What car do you drive?

The question arises soon after readers or lecture audiences first become acquainted with global oil depletion and climate change. I must be asked it at least once a week.

Sometimes I reply by saying I didn’t buy my first car until I was 40, later drove an old diesel Mercedes while belonging to a local biodiesel co-operative, scrapped that fume-belching heap of metal and replaced it with a Toyota Yaris to protest the Brontosaurian dimensions of the typical American SUV, and now often get around on an electric scooter. But that answer, while respecting the query’s intent, fails to advance the conversation. The question presumes a continuation of car-centred culture, which is precisely what must be called into doubt.

In many parts of the world (especially the US), automobile ownership is a given. Throughout the last century, the petroleum, automotive and road-building industries amassed and exerted enormous political power, systematically foreclosing all other transport options through efforts either to starve rail and public transit infrastructure of funds, or to buy them up and dismantle them. Bucking the current, massive system of highways and personal dream machines requires courage, dedication and planning. Few individuals are sufficiently motivated.

Thus it’s understandable that the first policy response to depleting petroleum reserves and the climate threat has been a rush toward biofuels and coal-to-liquid technologies. Yet if either of these alternative fuels is expanded enough to replace oil, the car (rather than the atom bomb) may end up being the invention that destroys the world.

Our transition away from fossil fuels will require a societal effort at a scale and speed never before seen; we can’t afford to waste investment capital and precious years pursuing false solutions such as alternative fuels. Electric cars may be a better idea, but when comparing auto-based transport systems with rail-based options even electric cars look like resource gluttons. We don’t need alternative cars; we need alternatives to cars, starting with ways to reduce our need for travel in the first place.

Perhaps those of us who have arrived at this conclusion may be forgiven a less-than-joyous response to the recent unveiling of Tata Motor Company’s £1,200 Nano, an auto being marketed to tens of millions of previously car-free Asians who can now afford a scaled-down version of the object that half-a-billion inhabitants of wealthier countries take for granted.

Doesn’t everyone deserve the comfort and convenience we enjoy? It’s an insidious question. Like the title of this essay, it presupposes a great deal. Only by unpacking and picking apart our assumptions about the future of transportation can we hope to overcome the sinister logic of universal car ownership, a logic that leads to universal destruction. Are biofuels a bad idea in every instance? Probably not. Should car owners be demonised? That’s neither polite nor helpful. But until we collectively, through co-ordinated policies, reverse course and stop both building roads and looking to alternative fuels for a solution, we’re all on a highway to hell.

Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, lectures widely on sane responses to fossil fuel depletion, and is the author of The Party’s Over and Peak Everything

This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2008

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