The Hidden Costs of Mobility

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Reading Neil Young’s entertaining memoir “Special Deluxe” into which he has poured many exhaustive details of his extensive automobile collection; and a car-by-car history of his life on the road. Sometimes he mentions an album or concert as well. Its a fascinating, if unorthodox, rock and roll auto biography.

Along the way through this story, Neil mentions the mileage he’s racked up on each of his trips and calculates the amount of CO2 he was responsible for releasing into the atmosphere. He’s worked it out to be about one pound of CO2 per mile (he did drive some big american-made gas guzzlers). This number got me to thinking: The reason we’ve been able to go on with this insane pumping of greenhouse gas is that its mostly invisible. It comes out the tail pipe and soon dissipates. It seems to be gone; but its not.

So lets imagine that the CO2 we pour into the air behind our cars and trucks and motorbikes was a solid, perhaps bright yellow, and was concentrated into brick, about the size of a pound of margarine (I wouldn’t want to waste any butter in this thought experiment). In this scenario every mile you drive you would toss another greasy yellow brick out the window. Now suppose that every car on the road is leaving this same trail of pollution by the side of the road; both directions, every day, year after year for as long as cars have been driven. Can you picture the mounds of accumulated bricks? And these are highly concentrated packets of vapours. If they were the size of pillows the would still be much less dense than the actual emissions, each one still representing one pound of CO2, and those piles of gassy pillows would stretch in every direction as far as we could see.

It is the hidden cost of our chosen mode of personal transport. In exchange for a greater mobility and a lifestyle which celebrates “carefree motoring” we barely notice that we have ruined the landscape which we left the cities and highways to see, in the big drive-through show called the world of nature. Billboards, road signs, srtip malls fill the spaces between “scenic viewpoints” where we are encouraged to step out of our cars and take a look at the earth without the intervening windshield.

The deeper hidden costs extend to the ruination of the scenery, with open pit tar mines and endless acres of oil fields spurting out the life-blood of the fossil-fuel and plastics industry to allow us to drive about in style on roads surfaced with yet more petro-tar asphault. I note that some progressive construction projects now use recycled plastics in the road, a laudable effort, even if 50 years too late. India has been a front-runner in this exercise but their environmental gains have been negated by their recent program of accepting old used tires from Britain to be burned, adding more clouds of dirty smoke to their already choking air.

Unfortunately, our obsession with the freedom of the highway has cost us all dearly, the total payment has been deferred as long as we can still afford to fill ‘er up at $130 per litre or more. Electric automobiles are here; but still are forced to compete in unfair circumstance with the “traditional” combustion engine and its toxic emissions (which of course include much more and deadlier stuff than the CO2). We are now going to have to curtail our recreational travel, by car, plane or cruise ship and try to make our homes and neighbourhoods attractive, sustainable and somewhere we’d like to spend more time.

Cause you ain’t going nowhere.

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