It’s now been five years since I stopped driving; that is, since I stopped owning and using a private, personal car. Instead, I walk and use public transportation (far from perfect in Bogotá, my city). This is a decision I reaffirm almost everyday, in spite of the occasional inconveniences it might produce. I certainly reaffirm it today, and I hope to explain convincingly the reasons behind it.
Why have I decided to write this explanation? For one, it will come in quite handy every time I’m asked why I don’t drive a car. People ask me this question very often; some ask nicely, some don’t. Here, the latter represent a culture I hope will disappear with time: people who view car ownership as a symbol of status, of social differentiation. I also expect to persuade others.
I’ll start with a basic premise. I believe, out of scientific reasons, that each one of us should make a contribution to the preservation of the environment. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an environmental activist or an anti-capitalist. On the contrary, I’m strongly in favor of technology and economic development. In my view, however, there is a convincing and solid body of evidence which shows that, to conserve a society that benefits from technology and progress, we should take care to eliminate or reduce all unnecessary stresses on the Earth’s balance. We need to evolve toward a society that enjoys the fruits of a vibrant economy while preserving the environment.
And then a second premise. I believe individual contributions are important. Some disregard them as tiny and insignificant. “Are you going to save the Earth by not driving?” I alone will not: the aggregate individual, smart decisions of a growing community will. First, the per capita damage to the environment will gradually be reduced. And second, individual decisions will slowly create a new culture, which hopefully will be passed to new generations. Through example and persuasion, more people will start to acknowledge that keeping the Earth’s balance is more important than looking dashing in an expensive, noisy and big machine.
Focusing on the per-capita argument, driving a car creates multiple impacts in the community. First, I would be polluting the air in the area where I normally drive. Second, I would be emitting greenhouses gases that would contribute to climate change, an existential threat to mankind. Third, I would make noise, which not only is unpleasant, but contributes to hearing loss and other health problems for the inhabitants of my city. Fourth, engine oil, filters and other highly polluting chemical products would flow to our rivers, or be deposited into ever-growing landfills and garbage dumps. Fifth, I would occupy valuable space in a crowded city where traffic jams are a top priority problem. All of this drastic impact on the environment would be the result of making the daily life of one person a little more comfortable. I just find it morally unsustainable.
There’s also the personal economics argument. Add to these moral costs, the possible financial burden of owning a car (interest on debt for a car loan), the cost of maintenance, gasoline, insurance, taxes, and depreciation. The opportunity cost of having a car appears colossal.
I also expect to make a different kind of contribution: a change in values. In Colombia, having a car is a symbol of status. I’m sure many people appreciate arguments like the ones I just outlined; but they’re afraid of being judged as inferior if they don’t drive a car.
Hopefully new generations will think different, and will be proud of making individual and significant contributions to a better city and a better world, and will overcome the shallow need for exhibiting individual power with a machine. But for new paradigms to appear we need a critical mass of pioneers, of people who take the first steps. I hope to be one of them.
Andrés Mejía Vergnaud is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a political consultant based in Bogotá and is the author of El destino trágico de Venezuela.