Car Culture and Climate Change: Systemic and Personal Solutions

Kirkland, Giles | February 6, 2020 | Leave a Comment

Despite the nay-saying overtures of several international politicians, climate change is real, and it is an immediate problem. The excess of pollution and greenhouse gases expelled into every ecosystem and the atmosphere have already raised the temperature of the Earth by 1 degree Celsius – a more significant raise than the number itself suggests. If the population continues to get bogged down by climate change deniers, then this increase will only grow and become irreversible.

Green Technologies: a Treatment, But Not a Solution

Those international bodies willing to act against climate change have proposed a variety of solutions, including an increased use of electric or non-fossil fuel vehicles. The technologies now working to limit the impact of vehicles on the environment include:

  • Hybrid Powertrains – by substituting some of modern vehicles’ fossil fuel usage with electric energy, the creators of hybrid powertrains are slowly guiding consumers away from excess fossil fuel usage. 
  • Electric Engines – international automotive manufacturers are pulling kinetic energy up through tyres, from existing power plants, and from solar panels to power battery engines and to limit urban consumption of fossil fuels.
  • Hydrogen Engines – while yet to drive successfully over several hundred miles, automotive manufacturers internationally are working with engines that convert dihydrogen (H2) into energy.
  • Green Tyres – made from over 200 ingredients, these tyres must meet EU eco-ratings in three areas: fuel efficiency, wet grip, and noise. 
  • Carbon Core Technology – released by BMW, these sustainable plastics are built into a vehicle’s body to lighten its carbon footprint while also retaining the safety necessary to keep BMWs legal on the road. 

While this aim and these technologies are admirable, their creation only attends to a symptom of climate change. It is fossil fuels or rather the looming lack of them, after all, that drive climate change – and you’ll find fossil fuels behind the production of lightweight plastics, green tyres, and all manner of vehicular engines. 

Because of the wide-spread use of fossil fuels, climate change cannot be classified as a usage problem. Instead, it needs to be addressed as an ecological problem that requires a systematic solution. 

The Need for Systemic and Cultural Change

“Systematic” is the key term to consider. There are economic and cultural structures in place that aim to keep fossil fuels in circulation. Germany as a country, for example, saw its 2020 electric vehicle goal scrapped due to the overwhelming popularity of fossil fuel car culture. Because the nation’s identity is, in some ways, tied to its production of BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes, and Volkswagens, residents are reluctant to give up on the economic and cultural figures that have defined them for so long.

To successfully mitigate the impact of climate change on that one country, German legislators and sustainability activists would have to divorce a significant percentage of the population from their fossil fuel connection. 

After that was done, those same individuals would have to address the legislation that allows the aforementioned car manufacturers to produce the “luxury” cars that they do at such a significant fossil fuel cost. While, again, a changed population could encourage the company to shift to electric vehicles with sensible purchases, that population wouldn’t be able to roll back the allowances the manufacturers have gained via governmental trade without the assistance of a person in power.

The Problem With Power

It is with that acknowledgement that we come to face the problem of power. People who stand to make a significant amount of money from car manufacturing often look for ways to increase their revenue, even if those increases aren’t practically necessary. Given the prevalence, in this example, of German fossil fuel culture, most car manufacturers or lobbyists would want to capitalize on German vehicular nostalgia to continue selling fossil fuel vehicles. Likewise, they’d want to ensure that the population could receive these vehicles at a lower cost, and would thus work within governmental structures to ensure the resources needed to manufacture those vehicles could be easily obtained.

What’s the lesson here? In short, if people in power – car manufacturers, governmental officials, lobbyists, etc. – do not want to commit to anti-climate change measures because they fear those measures will impact their bottom line, they won’t. As a result, car plants won’t see significant change in their functioning. This means that even as more electric vehicles take to the roads, plants will still be consuming significant amounts of fossil fuels, as those fossil fuels will operate the machines used to keep the plant open.

An International Problem

To better summarize the point: while individuals can recycle more often or install moss-infused tyres onto their cars, they cannot compete with the 100 companies generating over 70% of the world’s pollution.

To reverse the impacts of climate change – or, at a minimum, slow them down– those companies, including car manufacturers, need to have their contributions to the changing of the planet addressed through legal and cultural means. Instead of glorifying the means through which a limited number of people come to unusable wealth – Jeff Bezos, for example, with the $3,182 he makes every second – we need to modify our understanding of acceptable economic and ecological behaviour to better suit the needs of the planet on which we live. 

Breaking Down Car Culture

Let’s take a step back, though, and return to the problem of car culture. Germany isn’t the only country that’s built up a national identity around its automotive industry. Americans, too, often based their identities on the vehicles they own. In the UK, driving a particular brand of car reflects a person’s societal status. 

This kind of fixation on a vehicle drives car culture forward internationally. But what, beyond international examples, is car culture?

After WWII, soldiers returned to their homes around the world and were able to remake the economies of their countries. Infatuated with the romance of peace, the automotive industry took off. It was the 1950s, in particular, that saw an influx of single-home vehicles in developed countries around the world. 

Cars, at that time, represented economic success. More than that, however, they represented the nuclear family and traditional, home-oriented values. The idea of carpooling was ridiculous because it meant accepting charity or admitting that a person didn’t have the means to afford a vehicle for themselves. In a time of proposed peace and prosperity, the mere idea of collaboration – partnered with the growing Red Scare and a fear of any behaviours that suggested communal living – was inconceivable. 

While car culture is beginning to wane in some countries due to the economic restraints placed on the newest generations, its shadow remains. Cars still represent independence, individuality, and economic success. Teen drivers may not go cruising anymore, but the memory of doing so is thoroughly ingrained in their parents. Those values are then passed on, even if the behaviour itself isn’t imitated. 

The Silver Lining: Making Moves Against Car Culture

All that said, the moves automotive manufacturers, governmental bodies, and general populations alike are making to superficially reduce the amount of fossil fuels used in the UK and around the world are welcomed. They represent a minor acknowledgement of fossil fuel usage which, in turn, opens the door for more pointed critiques and transformations.

For example, petrol and diesel vehicles will no longer operate in the UK after 2032, so long as the legislation upholding that ban is not repealed. This represents a first step in the process of de-fuelling UK car culture. Why just the first? Buses and lorries alike will still run on fossil fuels unless public transportation is equally transformed.

Likewise, the rise of electric vehicles does not represent the end of all vehicular pollution. Electric vehicles have tyres that decay over time and contribute to air pollution. The exhaust they release does, too. 

Instead of looking at these vehicles as a sign of wealth or status, we need to divorce the automobile from personal identity. We also need to ensure it is not a future necessity. Walking, bicycling, or ridesharing all serve as alternatives to driving, depending on where a person lives. While this is not a call for mass urbanization, it is one for more accessible alternatives to cars, whether you’re in a rural environment or an urban one. 

In a similar vein, a sustainable future needs to be one where car manufacturers are legally separated from legislation that glorifies the use of fossil fuels. Many may see this as a call for Big Government or the end of the free market, much as the drivers in the 1950s saw bikers and environmental advocates as societally-unaware tree huggers.

Whether or not that is the case remains to be seen. The point of a systemic and cultural change, however, is that it is just that: change. We cannot continue addressing the automotive industry – and other industries – with leniency if we want to live in a future un-impacted by the most severe symptoms of climate change. 

So, buy electric vehicles. Replace your car’s tyres with more sustainable materials. But make note, too, of the way you think about your vehicle, and if you consider it an extension of yourself. While one person can’t bring an end to climate change on their own, a change in the way we think about our cars is the best place to start. 

Giles Kirkland is an automotive industry researcher and writer. He focuses on the technological, scientific and sustainable aspects of the automotive. As the world evolves faster than ever, he enjoys keeping track of all current developments and sharing his knowledge and experience with others.
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