calcutta traffic jam. photo by yumievriwan.
THE LOOMING THREAT OF GLOBAL warming and the ever-climbing cost of gas have made options like cycling to work, using mass transit and car sharing trendy in the United States. Green is our new mantra, however far removed our true habits may be from our ideals. But on the other side of the globe, entire populations of consumers that have long gone without are now snatching up cheap automobiles, and you can bet they won’t be slapping “carbon offset” bumper stickers on the back.
As car ownership increases in nations like South Korea, China and India, manufacturers are looking to churn out vehicles at even lower price points; today the BBC reported that Renault-Nissan has announced a joint venture with Indian firm Bajaj to create the world’s cheapest car, at an estimated $2,500.
And while the West and even internal environmentalists shake their heads at the possibility of millions of new drivers throwing tons of CO2 up in the air, the sentiment held in the Eastern hemisphere is perhaps best reflected by China’s “you first” stance — and these nations have a point. Many Americans still drive tank-like SUVs every day, and the US is the only developed nation that has not yet ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, what pedestal do we have to stand on?
But here’s the problem: with more drivers and more roads, these booming Asian nations are unwittingly fostering an auto-culture from which it will take ages to untangle. Right now they’re feasting on the fruits that developed capitalism can afford — the luxuries that Americans have enjoyed for decades. It’s understandable that Western criticism of these trends now would draw resentment and cries of hypocrisy.
The crucial point that must be conveyed, though, is that owning a car does not constitute the good life. Yes, we’ve been driving cars for decades, and the American road trip is indeed a sweet thing. But the majority of drivers are not freewheeling travelers blasting down I-90; we shuttle to and from suburban homes in frustrated bursts. Look at the faces of drivers inching along the snarled roadways in and out of Chicago, LA, Seattle, etc. Driving is convenient only when we have no better option. If American big business and city planners had had more foresight, we’d be riding on trolleys and trains (and probably wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic).
The mayors of Asia’s biggest cities should be regarding the difficulties the US is encountering as it attempts to move away from car culture as a lesson, a cautionary tale, instead of blithely allowing cars to choke their thoroughfares. Because once you go down this road, it’s a long way coming back.