By: Suzanne Elston
Ask a group of individuals what they consider to be mankind’s single most influential invention and you’d likely get a variety of responses. The taming of electricity and the subsequent invention of the light bulb, the telephone, the advent of the computer and the development of the Internet would likely make the Top 10. While each of these scientific marvels has dramatically changed how we work, learn and communicate, their influence pales in comparison to one invention that has literally changed the face of the planet.
The internal, infernal, combustion engine, and the family car that it powers, has impacted our lives more than any other single invention. It’s ubiquitous. Its availability pre-determines virtually every aspect of our lives: where we live and work and shop, how, when and where we play, even how we design our cities. We use the car to define our social status and depend upon it to protect our safety.
Paradoxically, the car can also be a murderous weapon, and is the leading cause of adolescent death. Young lives are also being lost every day in Iraq and Afghanistan to help protect Middle Eastern oil that fuels, among other things, our cars.
While we’re on the subject of fuel, Canada’s urban motorists consume over 40 percent of the transportation sector’s petroleum, making the family car a substantial contributor to global warming, arguably the single greatest threat to life on the planet. And that’s just the beginning of the automobile’s environmental impact.
The car competes with agriculture for valuable land. Every car we add requires that an average of 0.07 hectares be paved for parking spaces and additional road capacity. Globally we add an additional 12 million cars to roads every year. That’s a staggering 32,877 cars per day. Every kilometer of road that we build takes up 6.5 hectares of land, while a single highway interchange can easily gobble up 16 hectares or more. When you add this all up, we pave a whopping one million hectares, or enough land to feed 9 million people or more, every year.
According to Lester R. Brown, “More often than not, it is cropland that is paved simply because the flat, well-drained soils that are well suited for farming are also ideal for building roads.”
On a positive note, the automotive sector is a major employer. Ontario’s auto industry alone produced 2.7 million vehicles in 2004, providing high-paying jobs to 135,000 skilled workers. An entire second tier of service and retail industries, everything from Canadian Tire and Mr. Lube to the corner gas station, owes its existence to the automotive industry. The car also made the drive-thru possible, and further fueled the exponential growth of the fast food industry. The downside is that we are the fattest, laziest, and most unhealthy generation in recent history.
The car isn’t just about accommodating our lives, it’s about creating lifestyles: status with an SUV, luxury with a Lexus, and cachet with a Cadillac. It’s about rewarding ourselves. Watch any game show; check out any community raffle or lottery. Chances are the grand prize will be an automobile.
As E. C. McDonagh so brilliantly articulated, “The car has become a secular sanctuary for the individual, his shrine to the self, his mobile Walden Pond.”
The car can represent success or failure, security or freedom. As Clint Eastwood once quipped, “You are what you drive.”
I don’t think so. If we buy into that mentality, then we’ve missed the point entirely. We are so much more than the sum of our stuff. We are what we think, what we do, what we create. But until we can say, “I won’t drive a car that isn’t as smart, or as environmentally aware, or as creative as I am,” then we get what we deserve. Like Frankenstein’s famous creation, what began as a bright idea has turned into an out-of-control monster that is threatening to destroy us, and our environment, at just about every turn.
But only if we let it. We are still a self-determining species. We have to reject the status quo. We have to revisit our greatest creation and determine that the price – with or without zero percent financing – is just too high.
Lester R. Brown’s latest book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (W.W. Norton & Co., NY: 2003) is available from the Earth Policy Institute.
For more on the history of the automobile, About Inventors and search “automobile”.