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Car Fallacy

First published July-2010
last update 18-July-2010


- add links to criticism of energy systems cited: hydrogen, biofuels, etc.
- add figures and sources for energy consumption of vehicles, food miles etc.
- add figures and sources for environmental impact and resources spent on road system, health affects from cars etc.
- suburban sprawl as an inherent consequence of cars: cities too polluted by cars to be agreeable to live in, cars to inefficient to be useful in decentralized system thus only possible to maintain in relation with petroleum conversion centre (cities) — farmers on trucks sending food to cities is not an example of decentralization.

Many political theories and discourse take as a unquestionable principle the idea that the purpose of all politicians, scientists, and economists is to maintain, or create, a life style based on the personal vehicle.

We can call this the car fallacy. A car is of course a tool that can be used for good or ill, and is not some sort of metaphysical ideal humanity must inherently aspire to. The question is of course when and when is not a car useful to accomplish some task. If the task is to live, we find that a car is relatively useless in daily life, as all necessities to live can be procured locally.

That there can be marginal uses of small motorized vehicles is a certainty, but organizing the entirety of society around building cars and roads is an absurdity. Not only do the material and environmental costs far outweigh even perceived gains of a sense of freedom and speed (these gains are not real as walking and hiking provides access to far greater locations, and in most urban settings the time spent working to purchase and maintain a car coupled with time spent in traffic jams renders an average speed equal to or less than walking [1]), but, being unsustainable, this entire system cannot be sustained.

In contemporary discourse where the rarity of petroleum is accepted, the only conclusion drawn from this fact is usually only that a substitute is required to power the global fleet of cars and trucks in the future. However, though technical substitutes exist, none of them are nearly as free as is petroleum: batteries, hydrogen, and bio-fuels cannot be simply pumped out of the ground. Furthermore, no known potential substitute has the energy density of petroleum, and so it is either infeasible to run the heavy trucking system on them (batteries, compressed air) or the costs are so great that the fact that the trucking system is far less energy efficient than localized living and electric trains when reasonable (both of which are a mature technology requiring no scientific breakthroughs), means it is simply impossible to continue to pretend that personal vehicles and heavy trucks are a good ideas. Just as it is technically possible that we all live in Zeppelins, just highly impractical, it is technically possible to find a substitute to petroleum for personal vehicles and trucks, only highly impractical.

Thus, insofar as any main stream debate takes it as fact that the personal vehicle cannot be questioned, all such debates encounter a dead end, as an inherently wasteful system can never be maintained indefinitely.

However, once the car fallacy is understood, then the never ending search for miracle technologies (hydrogen, lithium batteries, bio-fuels, nuclear fusion, etc.) no longer seems necessary, humanity’s energy requirement is significantly lowered: as not only do vehicles consume over a third of humanity’s energy, but the life style to justify owning a car consumes much of the rest. And so, if we remove cars from a nearly religious status, a wide range of simple and feasible measures open up to solve our problems.


[1Ivan Illitch, Tools for Conviviality

Written by Eerik Wissenz.

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*Chapters in grey are in progress.

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