Because our lives are dominated by petroleum-fuelled motor vehicles we often overlook their tremendous contribution to our health, wealth and even to the environment. Yes, the motor vehicle, even in its pre-1970’s polluting state, catalysed huge improvements in urban living, cheaper and more sustainable food production and played a part in the reforestation of continents.
Far from being the evil machines portrayed by environmental activists, cars, trucks and other modern transportation methods make our environment much healtheir than it would otherwide be.
Pierre Desrochers writes:
The rise of petroleum-powered transport was an environmental boon.
Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter is generally regarded as the most historically accurate book of her semi-autobiographical Little House on the Prairie series. The Long Winter tells the story of how the inhabitants of De Smet (present-day South Dakota) narrowly avoided starvation during the severe winter of 1880-81, when a series of blizzards dumped nearly three and a half metres of snow on the northern plains – immobilising trains and cutting off the settlers from the rest of the world. Faced with an imminent food shortage, Laura and her neighbours learned that a sizeable amount of wheat was available within 20 miles of their snow-covered houses. Her future husband, Almanzo Wilder, and a friend of his risked their lives in order to bring back enough food to sustain the townspeople through the rest of the winter. With the spring thaw, the railroad service was re-established and the Ingalls family enjoyed a long-delayed Christmas celebration in May.
The Long Winter is a valuable reminder of how lethal crop failures and geographical isolation could be before the advent of modern farming and transportation technologies. Not too long ago, subsistence farmers across the West had to cope with the ‘lean season’ – the period of greatest scarcity before the first availability of new crops. As some readers may know, in England the late spring (and especially the month of May) was once referred to as the ‘hungry gap’ and the ‘starving time’. One problem was the cost and difficulty of moving heavy things over often muddy and impracticable dirt roads; three centuries ago, moving a ton of goods over 50 kilometres on land between, say, Liverpool and Manchester was as expensive as shipping them across the north Atlantic.
The development of coal-powered railroads and steamships revolutionised the lives of our ancestors. Among other positive developments, landlocked farmers could now specialise in what they did best and rely on other farmers and producers for their remaining needs. The result was not only more abundant food at ever-cheaper prices, but the end of widespread famine and starvation, as the surplus from regions with good harvests could now be shipped to those that had experienced mediocre ones. (Of course, a region that experienced a bumper crop one year might have a mediocre one the next.)
In time, petroleum-derived products such as diesel, gasoline, kerosene (jet fuel) and bunker fuels (used in container ships) displaced coal because of their higher energy density, cleaner combustion and greater ease of extraction, handling, transport and storage. Nearly two thirds of the world’s refined petroleum products are now used in land, water and air transportation, accounting for nearly 95 per cent of all energy consumed in this sector. Despite much wishful thinking, there are simply no better alternatives to petroleum-powered transport at the moment. For instance, despite very generous governmental subsidies, battery electric, hybrid electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles have repeatedly failed to gain any meaningful market shares against gasoline-powered cars. This is because of their limited range and power, long charging time, bad performance in cold weather, security concerns (especially in collisions), and inadequate electricity production and delivery infrastructure.
While the convenience of cars is obvious, few people grasp their historical significance in terms of public health and environmental benefits.
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