The adjective “quixotic” must have been invented for the idealists who would like to rid the world of automobiles. The word, which we owe to the fictitious knight-errant Don Quixote, usually implies the impractical, or even foolish or unbalanced, pursuit of an idealistic and romantic cause. And what could be nuttier than trying to abolish the car, the worldwide symbol of success and prosperity?
Nevertheless, there are people who have taken up this unlikely mission. You can find them at www.worldcarfree.net, which is an international clearinghouse for a collection of organizations that are committed to reducing or eliminating the automobile as the primary force that shapes the way we live.
Organizations in the World Carfree Network sponsor publications and programs that promote pedestrian-based living areas and other anti-automobile campaigns. One of them, Toward Carfree Cities, sponsors an annual conference that attracts people who are interested in alternatives to automobile dependence. Last year’s conference was in Istanbul; this year they’re meeting in Portland, Ore.
And the Mobility Justice Project pursued a successful campaign to prevent the World Bank from supporting a ban on human-powered rickshaws in Dhaka. You could even join Autoholics Anonymous.
Ordinarily organizations and programs like these don’t get much attention, and when they do, they’re often dismissed as part of an idealistic fringe without much connection to the realities of our hydrocarbon world.
But with gasoline approaching $4 per gallon, with significant uncertainties about the future of the world’s oil supply, with global warming, with the prospective explosion of the car market in China and India, and with a weakening highway infrastructure, maybe these people deserve a second look.
Some of them see automobiles as an unalloyed evil that deserves eradication. After all, cars depend on petroleum that, for the most part, no matter where you live, has to come from other parts of the world. The crucial role that petroleum plays in our culture occasionally requires us to look the other way when foreign dictators misbehave. In fact, the story of international strategy for the last 100 years has been largely the story of the protection of the automobile’s gasoline supply.
In most of the places we live, cars dominate the landscape. Figures vary, but it’s safe to say that there are around 600,000,000 cars in the world. With India and China coming on strong, that number could double over the next couple of decades. Internal combustion engines, and the processes that produce their fuel, are so bad for the environment that most of us are willing participants in massive group denial about the implications of all these new engines belching out greenhouse gasses.
And did I mention that close to 45,000 people are killed every year by automobiles in the United States alone?
But the motivations that drive the organizations involved in the World Carfree Network aren’t all negative. Some of them envision the construction of a quieter, cleaner, healthier, more serene, and safer world. They’re attracted to the notion of living and working areas that aren’t dominated by the isolation inherent in an automobile culture. They like the idea of being able to walk in their neighborhoods to accomplish most of the errands that normally require us to fire up an internal combustion engine.
And for longer trips they favor the creation of clean, comfortable, electrically driven public transportation, in which, instead of driving through traffic and gridlock, one could relax, read, watch TV, sleep, or surf the Internet.
Some of us would miss the “freedom” that cars provide. And sometimes it’s fun to drive. But these may be luxuries that the world’s resources can no longer realistically provide. And would we really miss changing the oil, maintaining the tires, getting the annual inspection, paying for the insurance, and just generally taking our lives and health into our hands every time we venture out onto our overcrowded highways?
The people at World Carfree Network may be dreamers, but theirs could be an idea that –like us — has legs.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. . E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)