The article became longer than expected, so following suggestions of my friends, who remind me to keep my posts as short as possible, decided to break it into two parts.
Why has it happened?
Now is the turn for a question: why has it all happened. There is one fundamental cause, which is the social and economic stratification, but many subsidiary ones cover it, so it is not easily discernible. On top of that, they are also so heavily interrelated that it is difficult to untangle them. Nevertheless, I will try.
The first one, already mentioned, is the movement of the middle-class from towns and centers of cities to suburbia. Their inhabitants had to get to work, go shopping, often transport children to school or visit some places of entertainment. They have no choice because public transportation does not exist or is minimal and inconvenient. Also, in the majority of the satellite suburbia, the supermarkets are far away, while local commerce, particularly in North America, practically is gone. All of that causes cars to remain the only choice of transportation for suburban inhabitants. On the other hand, this emigration to the suburbs could not happen without the presence of cars. We can safely say that they are inseparable.
The second reason is the relentless car, “propaganda.” It is exercised mainly by the car manufacturers and their dealers. However, the media benefit from that by producing endless seductive stories and “reviews” about new models. The result is predictable: the idea of working hard to own a new, larger, more fashionable car omnipresent among the upper and middle class. It suppresses any form of critical intelligence and creates a self-induced, family and social pressure forcing them to buy a new model to replace the older one or keep it as an extra. The last possibility is facilitated by insurance companies, which offer for such extra cars special lower rates.
An essential factor in the car indoctrination is induced by movies, TV serials, and videos. Cars often play roles only second to human actors, nearly always present and sometimes very elegant and superbly equipped (like in James Bond movies). They create suspense and excitement in innumerable car chases, combined with spectacular crashes, etc. All of that subconsciously creates the feeling that without cars, humans life is incomplete.
Now marketing pressing buying new cars focuses on even less rational aspects. The number one is utilizing the ancient form of fashion. It existed since the beginning of stratification but was popular only among the upper class and upper strata of the middle one. Now it also targets middle-class and even wealthier segments of the lower one. The fashion expanded its original scope, and the car became one of its essential elements. In this case, fashion applies to size, shape, colour and internal gadgets. However, it is not the end; the fashion now embraces the technical aspects, like an exponentially growing proportion of mentioned earlier SUVs, which now come in all sizes: from minis to giants.
However, it is far from all, there are also two forms of car-obsession. First, which exists for already around fifty years, are pick-up trucks. This phenomenon is especially characteristic to the USA and, to a lesser extent, to Canada. Pick-up trucks evolved from a useful form of transportation of a small cargo to a fashionable, macho symbol. However, attempts to transplant pick-up mania to Europe was a failure. Europeans turned out to be more prudent and practical. Instead of pick-up trucks, they continue to use the covered vans which protect the cargo from rain, snow, etc.
Another form of more recent absurdity is the growing popularity of SUVs, which an abbreviation of “sport-utility-vehicle. Only 30 years ago the robust, four-wheel driven cars were a rarity, used by people who needed to ride on rough terrains like deserts, jungles or mountains. Suddenly, just a few years ago, the explosive popularity of SUVs embraced North America and, soon after, spread all over the world. They often are purposely massive to look scary, offering owners a sense of domination over others sentenced to drive usual cars. Furthermore, quite recently, the success of large SUVs caused the production and invasion of their smaller versions, also slightly cheaper and easier to park. The invasion of SUVs is another clear demonstration of using stratification as promotional tools. They became apparent symbols of power, superiority, and success.
However, it is not all. Expensive cars, SUVs and pick-up trucks in the USA, similarly to houses, became the most visible manifestations of the status symbol. They show at once who’s social position is higher than others. Since houses are by far more expensive than cars, they became a prime target of this kind of symbolism. It was combined with planned obsolescence and the high cost of repairs, which became a “logical “ reason to promote buying new ones.
However, we must not forget about trucks and truck-trailers. Their popularity is promoted not only by the producers but also pushed by transportation and oil companies because of their colossal fuel consumption. One of the most destructive effects of their quickly growing domination was the steady elimination of their competition: the long-distance electric freight trains. As a result, trucks rule the world of transport. Because of their weight, heavy trucks are mostly responsible for damages to the roads and highways. Finally, they produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gases. For example, in 2013, they were responsible for 12.5% of the total carbon emission in the USA.
Why the heavy trucks became a dominant form of transport can be the explanation relatively straightforwardly. The root cause is speed. The transportation via trucks is faster than via train because it eliminates the potential of delay of loading and unloading the cargo on and from freight trains. Though, if not the pressure of truck producers and their users, train transportation would unquestionably be optimized so it would become not only less expensive but, maybe, equally fast.
The second reason for the monopoly of truck transportation is more fundamental. It is the existing and continuously growing centralization of production. Their size increases and they become megafactories. They also are often moved to places where labour is cheaper while the local production facilities are abandoned. As a consequence, products have to be transported over very long distances to places where they are eventually sold. Part of this transport is done by boats and airplanes, but eventually, it always is finished by trucks and truck-trailers.
A similar process happens in commerce. The wholesale is centralized while retail takes place via relatively small numbers growing in size supermarkets or huge e-mail order fulfillment facilities like Amazon. As mentioned, earlier the local commerce is disappearing, not being able to compete with the retail giants. If that would be not enough, day by day, increasing internet shopping creates demand for more and more parcel services, which are done via smaller trucks.
What to do?
Solving the entire car and truck problem can hardly be done in one hit. Instead, we could take a multi-prong, gradual approach. The first step would be psychological. We would need to restrain ourselves from buying a new model of a car as long as the old one is functional. It seems to be easy and sensible, but it would require resistance to the enormous social and family pressure fueled by merciless advertising and avalanche of media seduction.
This, by itself, will not rectify the environmental problem, but it will tame the car obsession and slowing new cars sale would create panic among investors in the car manufacturing industry and force them to look for alternatives. It hopefully will wake up public, media, and politicians what may lead to the second, more significant step. It would be the development and revitalization of urban public transport. It could be based on overground tramways and underground electric trains wherever it makes sense. It could be combined with a network of smaller buses, which would be easily accessible on demand. Also, it could seamlessly be combined with the suburban transit as it is done, for example, in Paris, where suburban trains are becoming part of the subway metro system. It practically would eliminate the need for private cars as means of suburban and urban transport.
This development could be done together with a much more significant and expensive undertaking of the large-scale redevelopment and optimization of passenger and freight electric trains transportation. It would be easier in the countries, where railway tracks network, tunnels, and stations still exist. In North America, it would be far more complex and ambitious because the train network, created in the mid 19th century, is much more sparse than, for example, in Europe, Japan, and even China and India.
Once passengers or goods arrive at the train station closest to their final destination, the passengers can be transported to their ultimate destination by cars or small buses. A similar approach could be taken to cargo, which would be delivered in containers and loaded onto trucks, which will deliver it wherever necessary. Such an arrangement will dramatically lower the necessity of long-distance use of cars and trucks.
The increasing awareness of the catastrophic effects of greenhouses gases produced by cars and trucks gave birth to building new generations of vehicles powered by the hybrid (electric and fuel) and purely electric motor cars. So far, it mainly applies to cars, while trucks avoid any significant changes.
Electric cars, which, first being produced by the Chinese, caught media attention attracted to the colourful personality of Elon Musk, the producer of Tesla cars. Soon after, other big German and French manufacturers followed suit, and suddenly, even politicians began to promote electric cars as an excuse to cover up their dismal inaction. Also, It worth adding that electrical engines are hardly applicable to large trucks because the size of batteries would be too large for speedy reloading.
However, after a more sober look at this fashion, we have to come to the conclusion that belief in replacing the combustion-powered vehicles by electric will solve the problem is a hypocritical illusion. It is sufficient to remember that 63% of electric energy produced in the world comes from burning fossil fuels. Electric cars will make sense only when electric energy would be produced ecologically. However, since such “detail” is far less exciting for the media and following them politicians, electric cars continue to be seen as
Another more promising approach would be replacing fossil and biofuels with hydrogen. Hydrogen-powered engines are 100% ecologically neutral because burning hydrogen produces only …water. Also, the existing fossil and biofuel motors would not have to be dramatically changed – the change is no more difficult than adjusting existing fuel motors to natural gas.
However, extracting hydrogen requires electricity, so unless the ecological method of generating electricity would replace the fossils and nuclear sources, we are not progressing too much. There are well-recognized methods of ecologically acceptable methods of generating electricity: the wind turbines and solar panels. They have, however, their drawbacks. In the case of wind turbines, they have an environmentally negative impact, hight maintenance costs to the lack of stability, coming from dependence on the presence of wind. Also, the generation of electricity from solar radiation can only happen during the daytime and depends on the geographical location and amount of clouds. Also, after around 20 years, the panels have to be disposed of, what creates another problem: they are toxic. Until now, there has not be invented a technology what to do with them.
There exist, though less well known, ways of exploiting the enormous amount of heat stored under the surface of the earth. It is the geothermal production of electricity using, so-called deep closed-loop system, which is independent of any geological conditions and does not produce any potential earth tremors. It should not be confused with geothermal pumps used for heating of houses or other deep geothermal technologies. The deep closed-loop systems are 100% stable and ecologically neutral. Despite being, at present, in the early stage of development, it seems to be sure that, one way or another, the exploitation of the deeply stored geothermal energy would become the dominant player in the future safe production of electric and thermal energy. However, that can only be possible with significant financial investments and support from science and technology, which at this point, is minimal.
The above solutions are not addressing the main problems, which are the roots of the need for an unnecessary amount of transportation of people and cargo. As I altered mentioned, stratification caused a variety of absurds, which force people to travel from the place they live to work, commerce, education, etc. The same applies to the centralization of industrial production and agriculture, which far away from the centralized warehouses and supermarkets. However, removing these absurds would require getting rid of the existing liberal capitalism and underlining it stratification altogether. But it is another, much more complex, story.
The suggestions presented in the section “What to do” may sound logical, but the author has no too much expectation that any of them would be realized anytime soon. So why write them? The answer is: perhaps somehow, by a strange coincidence, someone or new society, who has the will to make necessary decisions and power to realize them, may encounter this article. Also, maybe it will you readers, who in the future, will recall it and decide that some of its ideas are worth considering. However, even at present, you can do something by resisting the temptation of unnecessarily buying a new car.