As an environmental columnist, one question that repeatedly comes to mind is, “How much denial is humanly possible?”
Inevitably, the answer turns out to be the same, time after time: “Boundless amounts.”
Humans routinely overcome the complexities of war, disease and famine, and yet we are unable to get our collective heads around the simplest concepts of cause and effect. Cars, for example, have us completely flummoxed. On the one hand, across cultures and generations, cars are one of the world’s most potent symbols of freedom and status. On the other hand, the number of cars worldwide is soaring, putting us on a collision course with energy and food shortages and aggravated climate change.
Don’t get me wrong, I love cars. I love their styling and how models change over the years, and I love their speed and the independence they give us. But that’s the point. Millions and millions of people feel the same way I do, and even those who couldn’t care less about cars still buy them for practical reasons, or simply because everyone else does.
In the interests of full disclosure, yes, I own a car: A 17-year-old Rover Mini that I drive a couple of times a month and could certainly live without. We keep it because we bought it from friends when they left the country and it has sentimental value. If someday it gets crushed by one of the SUVs that clog Japan’s roads, well, we’ll be fine without it — which I’m lucky to be able to say, because I know many Americans, Australians and Canadians simply don’t have a choice. Without their cars, even the simplest tasks, such as buying milk or going to work, might take hours or even days.
Certainly many of us need cars, but many of us don’t. Recognizing that cars pose a serious threat to energy, food and environmental security, one might expect governments to be formulating plans to wean us off cars. But they aren’t.
We know the planet is warming, and the climate is changing, and we know that worldwide dependence on fossil fuels is contributing to those changes. It is also no secret that cars, in both their production and use, are a major source of greenhouse gases that are altering the atmosphere.
Still, we continue to make millions upon millions of cars, our fossil-fuel consumption has never been higher, and use continues to climb even as shortages loom. We also know that, to ensure global peace and prosperity, we need to create a society that is built upon a foundation of sustainability: A sustainable economic system that conserves and protects the planet’s ecosystems and biological diversity.
Nevertheless, we continue to measure the success of our economies solely by how much we produce and consume.
Moreover, we throw away much of what we make; we consume much more than we need; and the pollution we create is often tallied on the credit side of our balance sheets — because the industries that create it don’t pay for it, and the medical services and cleanups it necessitates add to the bottom line of a nation’s GDP.
Cars are a key component in this destructive cycle — yet we are addicted to them. Cars, their parts, their repairs, their insurance, their fuel, and their parking and registration costs have become a key pillar supporting the temple of our indulgent world economic system.
Reading this newspaper last Saturday, I was reminded of how often we fail to connect the dots of our denial. Two articles and an editorial, just pages apart, confirmed how we compartmentalize our thinking and ignore the big picture.
On the front page of the paper was a report that Toyota Motor Company became the world’s top automaker in the first half of 2007, outselling America’s General Motors Corporation. This puts Toyota on track to become the number-one car maker for the entire year, a position GM has held since 1931, according to Kyodo News Service.
The second article, in the domestic Business section, reported on comments made by Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan Motor Corp., at a forum in Tokyo last Friday. Ghosn was quoted as saying, “Global warming is a big concern. . . . People don’t want to feel guilty when they drive a car.”
The third piece was an editorial headlined “New Warning on Oil,” which began: “Brace for another energy crisis.”
As the editorial noted, demand for oil is rising, and supplies are not going to keep pace. Coal and nuclear were mentioned as alternative power sources, but new infrastructure for these is not yet in place, and both coal and nuclear pose considerable problems, including global-warming gas emissions and lethal wastes, respectively.
Plus, coal and nuclear won’t offer much help running our internal- combustion engines.
So we’ve got Toyota selling 4,716,000 million cars over a 6-month period — an 8-percent increase over the first half of last year — and GM selling 4,674,000 over the same period — a 1.7 percent increase. If both corporations keep this pace, they will have produced about 18,780,000 cars this year alone.
We’ve also got a car company CEO telling us that global warming is a big concern, while announcing plans for new models, and of course more cars. And we’re being warned that oil supplies are not going to keep up with our insatiable demand, even as greenhouse gases from our past consumption are climbing to new levels in the atmosphere.
Millions of cars, fuel for those cars becoming increasingly scarce, emissions from that fuel threatening global ecosystems — and yet unrestrained plans to build millions more cars. Denial.
However, the nearly 19 million cars and trucks that Toyota and GM will produce this year are only part of the picture. Last year, the world’s auto manufacturers produced a record 67 million vehicles, according to a recent Worldwatch Institute news release.
The United States and Japan, though, are not the only nations responsible. China, too, is setting new records.
“While global production grew 4 percent last year, China increased its production by nearly 30 percent, overtaking Germany to become the third-largest producer,” states the Worldwatch release titled “Planet Gets a Lemon as Global Car Industry Revs Up.” Worldwatch is a nonprofit research organization based in Washington D.C.
Seeing such enthusiasm for car production in a country that faces critical environmental and energy concerns proves that China, too, is suffering world-class denial.
But, in addition to fuel shortages and rising greenhouse gases, there is a third factor — food. And considering its billion-plus population, China should be taking food very seriously.
Because of climate and fuel concerns, governments and corporations worldwide have been looking for a quick fix that will allow them to keep making cars and keep their engines running. Sure enough, a fix has been found — but it threatens food supplies.
American environmental policy analyst Lester Brown calls this quick fix “ethanol euphoria”: the ill-conceived belief that if we mix ethanol with gasoline, we can overcome oil dependence and stabilize greenhouse gases.
The food connection is that most ethanol is produced from grain, and if we divert large amounts of grain to fuel production, then food costs will soar. If this euphoria sweeps the United States, it will affect nations worldwide, Brown warned in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works last month.
“The escalating share of the U.S. grain harvest going to ethanol distilleries is driving up food prices worldwide. . . . This unprecedented diversion of the world’s leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices everywhere, risking political instability,” explained Brown on June 13, 2007.
And China is already feeling the pinch.
“Rising grain and soybean prices are driving up meat and egg prices in China. January pork prices were up 20 percent above a year earlier, eggs were up 16 percent, while beef, which is less dependent on grain, was up 6 percent. . . . These food price rises could be approaching a politically dangerous level,” Brown explained.
But not just grain is going into gas tanks. Other plants, including switch grass, algae and sugar cane are also being used to make substitute fuels, because, as the thinking goes, the carbon these biofuels release when burned is recaptured by the next crop grown, thus balancing emissions and sequestration.
Biofuels, however, cause more than just food shortages.
Expanding monoculture farming increases pesticide and herbicide pollution, loss of freshwater resources and erosion. Still, we love our cars and cheer our automobile companies. With less euphoria and a bit more thought, there are numerous energy and transportation alternatives available.
As Worldwatch points out, “On average, urban car travel uses nearly twice as much energy as urban bus travel.”
However, if humans would rather starve their brethren and overheat their planet than give up their cars, we’d best switch to hydrogen fuel-cell cars. We’ll need a new fueling-station network worldwide and a new generation of cars — which will please the car companies — but if we do, the only exhaust gas we’ll have to deal with is water vapor, leaving oil in the ground and food on the table.