A Thought Experiment
What if there were no cars? What if we’d invented the internal combustion engine, but then realized that it spewed too much toxic bullshit to put into regular use? What if we’d gamed it all out and decided, on balance, the planet, and by extension our lives, would be better with other solutions to personal mobility challenges?
Now before I go any further, don’t misunderstand this little game. I’m not car shaming anyone. I drive all the time, just like everyone else. I’m just thinking through an improbable scenario, wondering what interesting results might pop out.
For a time, cars shared the roads with horses. The roads were for horse-drawn wagons mainly. We’d have more horses if we didn’t have cars, and that might have perpetuated the deforestation that began in colonial times as farmers cleared land for farming. Not many people are aware that, at least in New England where I live, there are more trees right now than there were 200 years ago. When we (mostly) gave up farming, the forests came back.
The bicycle (Ah! There it is!) was invented in the middle 19th century but came online as a popular piece of equipment in the 1880s. Cyclists of that age made do with some pretty challenging terrain, dirt roads and cobblestone, and few of the rules of the road that keep us safe today. Imagine, instead of plowing time, energy and gazillions of dollars into automotive infrastructure, we’d made the same investments in equine and cycling infrastructure. Riding would be safer, easier, faster, and the air would be cleaner.
Would we have fought fewer and less deadly wars? I think so. Would global warming not have become an issue? Maybe.
Of course, the US economy wouldn’t have grown at the same rate. There has likely been a direct correlation between how much carbon a country produces and how quickly its GDP grows. But growth isn’t everything, and anyway, this is a resource rich place. If there were no cars anywhere, the playing field would still likely have skewed to the countries that are wealthy now.
It seems probable that the mass suburbanization of the population might not have happened. Or, that communities would have developed that were sufficient unto themselves, rather than attaching themselves to larger cities. This seems like quite possibly a good thing, strong community being a hallmark of life satisfaction for most people. More of us would, by necessity, be eating local, seasonal food.
More root vegetables anyone?
Would we be healthier? I like to think so. Less heart disease. Less diabetes. Less general anxiety and depression. These benefits alone might justify the retroactive elimination of the car.
Bikes would likely be better, faster, more efficient. Don’t ask me how, but given more research and more need, I feel certain we’d be much further along the innovation curve, perhaps whole families moving themselves around by bike at a reasonable speed. More cargo bikes. More everything bikes.
When I squint, I can just about see it all, and I don’t hate it. Remember too, we wouldn’t know what we were missing. We’d smell more like ourselves and not be bothered about it.
But then, why do this? What’s the point, if not to vilify the automobile? I think it’s good to evaluate our choices, for starters, and if it’s true that internal combustion was a misstep, then maybe there’s a future without it, a future we don’t need to fear. Inertia is a powerful force, and we have this habit of making a decision and following it through to the end, even when we can the end isn’t nearly what we’d hoped it would be. Can we course correct? Do we even want to?
What am I missing? Fill in the blanks, below in the comments.