To watch George Monbiot fail Chesterton's Fence

George Monbiot tells us all that we should abandon the car except for those really essential journeys. For there are costs associated with car use and that means we should.

He’s entirely right on one point. There are indeed costs associated with car use. Personal costs, societal costs, health costs, he’s absolutely correct. He indulges in the usual switch and bait of course:

One of these emergencies is familiar to every hospital. Pollution now kills three times as many people worldwide as Aids, tuberculosis and malaria combined. Remember the claims at the start of this century, projected so noisily by the billionaire press: that public money would be better spent on preventing communicable disease than on preventing climate breakdown? It turns out that the health dividend from phasing out fossil fuels is likely to have been much bigger. (Of course, there was nothing stopping us from spending money on both: it was a false dilemma.) Burning fossil fuels, according to a recent paper, is now “the world’s most significant threat to children’s health”.

A goodly chunk of that global pollution death toll is the use of wood and coal as indoor heating and cooking fuels. The toll is higher than that of smoking by some estimates. Further, that pollution now kills those more than communicable disease is because we did spend money on curbing communicable disease as a cause of mortality. Obviously enough we’re all to die of something - Mary, Elijah and those few others who didn’t being somewhat controversial historical characters. If we don’t of smallpox, cholera or some other bloody flux or ague then we’re going to survive long enough for a lifestyle complaint to catch up with us. One of us here once received an email telling of a diagnosis of terminal cancer in another which read, in part, “I have now lived long enough to get prostate cancer” which might be both droll and dry but there’s also a great truth contained within it.

But the real mistake here is that Monbiot has entirely failed Chesterton’s Fence, completely refused the jump. The point being that if we see a fence in the country we cannot insist upon its removal until we have worked out why it was placed there in the first place. Only once we know the original reason can we understand whether that still applies or not. Obviously enough, only if it doesn’t can we proceed to modernise.

Here that fence is, well, why do we all use cars? Why does every society in which people become rich enough to do so do so? Simply because, on balance, people find that the autonomy of a form of personal transport outweighs the problems with it. We prefer to die at 85 of lung disease if we can tootle Toadlike for those decades.

It could even be that we shouldn’t but that’s not the point at all - the fact is that we do. The existence and use of the car adds value to our lives in that general calculation we make of our own utility maximisation. Entirely ignoring that, as Monbiot does, means one is never going to be able to deal with reality. Which isn’t a good start to trying to change it really.