Is it ethical to own a car?

Our ethical columnist on the dangers of driving for the planet and its people.

Ethan Greenhart

Topics Politics

Dear Ethan,

I have just moved to a small village which is not well served by public transport. I do enjoy the peace and quiet and the tremendous sense of community one gets from village life. However, sometimes I do need to travel and the bus service is awful. Is it really unethical to buy a car? I really wouldn’t use it much.


Malcolm Wark
North Wales

Dear Malcolm,

Is it unethical to buy a car? Is the Pope a reactionary bastard who puts man above nature? I think the answer is obvious, don’t you?

The automobile is the devil on four wheels. (Hey, that nearly rhymes! I must send it to my friends at Christian environmentalist group Jesus Against Machines – JAM!). Cars are the biggest cause of pollution in the world. Just think of the amount of carbon dioxide you’d emit every time you sat behind the wheel. For example, even if you bought a relatively modest car like a Renault Clio, it would still emit nearly 2kg of carbon – like two bags of revolting black sugar – on a 10-mile journey, cranking up global temperatures every time you hit the ‘gas’.

As Mr Selfish Car Driver flies, the rest of the world fries.

(I really am on form today! I could work in advertising if it were not for the fact that I find the whoring of material possessions to the feckless to be a repulsive profession.)

I have discussed the dangers related to oil and war before (see Is it ethical to use pig fat to power motor cars?). Oil comes from strange countries made dangerous by greedy men fighting over the ‘black gold’. You would be filling your petrol tank at gunpoint, a startled Arab child or, worse, a terrified comorant, looking wide-eyed up the barrel of your pump-action err… pump. Worse, that oil could be the blood coursing through Gaia’s veins for all we know (it’s best to keep a sense of mystery and wonder, I find). Having hacked into her face to find the stuff, now we’re bleeding her dry.

But, in many respects, my contempt for cars has more prosaic roots, too. When we first had the children, Sheba the Unbeliever insisted we have a car. Personally, given my hatred of the machines, the whole experience was akin to being taken from A-to-B in a mobile abbatoir, but she thought it was ‘convenient’. We stopped at a petrol station and Sheba was persuaded by their persistent nagging to buy the kids some gawdy-coloured confectionery.

Needless to say, an hour of constant motion round winding roads soon led to disaster. There was soon an outburst of Starburst as the industrialised, sugary crap was regurgitated all over Sheba and me, the back seat, the doors, the carpets, everywhere. There were helpless tears and bawling until Sheba finally got round to cleaning me up. However, with our journey now cancelled in disarray, the smell in the car was rank as we retraced our route.

Obviously, any young child’s body is wise to reject such mass-produced rubbish – not so much food as luminescent oral ‘entertainment’ – but I think their reaction sent out a clear message. Trapping ourselves in a fast-moving metal box for hours on end is unnatural and vomiting is our body’s way of reminding us of that fact in no uncertain terms. Children, the canaries in the coalmine of human society, still have that innate sensitivity to such things that is trampelled out of adults by the miserable experience of ‘growing-up’. It is no accident that a child about to vomit is said to ‘turn green’.

If things are bad inside the vehicle, just remember how bad things get outside the vehicle, too. Along with all that CO2 comes all sorts of chemical nasties produced by the incomplete combustion of fuel: carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (abbreviated to NOx as in ‘noxious’), ozone (good high up, but bad to breathe). Then there are the particulates, nasty little bits of dust that get into your lungs. You think smoking 20 a day is bad – try living next to a motorway and consuming TEN THOUSAND VEHICLES a day!

It’s a wonder anyone who lives near a busy road has lungs left to breathe. I personally never allow my family to go near any road without wearing a mask. I didn’t move out of the city to continue sucking the contents of every Tom, Dick and Harry’s tailpipe.

And there’s the noise of every revved-up car, lorry and bus – yes, BUS, Malcolm – as it grinds along our roads, drowning out the simple sounds of nature. Birds sing, bees buzz, elegantly produced wind chimes made in an African style gently ring, but they are not heard above the drone of people moving.

We need to stop people from driving, or at least greatly discourage it. For example, the British government is talking about charging people for travelling by car with varying rates according to how much congestion there is. I agree with road pricing in principle, but it all seems jolly complicated: satellites tracking where people are, calculating different prices for different roads, which will all mean yet more infrastructure. Why not keep it simple: just put much higher taxes on petrol! Since a car can travel as much as 500 miles on a tank of fuel, how about £500 per tank? That way, most people could only afford one or two tanks of petrol per year! Brilliant!

Of course, I never understood why they scrapped the Red Flag Act. Being forced to drive along with a man walking in front of the vehicle waving a red flag would have enormous benefits. It would be a disincentive to drive, since you’d be just as quick walking; it would reduce traffic accidents to zero since someone would warn of a slow-approaching vehicle; and it would provide much needed exercise for the many millions of unemployed and grossly obese people who live in those vast urban zoos known as ‘council estates’.

Given that you’re even asking this question, Malcolm, despite all the pollution, noise and carnage caused by cars, I wonder why you moved out ‘to the sticks’. An allergy to city life is entirely normal for any sensitive and sophisticated human being. I mean: all those people, for Gaia’s sake! So, why are you then rushing to get back to them? Grow your own food, teach your own children about nature’s values and there’s no need to mix with them! Forget public transport – why do you need transport at all? Modern society is a disease – if you don’t mix with it, you can’t catch it!

Ethan Greenhart is here to answer all your questions about ethical living in the twenty-first century. Email him at {encode=”” title=””}. Read his earlier columns here.

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Topics Politics


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