and well-being of present and future children: this shared value provides a politically powerful lever for action.”
Larger, heavier cars are also a risk factor for fragile humans. In the US, pedestrian fatalities have soared by more than 50% since 2009. Monbiot attributes much of that increase in carnage to the rising popularity of SUVs and light duty trucks. Not only is it harder to see out of those behemoths, they cause far more damage when they come into contact with fragile human tissue and bones. “Driving an SUV in an urban area is an antisocial act,” he says.
Wars fought over fossil fuel resources have killed and maimed hundreds of millions of people. Monbiot mentions the never ending war in Iraq as just one example. Now the United States is considering military action against Venezuela, which just happens to be a major petroleum exporting country. Coincidence? You decide.
Even electric cars do not escape Monbiot’s scathing analysis. “Already, beautiful places are being wrecked by an electric vehicle resource rush. Lithium mining, for example, is now poisoning rivers and depleting groundwater from Tibet to Bolivia. They still require a vast expenditure of energy and space. They still need tires, whose manufacture and disposal (tires are too complex to recycle) is a massive environmental blight,” he says.
“We are told that cars are about freedom of choice. But every aspect of this assault on our lives is assisted by state planning and subsidy. Roads are built to accommodate projected traffic, which then grows to fill the new capacity. Streets are modeled to maximize the flow of cars. Pedestrians and cyclists are squeezed by planners into narrow and often dangerous spaces — the afterthoughts of urban design. If we paid for residential street parking at market rates for land, renting the 12 square meters a car requires would cost around £3,000 a year in the richer parts of Britain. The chaos on our roads is a planned chaos.
“Transport should be planned, but with entirely different aims: to maximize its social benefits, while minimizing harm. This means a wholesale switch towards electric mass transit, safe and separate bike lanes and broad pavements, accompanied by a steady closure of the conditions that allow cars to rampage through our lives. In some places, and for some purposes, using cars is unavoidable. But for the great majority of journeys they can easily be substituted, as you can see in Amsterdam, Pontevedra, and Copenhagen. We could almost eliminate them from our cities.
“In this age of multiple emergencies – climate chaos, pollution, social alienation — we should remember that technologies exist to serve us, not to dominate us. It is time to drive the car out of our lives.”
Now there’s a disruptive thought.