It is estimated that there are 1.2 BILLION motorised vehicles in the world, excluding those used off road, and being added to daily. (1) In Britain alone there were 37 million registered with almost a million added in 2016 (2) accounting for around 500 BILLION passenger miles. (10)
This has a huge environmental impact on many levels: accidents and pollution impacting on human health; roads, noise and contaminants adversely affecting nature.
As an historical human, globally detrimental, technical phenomenon, it has no equal. But are there now indications that the supremacy "King Car" may be coming to an end?
Reading of the sad demise of Stephen Tindale on the 1st July, aged only 54, took me back. (3) For most of his life he took a leading role in campaigns for Friends of the Earth, as an advisor to politicians such as Environment Minister Michael Meacher MP (Times Obituary: 22nd October 2015) and Director of Greenpeace. He was closely associated with the notorious incident of the sinking of the 'Rainbow Warrior' in 1985 by the French Secret Service in an operation code-named interestingly "Opération Satanique". (4) Latterly he created considerable internal controversy and not a little incredulity, by supporting nuclear power generation, genetically modified crops and fracking! He suffered from severe depression and tragically took his own life.
As an aside, regarding the Rainbow Warrior affair, it is worth noting, particularly in this epoch of "terrorist events" centred on France and other European cities, that at first the French Government denied responsibility for the sinking and the death of a crew member, blaming it on "terrorists". Then when two of the culprits were caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to a gaol term of 12 years, France threatened New Zealand with crippling EU sanctions if they were not returned to French jurisdiction. In the event they were back in France in only two years and promoted! Others involved were picked up from their yacht by French submarine and never prosecuted. The incident serves as a very telling and poignant lesson, particularly to those that States could ever do such things - as now.
Getting back to Stephen Tindale, prior to being appointed as 'Pollution Campaigner' for Friends of the Earth in 1989 he had attended St Anne's Cambridge where he studied PPE and later a MSc in politics and administration at Birkbeck College, from where he moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, based in Pakistan. A question must arise as to whether he was ever recruited by the British secret services or worked for them in his later positions. His father was a diplomat in Kenya where he was born and his background and education certainly has a familiar ring to it, but if he was he certainly never admitted to it.
A question certainly arises why he wished to leave a well paid and promising career with the Civil Service and take on the Friends of the Earth role for very little remuneration? I speak from experience, for I was interviewed for that very post in 1986 by Jonathan Porritt and others. As I remember it, it was a sceptical and challenging panel that interviewed me, and I failed miserably to impress, a disappointment assuaged only by the fact that Jonathon Porritt rang me personally to break the news I had not been successful. Even for me I remember the post in London would have involved a significant salary reduction, and the office had the appearance of optimistic chaos.
Tindale described his move as follows: "I left the Foreign Office on a Friday in a suit and on Monday morning I was sitting cross-legged and bare foot in a meeting addressed by Jonathon Porritt on the roof of the Friends of the Earth building."
Porritt himself, after a decade of environmental campaigning, Chaired of Friends of the Earth from 1984 to 1990 in which time the membership grew twenty-fold to 226,000. He has remained at the forefront of 'green' campaigning, and has almost obtained iconic status in the movement. He has been described as "Britain’s most influential green thinker".
Viewed objectively, and particularly in relation to the internal combustion engine, progress has been very limited, although alternative energy initiatives have been more successful. Some have claimed that all green policies have 'back-fired' in one way or another. In 1994 he inherited his father's baronetcy, who had been the eleventh Governor General of New Zealand (1967 - 72).
At the time I was interviewed for the Pollution Campaigner post I was coming to an end of my Research Fellow post at the Leeds Polytechnic School of Law, but probably chosen for my earlier experience in Environmental Health, particularly for the brief and modest celebrity obtained by a student paper I had written entitled "Lead Pollution Motor Vehicles and Health" published in the then "Public Health Inspector" magazine in 1972. It focused on tetra-ethyl lead added to petrol to increase the octane rating and prevent premature combustion, referred to as 'pinking', and its adverse effects on people and the environment. At the time it was a relatively novel subject. It probably played a small part in drawing attention to the issue and the later campaign to ban lead from petrol.
However, lead is only one contaminant, and the fact that it was phased out did little to control the increase of other combustion products and gases by incessant increase in vehicle numbers linked to a government sponsored move to diesel engines - another environmental mistake based on a theory that only CO2 would be produced, a blatant error. You have to ask whether government or the car industry has ever been really serious about controlling the adverse effects of the motor vehicle?
Just consider for a moment the hysterical and far-reaching governmental response to largely fraudulent terror attacks and the yearly carnage on Britain's roads and the other adverse consequences of traffic. There is no logic to the over reaction to the one compared to the under reaction of the other despite the huge discrepancy in deaths and injuries.
We now find ourselves in a situation where urban areas all around the world are literally becoming uninhabitable owing to motor vehicles and their power plants. The air has become un-breathable. The less obvious consequences, such as effects on wild-life and eco-systems largely unquantified, yet nothing appears to slow the exponential growth of this device, and whole economies are dependant on it.
In parallel we have developed systems of living that make the vehicle indispensable. The out of town shopping centre, distancing work from living, moving essential services from those that require them and so on. In addition vehicles are used unnecessarily so often, engines and the pollution they create have got bigger as a designer and ego statement. As roads are improved, so people merely go further. Yet average speeds continue to decline.
Combustion products not only pollute the air but contribute to general pollution of land, crops and water courses and to the depletion of birds and other wild life. Yet government takes a very relaxed view of all this as it does to the pollution of the upper atmosphere by aircraft.
Almost fifty years ago in my small way, I drew attention to mainly one pollutant - lead - a poison that was being added to the air that all humans breathed and to the urban dust that children played in, and to the grass consumed by animals. Studies showed that lead exposure could be correlated with IQ, educational and social outcomes. Needleman was an early worker in the area but later studies this if anything was an underestimate of the damage done. (6) Again who cares about the long term health and mental capacity of children when we can obsess over fraudulent "IslamicTerrorism"?
More recently lead has been highlighted as a major factor in autism that is currently getting to epidemic proportions, and could not be more serious for long term status of the child. (7) The topic is of course highly controversial around the subject of multiple inoculation and the claims of Dr Derek Wakefield who has been subject to a concerted and irrational campaign of vilification. (8)
So now we have news that there may be significant changes in the pipeline that will have considerable consequences if implemented.
France has announced that from 2040 it will be illegal to sell cars with internal combustion engines! (9) Not only will this have a dramatic effect on car production, but presumably will start to bite many years before, although it relates to sale not use, so it will be many years before roads are free of the engine. Will other countries follow suit? Can battery cars, much more expensive to buy, fill the breach or will other less polluting solutions be developed? Just think of the ramifications for the capital intensive, over-productive car manufacturing and oil sectors.
The internal combustion engine has dominated the last century and brought with it unquantifiable short and long-term consequences, that humans have learnt to live with, with a certain nonchalance. For many it has become for many an indispensable accessory. This cannot disguise the fact that innovative solutions are required both behavioural and technical, if the many associated problems are to be tackled in anything more than a superficial manner. Nor should we ever forget - apropos the diesel gaffe - that the solution to one problem can create another nor that batteries are without their own. (11)
Reuters reports: "Swedish carmaker Volvo's latest generation of diesel engines could be its last as the cost of reducing emissions of nitrogen oxide is becoming too much, Chief Executive Hakan Samuelsson was quoted as saying on Wednesday.
"From today's perspective, we will not develop any more new generation diesel engines," Samuelsson told German's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview.
"However, a Volvo Cars spokesman said on Wednesday Samuelsson had been discussing options rather than a firm plan to stop the further development of diesel engines.
"Samuelsson later said in a statement emailed to Reuters he believed diesel would still play a crucial role in the next few years in helping the company meet targets to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, being more fuel-efficient than petrol engines.
"Instead, Volvo will invest in the electric and hybrid cars, with its first pure electric model due on the market in 2019." (12)
3. The Times Register. 7th July, 2017.