A Website Celebrating Car-Free Culture

Car Culture

9th June 2024

A few weeks ago I read a couple of papers looking at electric vehicles, and that came to the conclusion that carbon emissions can be reduced by replacing the existing car fleet by electric vehicles (see The UK: A Low Carbon Location to Manufacture, Drive & Recycle Electric Vehicles and Lifecycle Analysis of UK Road Vehicles).

I mean, they were interesting papers that did a full lifecycle analysis of EVs and dispelled a lot of the media confusion on the issue, and I have no doubt that the analysis, from a purely quantitative point of view, is correct.  In some ways I felt some relief.  For me, it is clear that people are not going to stop driving their own personal chariots everywhere, even in the face of climate change.  Appalling as that is, after some 20 years of community organising around sustainable transport, I can confidently say that that is a fact.  So from that perspective, I felt some relief to hear that we can still reduce carbon emissions without people having to stop using cars, and that we can do so by switching to EV’s.  And yes, I know there are strong ethical objections to EV’s that surround the use of rare metals, and I also know that it is doubtful whether the rare metals needed for such a massive boom in EV’s can possibly meet the demand.  In short, I know EV’s are not the solution, but even so, I still felt some relief, purely as a campaigner on climate change, someone who campaigns on the issue and that also works in communities to achieve behaviour change.  It makes life sooo much easier to talk about switching to EV’s than it does talking about using the car less, and so there is a palpable sense of relief when you know you don’t have to continue doing that.  

I once read a book by a Japanese systems analyst who was responding to the whole ‘Limits to Growth‘ debate, and who said that you can triple the world’s existing car fleet and still reduce emissions by focusing on energy efficiency.  In other words, if you increase the energy efficiency of car engines fivefold, so that cars are a lot less polluting, than even if you triple the existing car fleet you will still have reduced overall emissions.

I mean, mathematically the analysis is correct, just as mathematically the analysis on EV’s is correct.  We can reduce emissions without restricting car growth, and we can even reduce emissions whilst at the same time increasing the number of cars on the road quite substantially.  The question for me is: but will this solve the climate crisis?

Of course, the answer for most people is a resounding YES!!! because they are addicted to cars.  But for me, there is a bigger issue here that is being swept under the carpet and ignored, and that is the issue of car culture, and the price we as a society pay for car culture.  That is, for living in a world where our communities and living spaces are dominated by cars, and selfishness.

Because let’s be honest, car culture is a selfish culture, and it is an egoic culture, and so a society that remains dominated by cars will remain a selfish and egoic culture.  A culture full of hubris and arrogance and which acts only in its own self interest, and not for any other reason.

Personally, that is not a culture I want to be part of, though I appreciate that I am on my own here.  I often feel like the red squirrel, which in the UK has been squeezed almost to extinction by the introduced grey squirrel.  Like the red squirrel, I fear I am a species of human that is being squeezed out and into extinction by a greedier and more aggressive species that has colonised the world.  I mean, who today cares whether cares are egoistic or selfish?  We live in a culture that celebrates and idolises these values, and people champion them everywhere and act as though egoism and selfishness are great.  

I’m not about to bore the reader with examples to demonstrate that car culture is egoistic and selfish, as the fact is, if you think that is not true then the likelihood is that, for various possible reasons, you just screen it out and push it from view and have just become normalised to it.

But this is the analysis that you don’t get in these scientific accounts of how we deal with climate change.  The problem is reduced to numbers and quantitative analysis, as though human values are nothing to do with it.  Yet human values are what cause climate change.  Selfishness, aggression, egoism: these are the direct causes of climate change.  An analysis that says we can reduce emissions by increasing these qualities, or by encouraging these qualities, is an analysis that is blind in one eye.  That doesn’t mean it is a null analysis, but it does make it extremely flawed.  So while I felt some optimism after reading those papers, overall I had a very strong disquiet that in reality, these authors had got it badly wrong.

We are not going to deal with climate change and other issues of that severity by maintaining a culture that relies upon egoism and selfishness, as even if you do reduce emissions from cars these troublesome traits will find other avenues of expression that will cause additional emissions and additional problems.  Perhaps emissions will reduce despite a selfish and egoistic culture, that is possible, but those same traits will continue to cause equally severe problems.  

Going car-free on the other hand is not just a way to bring down greenhouse gas emissions, it also represents a fundamental transformation of the way we live, and of human values, and of human society, away from selfishness and egoism and towards being rooted in a more wholesome and grounded world that values human community and responsible living.

Cars also represent, in a way that nothing else does, the societal use and abuse of fossil fuels, and its dependence on the petrol pump.  Cars are emblematic of much deeper problems that quantitative scientific analyses ignore.  The car, after all, is they very symbol of the era of climate change, and as long as that symbol abides among us so will fossil fuels and climate change, because that is what this symbol represents.  As long as it continues to take centre stage in our lives, climate change will remain.  Breaking the chains that bind human communities to cars represents real hope for the future, and while I may feel some relief that intermediate measures such as increased engine efficiency and EV’s can bring down emissions to some extent, for me that is only an intermediate step, a slowing of the rate of climate catastrophe.  The real step is switching away from individual cars altogether, and building a car-free world. 

Only then will the car – the symbol of climate catastrophe – be finally extinguished, and climate change become a thing of the past.  

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