The Great Emancipator vs. the Green Menace

Aerospace engineering is a challenging major under the best of circumstances. Over 100 people were in my freshman class, but only 15 graduated.  The crux of that climb at my alma mater was the so-called “slaughterhouse” semester: the fall of senior year, wherein one had to take 5 technically challenging and labor intensive classes in order to graduate that spring: Aerodynamics Lab, Vibrations, Space Vehicle Dynamics, Propulsion, and Rocket Propulsion.  To apply for grad school you had to write your essays, pay the application fees, apply for fellowships, collect letters of recommendation, etc.  And self-supporting students like me also had to work.  This could easily add up to 100+ hour weeks, filled with “all-nighters.”

During this epic struggle, life got even harder for one of my classmates: his car failed a mandatory emissions test.  This was Arizona, where it is not easy to get around without a car.  Could he sell his, and put the proceeds toward a car that the government would permit him to drive?  No.  A car that cannot be legally driven has lost its value. 

I would also have to take an emissions test. I wondered: What would it mean if I lost the freedom to drive my car?

My world would get very small if I lost my car, shrinking to the area covered by bus routes. In another sense it would get very big: my rocket propulsion internship on the outskirts of town may as well have been in outer space.  I wouldn’t be going there.  I relied on that internship not only to learn and advance my career but also for the income I needed to support myself while in school.  So it would be back to waitressing for me -- a professional dead-end with less money, a less flexible schedule, longer hours.

What used to be an easy trip to the grocery store would now be an exhausting process of walking to a bus stop, waiting for the bus, hauling weight-budgeted groceries from the bus stop to my apartment in the Arizona heat, and losing precious time that could be spent studying, writing a lab report, working, or grabbing some desperately needed sleep. 

Hopefully that exhaustion would not suppress my immune system too much, given the fecal and skin-borne bacteria that flourish on government transit systems. There are also larger parasites to worry about: a young woman walking home from a bus stop after one of the night shifts that I would have to work, is vulnerable to mugging or worse.

If I lost the safety, independence, and precious savings of time and energy that my car gave me, that could make the difference between success and failure in my central life goals.  So my blood ran cold with terror when I went to the DMV for my mandatory emissions test.  Fortunately I dodged the regulatory bullet; my car passed that test. 

I am reminded of my college experience when I encounter attacks from environmentalists who casually dismiss the tremendous, life-serving value that cars provide. “A $10 monthly bus pass plus a bike can take you anywhere you want to go,” writes an anti-car blogger, thoughtlessly.  His anti-car sentiment is embodied in numerous government attacks on driving.

There are burdensome state gas taxes, which are as high as 39.5¢ per gallon, and are expected to increase in the future, to compensate for mandatory increases in fuel economy, which drive up the prices of cars

HOV lanes and inadequate highways target commuters by increasing congestion to discourage driving.  “Increased traffic capacity makes longer commutes less burdensome,” writes a blogger.  Wouldn’t that be a good thing?  No, this blogger’s point is that less burdensome commutes would be a problem because people would have the option to drive more.  It is worth noting that Chris Christie is mired in scandal for his administration’s deliberate inducement of traffic congestion in a delimited time and place; the environmentalists have been engaged in such efforts systematically, across the country, for decades.

The EPA encourages us to use “human powered modes of transportation.”  But bicyclists who hop on that human-powered bandwagon often obstruct traffic, projecting an attitude of entitlement and moral superiority.

The efficacy of a human powered mode of transportation is limited by the physical power of the human.  What about a handicapped person, a pregnant woman, a family with small children, a 60-year-old with arthritis, or anyone whose aspirations extend further than his physical strength -- or a filthy government transit system  -- can take him?

Perhaps such considerations are why most of the anti-car campaigners are not able to be consistent.  Not even our blogger who trumpeted the limitless frontiers of a bike and a bus pass: “When the [weather] forecast is bad, don't bike.”

But the logical conclusion of the anti-car movement is expressed by those who do consistently call for the elimination of our great emancipator: “[I]t ought to be possible to establish a coordinated global program to accomplish the strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five-year period,“ wrote the jet-setting anti-industrialist Al Gore in Earth in the Balance [emphasis added].

That statement is a declaration of war against the way of life that cars afford us, and the precious opportunities that they create for those who seek upward mobility.  The depth to which the anti-car movement has penetrated our culture is indicated by the fact that Gore was not shamed and rejected but rewarded for making that shocking statement. The book was regarded as an important contribution to American thought, and he subsequently went on to become Vice President of the United States and to win a Nobel Prize.

Upward mobility requires a tremendous amount of energy -- both spiritual and physical.  And by physical energy, I mean fossil fuel energy.  If the government had forbidden me to drive my car, could I have still done well enough to get into Stanford for grad school?  Would I have been able to graduate at all?

It is time to recognize the tremendous value of cars, and defend the right to drive with moral conviction.