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Culture Change e-Letter #89       

Ways to end car culture along with the globalized trade godzilla

by Jan Lundberg and Julian Darley

In an exchange between Post Carbon Institute and Culture Change on March 1, 2005, the subject of ending car domination came up.  Just as Jan Lundberg had been preparing to unfold a simple proposal to terminate the global polluting juggernaut as led by the car manufacturing business (first article below), Julian Darley offered his recently devised plan to propagate car-cooperatives (second article below).  In his subtitle he relates the global car monster (that people pretend is a sweet lap dog) to the challenge of slashing carbon emissions.  Hence, Kyoto with guts: Car cooperatives will slash car population and instill responsibility.

The two approaches flow from the same heart-felt conviction that we must save the planet from perhaps final devastation.  "Clean cars" are rubbish, when examined from a serious ecological perspective, not to mention safety.  Time is running out for the beleaguered biosphere.  However, it is healthier for one to focus on the happy truth that the inevitable world without cars (millions of them, anyway) will be a far better one -- and it could be a lot closer than most people think.

The No New Car Movement 

by Jan Lundberg

The idea of cutting pollution to safe levels as fast as possible has been tantamount to bringing down the global economy.  The silly idea of entertaining such a scenario goes back at least to the early 1990s in Auto-Free Times magazines.  The program is simple: people would not buy new cars; they'd just buy used ones.  

Background and glorious histrory

What is the point of a new-car purchase, anyway?  When a used car can easily suffice and cost far less, we can conclude that new-car buyers have been brainwashed.  They must do it for prestige, perhaps to possibly obtain sex more readily.  The car corporations, meanwhile, have built in "planned obsolescence" -- a new car model every year, with many many models -- ever since Henry Ford cried uncle and realized that the competition against his Model A and Model T was going to finish off the Ford Motor Company.  For if that were to happen, how could he be in a position to help his adored Adolph Hitler?

Why were we at Culture Change so impatient with the car fifteen years ago, even before the plague of SUVs?  The answer is this: our organization, founded in 1988 as an energy-based nonprofit think-tank/data & policy center, was practically founded on the concept of a national paving moratorium.  This was put forward in order to aid AMTRAK, the poor stepchild of American transportation even though it is the most energy-efficient and least polluting mode of motorized transportation.  

An Alliance for a Paving Moratorium ensued, involving 70 groups and businesses all behind the concept of just fixing existing roads, so as to free up public funds for alternative transportation.  Starting our efforts during the Gulf War, our concept was a peace proposal:  Oil as a strategic commodity was not, ideally, to be subjected to "lengthening supply lines" in war; more roads meant longer supply lines.  We got nowhere with this, especially with the established DC environmental groups who only wanted higher gas mileage for new cars.  But we set out anyway to stop specific new roads with a large vision, and we did prevent some nasty highways.  One of them would have bisected the Mendocino National Forest in northern California.  Our vision also came to include opposing unpaved logging roads, as we sought to protect ancient forests.

In our efforts we came up with disturbing information about not just roads and traffic in general, but about the car.  Andrew Kimbrell, then working with author Jeremy Rifkin, published in the Washington Post -- as a fluke -- "The Case Against the Car" back in 1990 perhaps.  We were headquartered in Fredericksburg, fast becoming a bedroom town of the greater DC area, the process of which we reluctantly aided by promoting commuter rail service as an alternative to widening Interstate 95.  Several years later Kimbrell blazed the trail again, when with the International Center for Technology Assessment he helped identify the many subsidies to the price of gasoline as totaling near the level of $15 (fifteen dollars) per gallon.  Ironically, Jeremy Rifkin, an expert on entropy (the name of his milestone book), is today a proponent of cars (cleaner ones, he assures).  

Once re-established in Humboldt County, the soon-to-be international Alliance for a Paving Moratorium found many a hip resident who was proud to hold on to the old (and more polluting) car that the typical low-consuming local person didn't use much in town.  People bragged of not using their cars for months on end.  This avant garde of "eco-terrorism" -- i.e., bad for the global economy -- had other strange practices, such as not having televisions and trying to grow a significant portion of their own food.  This was and is a minority of people, but they all had in common the desire to see pollution stopped and a new era begun where people were more self-reliant in stronger communities.  Even many dyed-in-the-wool Humboldt car drivers who couldn't do without Saturday Night Live agreed with the sentiment.  It was no surprise when the nation learned that in 1992 Arcata's 15,000 citizens gave more votes to Ralph Nader than to Bob Dole.  

In our road-fighting activism we decided our Paving Moratorium Update would do better if named Auto-Free Times.  A Northcoast Environmental Center staffer told us the definition of eco-terrorism was "one person driving a car."  The auto-free option was not the point of our main road-fighting purpose, but was emphasized or "discovered" as our soon to be best-known program when we were challenged by the Associated Press to name an alternative to more road building.  We were later to marginalize ourselves further -- but stretch mental boundaries -- by advocating and practicing depaving.  Why not get rid of a driveway in favor of a garden, if there was still room for keeping a car right at hand in the street?

We produced anti-car Fact Sheets which are on this website.  Some of our discoveries were mind boggling: Ivan Illich calculated that the average speed of the U.S. motorist is under five miles per hour, when the total time involved in driving and supporting the car in all the ways one must is taken into account.

We had heard that one in five jobs in the U.S. were directly related to the automotive business.  The population of vehicles was and still is climbing fast, such that the number of functional cars have now outstripped the number of drivers, according the New York Times story by Matt Wald in 2004.  Any dummy can tell that more and more cars means more smog, more parking lots instead of parks, rising reliance on volatile oil exporters, more global warming, more crash-deaths, etc.  But the absolute waste and lack of need for a car-based transportation eludes the public to this day.  Indeed, we were and still are ridiculed by the mainstream and considered "losers" by aggressive consumers chasing "success" -- as innocent Iraqis die in a war over oil.

Could the car-advertising in mainstream media have anything to do with the average person's failure to connect the dots?  With no clear movement to turn things around, and no leadership from the compromised mainstream environmental groups then or now, grassroots activists have free-ranging conversations and fantasies on behalf of our love: Nature.  How can the Earth as we know her endure, without a strong activist approach or a good deal of luck?. Our office knew about and publicized rapid oil depletion back then, but we were not turned on by some people's oft-stated wish that the oil would just get used up quickly so as to stop the pollution and the cars.

As anti-car activists we have had to argue common sense and compassion: proponents of "clean cars" in effect pretend that such cars are not deadly.  Pictured here is Jeannie Marcos, killed in a crosswalk on her way to school by a Christian minister who was paying attention to his car instead of what was in front of it.  She was six years old and died in February.  It was an efficient Korean car that killed her and gave a brain injury to her sister.  Their parents want the minister's driver's license taken away, which would be the most serious punishment the minister would get because it was not a felony.  The city of Vallejo, California, claims the intersection where the slaughter occurred is safe.  More roads and road widenings, anyone?  

People's priorities regarding motor vehicles are easily inhuman when people demand such valuable possessions as cars and the false freedom the vehicles represent.  For example, a 36-year-old Pittsburg, California man fatally bludgeoned his father with a sledge-hammer on March 5, 2005 because the older man refused to lend his truck to his son.  Even after killing the 75-year-old Irvin Scales, the murderer drove off from their home in the coveted Dodge Dakota.  He took what he wanted: that object of desire that $ociety taught him was so important.

Details in the No New Car solution

Every new-car purchase sends a person's money outside the local community, while a used-car purchase does the opposite.  Local business is the answer to the corporate attack on communities and local culture.  

In a couple of months of low enough new-car purchases, the affects would reach most parts of the economy.  Falling sales would result in production cut backs and unemployment.  The economy's reliance on "big ticket items" (cars are mighty big; they can cost more than yachts) means that the whole house of cards unravels without cars propping it up.  The sticking point is how many people can get word of the plan, and how many people will do it.  If any churches respected "God's green Earth" there would be a whole slew of joiners.  Jesus was car free (one of our popular bike stickers portraying a camel).

A recession could do the job of preventing enough new cars made and sold to keep the economy humming, but we may as well induce recession by calling for an end to the oil/global warming juggernaut now.  The "System" has been lumbering on too long and is killing life as we know it.  Civilization's march is brutal and relentless, but if not enough people buy new cars, there could suddenly be a new direction because of the global interdependence of the economy and today's speed of wealth-transfer.

One argument for avoid total collapse at any cost is that the nukes have to be baby sat.  They must indeed.  However, a slower death from the Waste Economy is not much of a solution.  Randy Hayes of Rainforest Action Network once explained to me that he did not want to see complete collapse of the whole forest-destroying/paving system, because of the risk of chaos at a time of need regarding existing pollution and precarious systems functioning in critical areas.

He is absolutely right.  But if the system keeps on going, as it has for the nine years since Randy and I had that over-a-beer talk in Arcata, the lungs of the Earth will be dead.  We know now more than we did even a year ago about the accelerating deterioration of Earth's life support systems.

The result of a new-car boycott would be a quick nonviolent revolution (cultural as well as political) that would not have to wait for the next John Kerry to run for office and save us.  (The election may be between Condo Rice and Hillary Clinton Rod Ham.  They are both on record as happy to make uncounted Iraqi children die.)  If you think you are saying No to war for oil, have you really done so if you have not said No to cars?

We must be prepared for the drastic lowering in cost for new cars that could flow from a significant drop in demand.  To assure that the car manufacturers cannot tough it out and overcome a certain level of demand-drop, an almost religious movement would be required to see through to the end the fall of the big car companies and the whole integrated pollution system.  We would prefer society instead plan for a transition and to start valuing sustainability, but such a radical idea clearly is not happening voluntarily on a significant scale.

Whether responsible manufacturing would instantly come about, such as making bicycles and trains in former automobile factories, might be something for the United Auto Workers to consider before too many workers starve or must grow corn and potatoes -- in their driveways in need of depaving.  

The present god of technology and science tells people that there will be a machine-adaptation to the problem of cars using oil and running on roads of asphalt and concrete.  Instead of conserving energy and the Earth, the typical car driver and consumer awaits a technological solution to war for oil and global warming while ignoring the unpleasant fact that "clean cars" will keep killing people and animals.  When it is pointed out that "clean cars" will (1) require pavement (=more urban sprawl), (2) they will still pollute about as much due to the total "life cycle" of car manufacturing and materials-mining, and (3) will propel the motorist no more than five miles per hour on average (considering the time for earning money to buy the car, fix it, pay for insurance and oil, etc.), the mind goes blank in the average non-inquiring mind   Therefore, in light of the mindless refusal to deal with the problem of the car and its oil habit, a movement to eradicate the car and its support system has appeal.

It is mind-boggling how the approximately 100,000 annual killings from car crashes and noxious fumes in the U.S. are not a concern of government or the corporate media, or even of ever-enquiring academia.  Why can't people demand a better life now?  When the Mothers Against Drunk Driving come out against the roughly 40% of fatal car crashes attributable to drinking too much alcohol, does that mean MADD approves of the other 60% of the fatalities as acceptable?  Why not have a justice system whereby a judge sentences a driver to therapy and other treatment for the addiction of driving?

Julian Darley's car sharing idea would do the same thing as a movement to cease buying new cars.  I don't know if a system such as his would get a chance to completely develop, because the resultant lowered car-purchase rate would hit the economy too soon.  And after the chaos and smoke clear, there may not be a way to maintain the car co-ops.  But, to add legitimacy to my proposal to bring down the beast as peacefully as possible, I said to Julian I wanted to use his proposal as as advanced it to me.  In reading his plan it was again clear to me he is indeed a visionary.  An example: he coined the term bauleiters: business-as-usual lite(ers).

Here's to a car-free future.

Kyoto with guts
Car cooperatives will slash car population and instill responsibility

by Julian Darley
9th March 2005

[Complementary report to Jan Lundberg's The No New Car Movement above]

Once we take seriously the notion that the industrial way of life is moving into its closing phase, and that one of the most unfortunate parts of that highly mistaken system is the large-scale use of the private automobile (and large trucks), then it becomes obvious that one should do everything possible, and as quickly as possible, to move away from a system of living and provisioning that depends on cars. 

For North Americans, this prospect is going to be very tough indeed, but one of the most important things that can and must be done is the immediate creation of car co-ops across North America, and indeed anywhere that has been stupid enough to build their living arrangements with the internal combustion engine at its heart. Widespread car co-ops will form a very useful transitionary strategy towards eradicating privately owned internal combustion engine cars altogether.  Here is a proposal, based on extending the idea of already existing car co-ops in two large North American cities. 

If one assumes that average car ownership turnover is about 9 or 10 years, then this plan will be quite reasonable and feasible, if the municipality or local government is part of the plan. 

  • In a given locale, bring in a car co-op based on existing models in North America.  If the place is large, look at San Francisco - this one is not a co-op, but is at least non-profit; if the place is small to medium-sized, look at Nelson or Vancouver in British Columbia:
    • Work out what the initial donation needs to be in order to get started (avoid loans and investors like the plague). The starting number of people probably needs to be at least a dozen, and at least two cars. This ratio will soon improve. San Francisco started with a bang, and had hundreds of members from the beginning. This takes a lot of planning and resources, but the knowledge and help is available for any scale.
    • Try to estimate how long it will be before the car co-op reaches 'ignition,' to use a fusion word!  In other words, how long before the thing is generating more money than it costs, and is thus self-sustaining.  It is absolutely vital that the system becomes self-sustaining as quickly as possible, and again, there are excellent examples to copy.
    • Aim for a sustainable member-to-car ratio of about 20 to 1.  This is roughly the ratio of Vancouver’s car co-op; San Francisco achieves about 30 to 1, which is probably near the upper limit, given North American infrastructure.  Twenty to one should be easily and normally attainable, once the system is running properly.  
  • Once self-sustaining, a car co-op is ready to become a core part of the "Local Energy Bank" and "Transit Center" system (and be a part of helping expand or introduce local currency).  Amongst many other things, this Energy Bank and Transit Center system, along with local government and other service providers, can be the organizational device for
    • Testing locally grown and produced biofuels for non-private vehicles only - i.e., buses, co-op cars, taxis, small delivery vehicles.
    • Introducing (and later locally producing) slow electric vehicles, including
      • PEVs - (small) personal EVs,
      • DEVs - larger delivery EVs (though these will be much smaller than the 40 ton trucks currently wrecking North America and Europe).
    • Introduce (and eventually make) old-fashioned trams.  This means that the EV (Electric Vehicle) manufactories (manufactory is an old term, but one that we are using in the Post Carbon CSM concept - Community Supported Manufacturing) will need to be in place first.
      • The trams envisaged shall be, by design, not particularly fast and therefore simple and cheap to build (and maintain), and inherently safer.
      • All the power for all the electric vehicles shall be local renewable electricity (some of it coming from the Local Energy Bank). The capacity of the renewable power system will form an upper limit to the number of vehicles and miles that can be driven - if efficiency works too well, which I doubt, then a mandatory cap must be brought in, but that won't be a worry for a long time, if ever.
  • Key target: within 5 years aim to reduce private car ownership by 50% (e.g., by 2010).
    • To help this modest and sensible aim along, locales should introduce:
      • 100% purchase tax on all new cars
      • 50% transfer tax on secondhand cars
      • 0% tax on cars that are sold to the car co-op. Only cars in very good condition and with good reliability and relatively cheap spare parts (at least made in the same country, and preferably within the same region) should be bought by the co-op
      • A very high yearly registration tax
      • A serious rebate for anyone that gets rid of a car and doesn't replace it
      • Local gasoline tax, but not too large - enough to be a warning signal, but low enough to make it not worthwhile to go outside the locale to get gasoline - 1 or 2 cents may have to be the limit, but the higher the better
      • Formal ride-sharing, similar to the highly successful German system called ‘Mitfahrgelenheit’. (I think we can call it something else that is a little easier on the tongue.)
    • Also important to promote anti-car culture, modeled on anti-tobacco - it's a curse and an addiction, and we have to get rid of cars, and ultimately almost all internal combustion engines, which are much too efficient at delivering immense power, which we almost invariably abuse and misuse.
  • Within 10 years aim to reduce private ownership to 5% of what it was at start date, but better still, for those wishing to the operate the genuine ‘Kyoto with guts’ program (and get a gold star if they even come close to achieving it), the target should be 5% ownership of 1990 level by 2012.

None of the above is impossible, far from it – the central idea of car co-ops works now in various locations across the world.  But the scale and reach is much greater, and we know from many other areas of industrial existence that scale issues do pose new problems. 

However the kinds of scale problem faced by the absurd Hydrogen Economy or trying to move to an electricity grid powered mostly by solar and wind are completely different from those facing a widespread roll-out of car co-ops.  Large scale adoption of car co-ops will face few if any new technical problems (unless the Internet goes down – then telephones would have to be used en masse – unless they go down too!  Then we shall have to walk to our Local Transport Center…). The problems involved will be mainly human and cultural.  Can we really face up to reducing our private car use – eventually to zero?  The answer is that we simply must.  We either plan for it and do it now - or geology will do it for us. 

It is fair and reasonable to wonder how many cities or municipalities would even dare to discuss such schemes as this Kyoto With Guts, even behind locked doors at the dead of night.  Well, that was a good joke, now get real, many will say.  But consider this: United Kingdom petroleum extraction fell 22.1% in a year, according to the December 2004 Royal Bank of Scotland Oil & Gas Index!  And even more amazing, the final month recorded by the RBS saw a 5.5% production fall.[1]  That would be 66% per cent if annualized (in other words 5.5% x 12 months = 66. I am not suggesting that this latter will happen, but the December monthly decline would be high for many producing countries, if it were for the whole year).  So maybe the car co-op plan wouldn't be so crazy for Britain, after all.  And we can notice that U.S. oil imports in Aug 2004 came within 0.2% of 60% according to data from the EIA (Energy Information Administration), and the average imports for 2004 were only just below this at 58%.  I estimate that U.S. imports are rising at about 2 percentage points per year; at this rate of increase, that would mean 70% oil imports by 2010.  How's that for 'oil independence' and energy security?  Talk about 'no mullah left behind.'

Part of the reason for the increase in US oil imports is of course that American oil output is falling.  Just look at the graph below, from the EIA.  Things would be absolutely disastrous without offshore, which effectively means Gulf of Mexico (GoM):


US 2003 oil output was achieved using 520,000 wells, many of which produce only 10 barrels a day (the US uses about 21 million barrels a day).  The big question is what is the prognosis for GoM?  When that peaks and starts to fall, people really had better have their solar-powered lifeboats all ship-shape and nicely caulked (an Oil and Gas Journal graph suggests a soft peak for GoM within the next six years).

So, in fact, in the light of the above, and the rest of the negative petroleum production news flooding in, I hope that it will be possible to find at least a  few municipalities or districts that are willing to go after this apparently wild car-eradication idea – an idea that I regard as quite moderate and sensible.  We shall see.

One reason many places will be reticent to take up the idea of pervasive car co-ops is one of the very reasons I think that car co-ops are such a good idea: they break the terrible grip of ownership obsession, whilst building a sense of general responsibility.  I don't personally have any sense of owning any one of the roughly 90 co-op cars here in Vancouver, but I know that in general, we (members of the car co-op) all need to look after the wretched things, not because they are nice machines, but because we should make these kinds of items last as long as possible.  Replacing them and carelessly damaging them will also cost us money which could be much better spent on relocalising the infrastructure, in order to make cars completely redundant, which should be the ultimate and underlying goal of car co-ops.

We must, I believe, use every device we can to build or rekindle a sense of general reciprocity (giving with no sense of specified return – in other words doing things for the common good), rather than the constant reinforcement of ‘specific reciprocity’, which is so damaging both to a greater sense of the common good, and to hopes of de-monitizing major parts of the provisioning system (I refuse to use that filthy word ‘economy’ whenever I can).  Specific reciprocity (everything as individual and isolated contracts or transactions which form no lasting local or human bonds) also makes it harder to build trust and get people to keep promises and do things reliably without a contract, be they paid or not.

It is important that car co-ops are seen as a transition mechanism to other methods of mobility, starting with our own muscles ('Moving From a Fuel to a Foot Economy' - there I have used that blasted word), and, where appropriate, using locally built, slow electric vehicles, especially if possible, running on metal rails.  ‘Normal’ city planners, I have discovered, hate metal rails, and love to speak of rubber wheels - "it's what the market wants" is the usual repulsive phrase of justification.  What that really means is the old Thrasymachus argument (reported by Plato) that 'might makes right'. As far as I recall, that is the only argument that Socrates ever lost.  It just happens to be the most important argument of all, and undercuts everything else.

Dave Room, Post Carbon Institute’s North American Director, suggests that our 5% car ownership plan should be part of a “car free challenge,” and that in order to support this aim, “cities should apply a moratorium on building parking garages and all energy intensive development.  In many places, it would be advisable to supplement this program with rebuilding the city around high density centers.   Many of cities are so spread out that just adding mass transportation and car sharing may not be enough.  Here are some other measures that the locale could choose among to meet their interim 50% and ultimate 5% goals: 

  • Raise tolls for bridges
  • Higher parking fees
  • Higher parking tickets
  • Incentives for
    • local businesses (locally owned and sourcing locally)


    • locally produced goods
  • Car-free tenancy agreements
  • Promote informal ride sharing
  • Offer telecommute incentives.”

Given the "lateness of the hour," I suggest the following:

a) If people won't try to abandon their private cars, then they may as well abandon all other 'green' activity as pointless - like a smoker going to the gym - what's the point?


 b) Call on people to aim to eradicate cars and capitalism - the phrase even has alliteration and assonance on its side, and we Anglo-Saxons (=me anyway) love a bit of assonance.  It seems a perfectly reasonable thing to ask for.  I am suggesting that the Democrats put it in their next campaign as a central policy plank.  The American people will love it - it has just never been offered to them before.


Julian Darley is Author of High Noon for Natural Gas - The New Energy Crisis and Director of Post Carbon Institute, Vancouver, British Columbia.

[1] Source: UK Petroleum Review, Feb 2005



Post Carbon Institute

Fact Sheets by Alliance for a Paving Moratorium/Auto-Free Times

Basic oil supply facts and issues and more links, in Companion Report for Culture Change Letter #88

See Fall of Petroleum Civilization, top right green bar link on Culture Change.

World Carfree Network and its project Carbusters magazine

Ivan Illich wrote up his car hours calculation in his little book Energy and Equity in the early 1970s.

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