Deep Green is Rex Weyler's monthly column, reflecting on the roots of activism, environmentalism, and Greenpeace's past, present, and future. The opinions here are his own.

May 2010 -

Rex WylerThe Toyota hybrid with a stuck accelerator and no brakes is a sad icon of our age.

Our modern industrial society remains stuck on growth and does not know how to stop. Like the runaway Toyota, we are headed for a crash. The car, however, is more than a metaphor. The car is one of the prime forces of destruction on our planet, among the most harmful social design decisions in historyAs a means of moving people around, the car is inefficient, deadly and toxic. Most North American cities offer few transportation options, making citizens dependent on automobiles. Today, certain developing nations with traditionally sound public transportation, are subsidising automobile industries. Will these nations make the same tragic mistakes that western nations made?

In 1991, English poet and playwright Heathcote Williams published Autogeddon, a long invective poem about the automobile’s trail of death and devastation, which Williams called ‘a humdrum holocaust ... the third world war nobody bothered to declare’. How did private, expensive, dangerous, dirty automobiles come to dominate North American transportation?

Killing the public option

In 1922, some 1,200 thriving urban railways operated in North America, accounting for 90 percent of urban travel. No one complained or demanded more cars and roads. However, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan saw a ‘great opportunity’ to replace public transportation with private cars. To achieve this, he established a ‘task force’ to ‘motorise’ North America. Sloan coerced railroads to abandon urban transport and used his influence to discourage banks from making loans to urban rail projects. Sloan’s secret cabal used advertising and lobbying where it worked and, where it didn’t, they used bribes and intimidation. In Detroit and Minneapolis GM’s ‘task force’ employed mobsters to intimidate politicians. In Florida they gave away complimentary Cadillacs to city councillors.

Then, in 1936, General Motors, Firestone Tires and Standard Oil (Exxon-Mobil), formed a holding company, National City Lines, which bought urban transport systems and systematically destroyed them. It bought the Pacific Electric system that carried 110 million passengers in 56 communities. It increased fares, cancelled routes, reduced schedules, cut salaries, allowed trains to decay, ripped up over 1800 kilometres of track and closed the entire network. By 1956, over 100 rail systems in 45 cities had been purchased and closed. Meanwhile, GM ran ads claiming that electric trains were ‘old fashioned’ and that private cars represented ‘the wave of the future’.

In 1946, public railway supporter Commander Edwin Quinby wrote a report to city governments, describing a ‘deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your electric railway system’. GM used its media influence to accuse Quinby and his supporters of being a ‘lunatic fringe of radicals and crackpots’.

Quinby’s report caught the attention of US federal prosecutors, who indicted General Motors in Chicago for ‘criminal conspiracy to monopolise ground transportation’ and destroy public transit. They won their case, and the court convicted GM of criminal conspiracy. GM paid a $5,000 US dollar fine. Otherwise, nothing changed. Over the next 25 years, US prosecutors attempted to limit GM's influence on public transportation, but in the end GM had more money, lawyers and influence. It succeeded in sabotaging public transportation throughout North America.

Going global

We often hear globalisation promoters claim that the ‘free market’ system allows ‘free choice’. But the destruction of public transportation in North America was not a public choice. It was a corporate scheme for monopoly, power and profit, preying on human ego and gullibility.

In the 1980s, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher joined the chorus and proclaimed ‘nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of the great car economy’. Under Thatcher, British engineers built the M25 motorway around London, designed for 30 years of vehicle growth, but traffic jams clogged London within six months.

Today, 17 companies –  including Toyota, GM, Honda, Volkswagen, Chrysler, BMW and Mazda – produce about 60 million vehicles each year. Meanwhile, some 50 emerging global automobile companies – Harbin Hafei, Mahindra, Anhui Jianghuai, Great Wall, China National, and others – make about 10 million vehicles each year. These emerging companies intend to grow to rival the big automobile makers.

About 1 billion motor vehicles now exist on Earth, a fleet growing at about 3 percent every year. At this rate, within 25 years, Earth will support 2 billion vehicles and within 50 years - by 2060 - 4 billion vehicles. 

Car destruction:

Over a million people die each year in traffic accidents. Throughout history, over 50 million people have died, comparable to the death toll of World War II. Over 2 billion people – drivers, passengers and bystanders – have been injured in vehicle accidents. Most of these deaths and injuries could have been avoided with public transport. Accidents happen with trains and buses, but at a fraction of the automobile rate. Good public transportation in place of automobiles would have saved about 42 million of the 50 million traffic deaths due to cars.

However, these unnecessary deaths and injuries account for only a fraction of the destruction caused by cars and trucks. In an automobile culture, cars consume about 40 percent of the urban landscape for roads, highways, parking lots, gas-stations, body shops and so forth. This represents a massive public asset – land - paved over to serve an inefficient, dangerous transport system.

Worldwide, motor vehicles emit about one billion metric tons of CO2 each year, 15 percent of global carbon emissions. Meanwhile, modest ‘efficiency’ gains – hybrids and mileage improvements – are swamped by the shear growth of the car culture.

The social costs of car culture include the destruction of neighbourhoods, unsightly urban landscapes, fear, stress and ‘road-rage’. One of the greatest social costs is lost time and squandered human productivity. Commuters on streetcars and trains can be productive with work, reading, relaxing, eating breakfast in the dining car, or talking to colleagues and friends. 

Hybrid fallacy 

The ecological and social destruction caused by cars goes far beyond carbon emissions and ensnarled cities. The harvesting and mining of resources – rubber, iron, rare-earth metals for hybrid batteries, copper, plastics and so forth – plus the energy-intensive manufacturing process – comprise a massive ‘embodied’ energy and resource demand. Some 20 to 40 percent of the energy an automobile uses in its lifetime is ‘embodied energy’, consumed before it is purchased. None of this is solved by building hybrid cars. The car culture is a resource pig.

Currently less than 2 percent of new vehicles are hybrids. If these few vehicles improved fuel efficiency by 25 percent, that would translate into one-half of 1 percent for the entire global fleet of vehicles, which meanwhile is growing six times faster, at 3 percent. Historically, mechanical efficiencies do not translate into less consumption, but more. Why? Because when we gain efficiencies, consumer items become cheaper, so people consume more. Apple Computer founder Steve Wozniak, for example, owns four Priuses, perhaps thinking that he’s solving global warming. New hybrid owners will drive more and feel comfortable living farther from their work. It is counter-intuitive, but efficiencies increase consumption. In economics, this is well known as the ‘rebound effect’.

Car promoters love to show oil consumption per capita declining in certain regions. What they don’t tell you is that per capita petroleum consumption has been declining since 1979 as population has outstripped oil production. Global oil production has been flat since 2005, so per capita consumption is now declining everywhere, not because of hybrid cars but because of oil field depletion.

A recent ad for the Honda Insight hybrid proclaims, ‘Theoretically, it seats 6.75 billion’, implying that Honda could build a new hybrid car for every person on the planet. This is a deceit: 6.75 billion people, driving hybrids with 40 miles-per-gallon efficiency, driving 10,000 miles a year, would require 40 billion barrels of oil annually, over 5 times the current demand for automobile fuel, and the difference is greater than the entire current world oil production. There is not enough gasoline – or other resources – to build and fuel 6.75 billion hybrids, or even half that amount.

Buying a new hybrid car will not reduce global petroleum consumption. It will increase consumption by adding a new vehicle to the road. The growing automobile culture requires infrastructure, highways, service and parking spaces, all costing more space and more energy.

From the North American experience with cars, we should have learned that we cannot trust corporations to design our cultures. Car companies may find it profitable to repeat the crime of North America, destroy public transportation, deplete the planet of resources, mine every last scrap of rare earth metals, burn the declining oil and dam rivers for electricity to grow and feed more cars. For the people and the planet, this would be a disaster.

Nations who want to achieve genuine sustainability should follow the example of cities that have designed and built excellent public transportation, cities such as Stockholm, Oslo, Moscow, Helsinki, Barcelona, Munich, Tokyo, Seoul, and Sao Paulo.

The motor vehicle, including the Toyota hybrid with its stuck accelerator and faulty brakes, should fade away into the dustbin history’s bad ideas.

- RexWeyler

You can respond to "Deep Green" columns at my Ecolog, where I post portions of this column and dialogue with readers.