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September 1995
Car Culture’s War on the Environment
Part IV: The loss of farmland, forests, and wildlife

By Philip Goff



This is the last of a four part series of articles examining the effects of the automobile on our culture and landscape. The author has argued that profligate use of cars has had a detrimental impact on many parts of our lives ranging from the lack of community, to ecological destruction, to the massive squandering of public funds.

In the previous issues of Satya, I brought to light the natural tendencies of a car based transportation system to facilitate suburban sprawl. This system has, in the past 40 years, destroyed more land than in the 300 years before and the environmental damage has been unprecedented: the dwindling quality of the air and water, the loss of natural resources, and the destruction of farmland, forests, and wildlife. The ameba-like suburbs, left unchecked, will sprawl further into the deserts of the Southwest, the forests of Pacific Northwest, the mountains of Colorado, the farmlands of the midwest, and the last few remaining wild places in the Northeast.

From the perspective of the use of natural resources, the automobile oriented suburbs are perniciously inefficient. Consider the environmental impact of a car-oriented suburban style community of 500 households, and an urban community for the same 500 households. The land use requirements for the former are enormous as each house occupies a quarter- or half-acre lot and is connected by wide roads. The 500 individual homes require vast amounts of materials to build and must be connected by a myriad of power, water, and sewer lines, putting a strain on our dwindling natural resources. Although urban communities are not perfect, they have a much lower ecological impact considering their compact land use, efficiency of materials and infrastructure, and maintained distance from wilderness and wildlife.

The common piece of infrastructure that is necessary for all suburban and exurban developments is the paved road. Every square foot of pavement represents an ecological dead zone, a completely sterilized environment that allows the runoff of oil, antifreeze, and brake fluids into the water table. When a road is built in a remote area close to wilderness, it not only brings polluting and dangerous cars, but also brings with it the constant pressure of continued development. The close proximity to nature brings in items not native to a bioregion such as noise, garbage, dogs, vehicles, and guns. Roads also allow the hordes of hunters, poachers, and trappers to drive into remote areas to exterminate wildlife.

The recent rise in popularity of campers and 4-wheel drive vehicles have accelerated the complete commodification of the natural world. Now we can all have a packaged environment, seen from the safety of mobile fortresses as if the planet were one big theme park. Television advertisements convince viewers that the appropriate 4-wheel drive vehicle will allow them to cross rivers, blaze through forests, and drive to remote mountain vista points. Car culture has clearly brought too many people to places where they do not necessarily belong.

The Tragedy of Roadkill
A great tragedy is the quantity of wild animals who are struck and killed every year by speeding automobiles. More than half a billion animals, including 250,000 people, are killed every year on the planet’s roads and highways. This is ten times more creatures killed by cars than by the American pork industry, for comparison. The average American’s car kills three to four vertebrate animals per year and has contributed to the endangerment of some species, most notably the Florida panther, 65% of whose documented deaths has been at the hands of motorists traveling through the Ocala National Forest. In Pennsylvania alone in 1985, 26,180 deer and 90 bears were slaughtered by automobiles. In the Mikumi National Park in Tanzania, more animals, including baboons, wildebeest, zebras, antelopes, jackals, and even elephants, have been killed by cars than by poachers since the 1991 road improvements increased the maximum speed from 20 m.p.h. to 60 m.p.h. (Earth Island Journal, Spring 1995)

Some species are attracted to roads, while others are averted, both of which have disastrous implications for the animals forced to deal with the intrusion. Animals averted to roads run the risk of genetic deterioration due to inbreeding. This is created by the fragmentation of their populations, hemmed in by roads on all sides. This also affects the healthy migration of animals, and forces them to stay in unnatural climates. The noises due to road construction and the resulting traffic can alter an animal’s pattern of activity, and raise their stress levels. This is especially true of birds who rely heavily on auditory signals.

Exacerbating the quantity of roadkill is the unfortunate fact that many animals are attracted to the typography of a road. The dense vegetation at road side attracts grazing deer and a multitude of rodents. The proliferation of rodents, along with previously killed animals attracts scavengers such as coyote and raccoon, who in turn are often struck by cars. Other large mammals also come to the roadway to innocently use it as a travel corridor. The proximity of the large mammals attracts curious and naive onlookers who frequently harass the animals or try to feed them human food. Wild animals also come to the road to eat de-icing salts in the winter season, increasing the potential of a collision, but also poisoning the animal due to the sodium and calcium chlorides present in the salt.

Keeping the Profits Rolling
Another way in which automobile ownership and use is detrimental to the environment is the vast quantities of natural resources required to sustain a transportation mode. Besides the seemingly infinite amalgam of wood, gravel, asphalt, and steel used to build and maintain the Earth’s roads and highways, the world’s 400 million cars require excessive amounts of resources and energy to manufacture. In a culture less reliant on automobiles, the inner city street’s ubiquitous abandoned car, the monumentalized pile of worn tires, or the junkyard cache of flattened cars would be greatly lessened.

Although most cars can last much longer, many are passed on after only a few years. This keeps car companies profits rolling in. Complicit designers are all too happy to continually churn out the latest models with improved aerodynamics, racier colors, and the newest gizmos of convenience. In 1955, Harvey Earl, the head of the GM styling division said, “Our biggest job is to hasten obsolescence. In 1934, the average car ownership span was five years; now it is two years. When it is one year, we will have a perfect score.”

The environmental problem most apparent to the public is air pollution. Within urban areas, cars are the single largest source of air pollution, and create 13% of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, 28% of chlorofluorocarbons, and between 30-40% of nitrogen oxides, the primary chemical responsible for acid rain, according to the Marland Energy Magazine in 1983. The E.P.A. reports that automobile air conditioners are the single largest source of ozone depleting chemical. Despite the fact that these days cars produce half as much carbon monoxide as they did twenty years ago, this has only had beneficial results within the purlieus of urban smog quantity. At the same time, the amount of carbon dioxide released from cars is the same and will always be the same, for it is the inevitable byproduct of fossil fuel consumption. The invisible and odorless CO2 cannot be reduced no matter the filter or catalytic converter on the newest, most aerodynamic car, and it is this insidious CO2 gas which is contributing greatly to the greenhouse effect. (NY Times Magazine 7/23/95)

The High Price of Oil Consumption
The profligate use of oil, in many ways, may contain the most ecological destructive component of all: the ubiquitous oil spill — ubiquitous in a sense that the Exxon Valdez disaster was not an anomaly; spills of that magnitude occur quite often and have disastrous implications on the ecology of the world’s oceans. Greenpeace estimates that one billion gallons of oil are directly spilled into the oceans every year. Valdez was only the 14th largest spill in history, but, because most others occurred off shore and did not directly reach a populated land mass, there was a dearth of media coverage. Accidental spills only represent 17% of the total oil which enters the marine environment. The rest, according to the National Research Council in 1985, enters the oceans via the routine flushing of carrier tanks, and the daily byproducts of the petroleum industry. Another 50 million gallons of petroleum seep into the world’s fresh water supply through the daily run-off from roads and do-it-yourself mechanics. Although the estimation of the total death of sea creatures and birds due to oil spillage is incalculable, the toll from the Alaska Valdez incident, according to Greenpeace, led to the deaths of 5000 otters, 200 harbor seals, and perhaps half a million birds.

The demand for petroleum constantly pressures the oil industry to search for oil in more and more remote places. The oil companies’ thirst for profit leaves them with no concern for the consequences of their actions. They would drill in the Grand Canyon or sink a derelict oil platform in a whale sanctuary if they thought they could get away with it. Their powerful lobbyists are constantly persuading the U.S. and other governments to open up fragile wilderness and marine habitats for oil exploration, whether it be in a tropical rainforest, a spectacular mountain range, or the Arctic tundra. When habitats are opened up for exploration, great damage is done even if oil is not found in sufficient quantities to warrant refining. Seismic studies destroy habitat and terrify wildlife, and the myriad of abandoned roads are often subsequently used by logging companies to get to areas that were initially off limits to them. The predicament can only get worse, for as Asia, especially China, develops its system of roads and opens its markets, the numbers of cars are expected to double globally by 2010.

This installment concludes the series of articles exploring “Car Culture and the Landscape of Subtraction”. The point was to educate a generally uninformed public about the reasons why cars have had such a detrimental impact on our neighborhoods, our cities, our countryside and on our planet. Many of the Earth’s most pressing problems such as deforestation, the loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, global warming, and water pollution, can be traced to the overuse of automobiles, and unchecked suburban development. Cars are here to stay and they certainly have their uses, but too many people have deemed these uses to mean every single trip, whether one mile or one hundred miles. Until this type of behavior within the industrialized world is curbed, our decadent lifestyle will continue to decimate communities and cities, and precipitate the ongoing destruction of the natural world.

Philip Goff is an architect in Manhattan who is deeply concerned about issues of public space and ecology.

For previous issues featuring Philip Goff’s articles (Satya 12, 2:1, and 2:2).



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