September 11, 2007

Riding Dirty

Riding dirty: NBers driving more than other Canadians
StatsCan says we beat the national average.
Chris Arsenault
Published Thursday September 6th, 2007

If you took a long drive last weekend, or if you planned for a scenic cruise over Labor Day, you're not alone.

A recent Statistics Canada report concluded that New Brunswickers lead the nation in the number of kilometres driven per vehicle each year; the provincial average is 18,558 and the national average is 17,009, so New Brunswickers are clocking 1,549 kilometres more per year than other Canadians.

What caused this? Why does New Brunswick only lead the country when it comes to obesity rates and kilometres driven? No need to point out the relationship between these not so pleasant titles.

Geographically, N.B. isn't the biggest province. Nor are we the richest - some economists correlate cars per capita and kilometres driven with economic output.

Seeking to explain our driving dilemma, the editors of the Telegraph-Journal correctly noted that, "it is mostly a combination of lifestyle and habit, demographics and the deplorable lack of options for residents to choose from for public transit." Unlike other provinces, half of New Brunswickers still live in rural areas and these folks don't have much choice but to drive to work.

Nonetheless, "Vehicle emissions are the single most rapidly growing source of the carbon emissions contributing to global warming," California's attorney general Bill Lockyer told the U.K. Independent last year before launching a lawsuit against the six largest car companies for their lacklustre fuel efficiency standards.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are now a third higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, and probably higher than they have been for at least 10 million years, according to a 2006 report from Britain's Royal Society.

More than any other invention, the private automobile has come to define western civilization. Individual freedom to cruise and play the radio - with no particular place to go - has always been the core selling point for cars and the culture which spawned them.

There was nothing inevitable about the dominance of private cars and the geographic planning structures like freeways, suburbs and big box store industrial parks which they made possible.

In Grade 6, during those first discussions about freedom, us western liberal types are taught that we are free to do anything, as long as it doesn't negatively impact anyone else.

'Impact' is putting it mildly when analyzing the effects of car cravings which will literally starve millions in the coming decades. According to Christopher Field of the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California and David Lobell of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory the impacts work something like this: for every 0.5C hotter the world gets because of global warming, crop yields fall between three and five per cent.

So, if we keep on riding dirty, and force the climate two degrees C hotter - the lower end of the range of predicted temperature rise in this century - the world will see a 12 to 20 per cent fall in food supply. With some 800 million people around the world already facing chronic hunger, you do the math.

It has become fashionable for people in the middle or upper middle classes to think they can save the planet through 'responsible' consumer choices. In her book A Slice Of Organic Life, Sheherazade Goldsmith, the gorgeous 28 year-old wife of a British millionaire, argues that "Being more conscientious isn't about giving up things." Well, actually it is.

It's not enough for yuppies to cruise to chapters in a Prius rather than Cadillac, even if they're buying Al Gore's latest soliloquy.

The answer for cutting our driving patterns is not simply for individual New Brunsickers to give up their cars- people who need to get to work every morning would laugh at the idea.

Car culture required massive public investments. Think of the thousands of kilometres of twined highway that criss-cross the country (and no the tax on gasoline doesn't come close to paying for this). The problem is structural not individual. Car culture and the climate change it causes requires political solutions: massive investments in city buses and inter-city rapid transit and urban development projects where people can live, work and play in the same area.

As individuals, we can make a mess by driving our cars; cleaning up will require collective action.

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