Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Inventions in a future tense...

A critic of cyclists and cycling recently wrote the following:

What's going to be your argument when, as is beginning to happen now, motor vehicle engines no longer run on fossil fuels and don't pollute the air?

This provides an excellent example of an abiding problem in political discourse: achievements in the future tense. Will we have non-polluting cars someday? We do not know, but we certainly do not have them (in any numbers) now.

GM can produce electric cars, but we don't know they can produce enough to really make a difference. Nor do we know if we can grow enough energy crops to power millions of automobiles. We have yet to reconcile the desire of the rich for luxurious mobility and the basic needs of the poor: energy crops compete with food crops for farmland, and electric cars bid up the cost of electricity for heating and cooking. The engineers have some work to do before a truly environmentally friendly automobile reaches the showroom floor.

If it does? Some of us will sigh with relief and take the car. Some of us will insist on riding our bicycles for pleasure and health. But we ought not to base our individual or collective decisions about transport today on some imagined future. Today, when we choose to drive or ride, and when we choose to build bike paths or roads, cars pollute.


amh said...

Tell your freinds that cars will still be HUGE for an urban environment, they will still be heavy, they will still kill people, and our society's (and yur freind's) tolerance of all this is still way out of whack.

Anonymous said...

"Pollution" is only one problem with cars. There are many, many others. It's a mistake, even for cycling advocates/activists to only pay attention to the pollution issue.

Cars also:

* Take up waaaaaay too much space on our roads, cities, etc.

* Cause gridlock, traffic jams, delays, etc.

* Encourage a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle

* Require huge amounts of pavement for their use and storage, which destroys water tables and causes more extreme water runoff after precipitation

* Kill and hurt people

* Contribute to urban sprawl planning

* Require huge amounts of money to build and maintain their infrastructure

* Etc...etc...etc...

So as soon as those problems are all fixed, I might start to like cars. :)

Anonymous said...

No question that using non-polluting cars that way we use today's poison gas belchers would still lead to all the problems you list, as well as the indignity that goes with depending on a piece of technology when we could depend on ourselves.

I had really intended to highlight the problem (which we see in many areas) of basing arguments on future achievements. Remember George W and the big "Mission Accomplished" banner? Many people make this mistake, in many areas, and when I encounter a particularly
notable example, I like to point it out.

But rest assured, no "clean car" technology could make me love riding less, or lead me to give up bicycle advocacy.

Ben said...

I think that there will never be such a thing as a "clean car" i.e. a vehicle that can sustainably transport a person around at 80 km/h (to pick an arbitrary number).

It's not a rock solid argument, but nothing within billions of years of evolution has managed to accomplish sustained high speeds on land. I don't think that we as humans can do it if nature can't.