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How to be Car-Free

by Tim Chappell

Sometimes environmental ethics is a difficult area of philosophy for just the opposite reason to the reason why most areas of philosophy are difficult. Most areas of philosophy are difficult because it’s not at all obvious what’s right in those areas. In environmental ethics, by contrast, the difficulty can be that it’s so starkly obvious what’s right that it is hard for philosophers to say anything ingenious about it. (“Of course we should ‘save the planet’, whatever that means; what more is there to say?”) And we philosophers do have a tendency – a regrettable tendency – to think that it’s primarily our job to be ingenious; being right, or saying anything of importance to those outside the academy, is apparently of secondary interest to many of us.

At the risk of not saying anything ingenious, I want now to say something which I think is obviously important; and which I hope is obviously right. If it does not seem (obviously) right to you, I have an error theory which may explain why not. If what I say seems like eccentricity or indeed lunacy to you, or just infuriates you, my error theory can account for those reactions as well. In any such case, please think about what this article says for three days, and then read it again. It may seem less dotty second time around; it may even come to seem obviously right. (There again, it may not.)

My argument is:

(a) that our1 society, as a whole, is psychologically addicted to the motor car in a way analogous to, but even more damaging than, the way in which individuals can be psychologically addicted to cigarettes;

(b) that this addiction leads to self-deception and the perpetuation of false values on a massive scale, as (once again) cigarette addiction can tend to lead to self-deception and false values2;

(c) that this addiction to the car is gravely damaging our society’s health in multiple ways (and not only via self-deception and false values), just as cigarette addiction damages an individual’s health in multiple ways (and not only via selfdeception and false values);

(d) that we have every reason to want to be free of this addiction right now, and to take action to free ourselves from it. We also have every reason to think that the addiction will be hard, though certainly not impossible, to shake off. (This is where the error theory comes in. Our typical reactions to the idea of getting rid of our cars – our lethargy and weakness of will, our denial of the evident need and our outrage at the very suggestion – all this seems to me to be strikingly analogous to the typical reactions of drug- or nicotine-addicts to the idea of giving up their addictions.)

if you doubt (a) and (b), have a look at the car magazine racks in a newsagent’s. Or sit down and watch some car advertisements on the television. Consider their crazed rhetoric of freedom, sex, speed, vanity, escapism, youth, individualism, ostentation, economy and safety (strange!), and oneness with nature.

(The claim of oneness with nature is stranger still. Personally, my instinctive reaction to seeing some new model incongruously perched in front of a limitless vista of Alpine peaks tends less towards “Phwooargh!” and more towards “Get that tin box out of the way of the view”.)

Or listen to the rationalisations of a company director about why all his ‘executives’ must have company cars. (The real reason, of course, is to make them feel important: the fear is that they won’t be taken seriously by other executives if they don’t drive.) Or watch the facial expressions and ‘body language’ of a young man driving a fast car along a narrow country road. Or consider the attitudes of a government which, while £50 billion overdrawn, simultaneously proposes to spend £23 billion on road-building and dismantles child and invalid benefit, which costs £6 billion, “because it’s too expensive”. Or try suggesting that a driver give up driving, and watch the reaction. (Note: this option may lead to severe loss of temper or, indeed, actual violence; be careful not to try it on any driver significantly larger than yourself.) Or, if you drive yourself, consider the blank, eye-glazed rapture of crawling round and round and round the town centre on a Saturday morning looking for that oh-so-elusive parking space.

(How hard it is, sometimes, to stop driving, to get out of driving mode. A crucial part of the damage cars do us is that they make us blind and deaf to everything except what is visible through the windscreen in front of us. Virtual reality is a bad thing when it blinds us to actual reality, as it commonly doe~, and car driving can become a form of virtual reality. Like a video game; are cars perhaps, as an addiction, more like addiction to Nintendo than to nicotine? Well, certainly video games do, like cars (or drugs), tend to make one very very stupid; but like drugs, and unlike cars, they do not regularly gas and deafen and kill and maim and pollute and desecrate the countryside.)

Surely the evidence is unequivocal, and all around us, that our society’s attitude to the motor car is a variety of what religious people call idolatry. The tin god which sits in the garage governs, insidiously, far more of our attitudes and our priorities than we realise. And it is not even as if the cult of the car did not (c) do obvious damage.

Have a look at the road accident statistics. Walk along the Hammersmith Flyover, being careful of course not to be run over, and take deep, deep gulps of the air (air ?). Go and watch what is now happening at Twyford Down, at Oxleas Wood, at Barton in Oxfordshire, and in far too many other corners of Britain. Reflect on the reasons why the U.S. tolerated the brutal and indefensible annexations of Tibet, of East Timor, and of the West Bank, but not that of Kuwait. Consider the story of Roineabhal (v. recent national newspapers passim). Roineabhal is a mountain at the southern tip of Harris, a beautiful home to a fascinating variety of beasts, birds, bugs and flowers, abutting on a spectacular coastline, and under official government protection. Roineabhal is a perfect example of what, in our degraded modern vocabulary, is usually called ‘unspoilt countryside’. But, despite the fact that one government department has declared protection over Roineabhal, another government department proposes to allow private contractors to wipe it off the landscape. What for? To provide building materials for motorways. What for? Apparently, so that other protected areas can be obliterated too; the government seems to view what it calls, in its own horrible jargon, ‘Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ as fair game for the routeing of new roads. Certainly AONBs provide less contentious routes than residential areas, and of course we are not supposed to consider the option of not having any new roads. The obliteration of Roineabhal, incidentally, will leave behind a large hole which (it has been rumoured) the government hopes to fill with nuclear waste. And this is just the first of many such proposals; roads are extremely greedy of building materials, and there will be plenty more Roineabhals if we tolerate the first.

Does this sound Ike a Swiftian fable of human folly? H only it werea fable. But what is the motor which drives this lunacy on? The motor is the motor, the tin god in the garage; it is the supposedly nation-wide determination to keep on driving to the end of the road, even if the end of the road proves to be the end of the world. Perhaps the facts I have pointed to will make it more apparent that our addiction, as individuals and as a society, to the motor car is just that, a psychological addiction like an individual’s addiction to smoking; that this addiction is distorting the motivations and objectives of both government and individuals, with much consequent bad faith, self-deception, studied ignoring of uncomfortable data, and outright Iying; and that this addiction is doing profound and possibly irreversible damage to our thinking, to our health, to our children, and to one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.

So (d) to the difficult question, the question which philosophers are standardly accused of complacently ignoring: what should we do about it?

Well, there are various tactics we can and should adopt to bring indirect pressure for change. We should not tire of combating unnecessary road schemes3 wherever they occur, by voting, by letter-writing, by protesting, and by peaceful direct action like that currently being organised at Twyford Down, mostly by ‘travelling people’ to whom I suspect more conventional (i.e. middle class) environmentalists are insufficiently grateful. We should campaign for steep road-tax and petrol increases, and against the government’s obsession with long-distance road haulage; and we should examine our own choices of transport. (A hired car is better than an owned car; a taxi is better than a hired car; a bus or a train is better than a taxi; a bicycle is better than any of these.) We should request a little clarification of the government’s suspiciously cosy relationship with the big construction and road haulage firms, many of whom are frequent and generous contributors to Conservative Parly funds. We should treat the advertising men’s grotesque hymns of praise to the joys of the car with the ridicule and derision which they so thoroughly deserve. We should refuse company cars, and ask for other comparable benefits instead. All of these tactics are more than worthwhile; but all of them miss the heart of the issue, which only one response finds. The response I mean is quite simple, though no doubt it will be found quite uncomfortable. If someone’s health and life is being ruined by addiction to smoking or alcohol or drugs or video games, the indicated remedy is that they should completely give up their addiction as soon as possible. In general, half measures don’t work very well when one is dealing with addiction, as anyone who has kicked alcoholism can tell you. And that is the remedy I suggest here. A very large proportion of us should, simply, give up the private motor car completely, right now. We should adapt to life without the car; we might even enjoy it. If the cure seems drastic, remember that so is the disease. In our society, it has got to the stage where it’s either us or them: the well being of humans and the well being of cars are in direct competition at far more points than they are not in direct competition. So: give them up. We’ve tolerated too much from them already. Enough: no more cars.

Is it as easy as that? Well, we could at least try it before we issue the standard complaint that it isn’t as easy as that – with, as variations on the same theme, the cries of “Join the real world”, “You’re completely out of touch”, “Madman”, and “Ivorytower philosopher”, which I fully expect to meet. (This is not ‘ivory-tower philosophy’; it is an eminently practical solution to an eminently practical problem. Perhaps the truth is that the critics whom I am anticipating will find these solutions a little too practical, a little too immediately demanding. Perhaps they prefer it when the philosophers stay in their ivory tower. As for madness: at Twyford Down the government is spending £50 million to cut five minutes off the journey time by car from London to Southampton. Who are the madmen here?) There is a national no smoking day; why not, as a small but significant start, a national no driving day? There are people who are vegetarians, people who believe (rightly, in my view) that eating animals is cruel and unnecessary and that therefore we shouldn’t do it; why not car-free people, people who choose to abstain from cars?

Perhaps that is one place to start our move towards a car-free society (which I’m not saying can be built in twenty-four hours; ten years might be a more realistic time scale). Just as individuals make decisions to be vegetarian, never to eat meat again, so they can make decisions to be car free, never to drive again. My argument is meant to suggest that there is at least as much reason to make the latter decision as the former. The decision to be a vegetarian is a free choice to respond to the cruelty and wastefulness of meateating by doing something about it, namely ceasing to be party to it. But the choice is, I believe, supererogatory: i.e. one is praiseworthy for taking this choice, but not blameworthy for not taking it. Likewise, I suggest, it is best to start by thinking of car-freeness not as a morally compulsory imperative for everyone in our society, but as a morally supererogatory choice, a free choice to respond to the stupidity, destruction, pollution and wastefulness of cars, especially private cars, by doing something about it, namely ceasing to be party to it.

(I say we should start there because of a curious moral asymmetry which I pause to note. The fact that (as I take it) an individual’s choice for car- freeness is supererogatory and not obligatory needs to be held in balance with what I think is also a fact: that, at the societal level as opposed to the individual, it is not supererogatory, but absolutely obligatory, that our car-dependency should end. There is then a moral obligation applying to our society as a whole which is not reducible to the conjunction of a series of individual moral obligations applying to the following members of our society X, Y, Z and…. Such irreducible societal obligations may seem paradoxical at first sight, but they are perhaps commoner than is realised. For example, my society has a duly to prevent the starvation of the homeless. This means that some members of my society ought to act to prevent the starvation of the homeless. But in advance of society’s delegation of duties to individuals who mostly are (be it noted) volunteers for those duties, it does not mean that any particular members of my society ought to act to prevent the starvation of the homeless. So with cars. Our society has a duty to become car-free, and this means that some members of our society (indeed the great majority) ought to act to become car-free. In advance of particular individuals’ free acceptance (N.B.) of a part in their society’s duty of becoming car-free, it does not mean that any particular members of our society ought to act to become car-free. This, by the way, is the only point of technical philosophical interest I propose to make in this paper.)

As I say, this choice may not, in the shorter term, be for everybody; until we have found alternative ways of solving certain sorts of transport problems, e.g. those facing the disabled, it may be more trouble than it is worth for some people to eschew the car. But the long term objective should, I believe, be a completely or almost completely car-free society; and the short term objective – the immediate objective – is to start a movement (call it ‘The Car-Free Movement’) to persuade people that they don’t need cars as much as their addictedness to cars makes them imagine; that in fact, as a rule, they don’t need cars at all; that they, and all of us, are better off taking the following pledge: to do without the car altogether as far as is possible, and to make it ever more possible to do without the car to an ever greater extent.

Not without some trepidation at the sheer difficulty of breaking loose of my own ingrained car-dependency, I myself hereby take that pledge. And I invite anyone else who wants to sign up for the Car-Free Movement, to take it themselves. They could even write to me and tell me about it; I look forward to hearing from them. My address is

T.D.J. Chappell
Merton College
Oxford OX1 4JD


1. I primarily mean my own motherland, the United Kingdom. But what I say applies at least equally to other Western societies such as the U.S.A., France, and Japan, and (by and large) to Western society as a whole. Fortunately for us all, societies elsewhere in the world (e.g. China) are generally less addicted to the car than we Westerners are. One hopes sincerely, but without complete conviction, that this is not merely because they haven’t the money. One also hopes that when they do have the money, they will not instantly be maximally exploited by the w industries d the West. If that happens, we will choke.

2. Examples in the case of cigarettes: “I can give them up anytime I like” (self-deception, usually); “Come to where the flavor is” (false values) .

3. Which in practice means almost all road schemes, apart of course from most pedestrianisation and cycling route proposals.

© Dr. T. Chappell 1993

Dr Tim Chappell is a lecturer in philosophy at Merton College, Oxford. Philosophy

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