Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Getting Green and Being Poor

According to an analyst at CIBC World Markets -- and for non-Canadian readers, CIBC is one of the country's largest banks, so this is a mainstream source -- the price of gas will reach $7-$10 per gallon by 2012, or about $2 per liter in Canada.

More recently, this same fellow has begun making predictions about the impact that will have on how many cars are on the roads of the United States. He suggests that by 2012, in part because low-income families (the definition of which is not provided) will go from paying 7% of their income on gas to 20%, the U.S. will have 10 million fewer cars on the road.

A good thing for the environment, certainly. But looking at these two brief articles, published as they are on a site with which I am unfamiliar but which appears to embody pretty mainstream "green" politics, I am struck by what they don't talk about.

What they don't talk about is the human process through which the transition will happen. It's not like those 10 million cars will evaporate, or like their owners will dispose of them as simply as a check mark being erased in one column and drawn in another.

The closest it comes to dealing with this is when it suggests that about half of that decline in cars will occur from low-income households with access to public transit, and indicates that the much larger percentage of income in low-income households going to gas is "an increase that will see many start taking the bus."

First of all, it makes it all sounds so simple, so bloodless. But even if everything else is ideal, the transition is not going to be painless for a lot of people. It is one thing to be a young, abled-bodied, often just temporarily poor university student, or to be a middle-class professional in downtown Toronto who is finally taking the plunge and 'kicking the car habit.' It is quite another to know you really have no choice except to completely reorganize the way you live your life. Getting your kid to daycare, getting to work, going along to your kid's hockey tournament, picking up the Christmas tree -- all of those things and a million others have to be done differently, and probably end up being a lot more difficult. Some will end up not getting done. And some of us will get to choose to do these things differently, while some of us won't get a choice.

And that's just if circumstances are ideal. The stat they gave was that half the cars would leave the road because people living on low-income with transit services available would get rid of their cars. But anyone who has ever depended on transit, particular outside of places like Toronto or Paris, knows that transit services being formally available and transit services being even remotely adequate are not the same thing. Most parts of most cities are designed with transit as an afterthought, and the built form and social organization are completely car-centric. Most smaller cities in Canada have inadequate transit systems, with routes that don't go late enough, don't go far enough, don't go often enough, don't time connections well. Lots of people who have formal access to transit services have access to that sort of inadequacy. And from what I've heard, lots of smaller cities in the U.S. are in even worse shape in terms of transit. Sure, as this crisis hits, transit services might improve, but not even close to fast enough without a struggle. And the issue of our cities being organized in ways that are car-friendly and transit-hostile is way, way bigger than organizing to push politicians to put more buses on the roads.

And what about the other half of the cars? Presumably some of that will be accounted for by families who have multiple vehicles getting rid of one or more. But probably some will come from people living on low incomes who don't have access to any form of public transit giving up their autos. So they will be forced to live in some very dependent, isolated form of poverty, or be forced to uproot their lives, abandon their friends and communities, and move to some place that does have transit. If they can even afford to do that.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm not trying to argue that "fewer cars" equals anything other than "good thing" in many, many ways. It's a transition that needs to happen. The question is how it is going to happen. What I want to argue is that we should start making it automatic to ask that question, to ask what the human impact is going to be, whenever we see stats like this. And to think them through in ways that get past the surface of the statistics to the actual human experiences violently hidden beneath. And we need to tie that into a vision for change that refuses to let involuntary changes due to climate change and increasing energy costs be used as an instrument of class warfare from above and for steepening hierarchies of oppression. Greening (preferably radical greening) cannot happen without redistributing (preferably radical redistributing).


Deb Prothero said...

Just read an article about a new form of housing in LA. Its called a car park where you can enter a chained off parking lot for overnight sleeping. Must be out by 8AM so the lot can be used for office workers.

The downward spiral is happening there because of the current housing crisis - people are losing their homes and only have their car to live in. Next they'll be forced out of their cars...

JimBobby said...

Whooee! This one hits a bit close to home. I ain't poverty stricken but I sure as hell ain't rich. I live in a small town (pop. 3000) with zero public transit -- not even a taxi.

The idea of 50% fewer cars on the road makes me wonder why we're spending and earmarking so much money on highways and car-centric infrastructure. The CIBC predictions are timid compared to other peak-oil-related predictions of even fewer cars.

Here on my street, almost everybody has more than one vehicle. A lot of those are SUV's and pickup trucks. If everyone on my street cut back to one car per family, there'd be 50% fewer vehicles. The young couples next door and across the street have 3 vehicles each -- plus boats and trailers.

Ma's business owns a delivery van and we use that when we need a vehicle. About 10 years ago, we had two vehicles. Getting rid of a vehicle saves us $1000's each year and keeps us from falling below the poverty line. Not having a vehicle at my disposal means that I plan and multitask errands. I also walk and shop locally as much as possible. Some things may cost more but when the vehicle ownership, insurance, maintenance and fuel costs are factored in, it's cheaper to walk to the local store and pay higher prices than at a distant Costco.

You're right that the transition will be painful. Not making the transition would be even more pain, as per Nicholas Stern. You're right that the poor will need to be considered. Programs like the Green Party's Guaranteed Livable Income policy must be implemented to assist the poor as we make the necessary transition to a low-carbon economy.


Brian said...

Great post. You raise some important questions that need to be talked about re: how to live without a car in 2008 and beyond.

Things are changings so fast! With the climate too. I keep reading quotes from climatologists and the like. It scares me how often they say "these events are happening far faster than we ever anticipated." See for example this post from Denny's excellent blog called "Our Tomorrow."

Scott said...

Deb: Wow...I mean, I used to be employed doing stuff related to homelessness, so I'm aware that sleeping in your car is a coping strategy that is more common than most middle-class people think. But actually institutionalizing it like that is deplorable...but probably not a completely awful idea in some ways, at least in terms of safety. Yikes.

Jimbobby: Yeah, great point about where the infrastructure money is going. For years they have been widening the highway between Sudbury and Barrie to four lanes, and they have years more work to do. Every time I see the work going on, I wonder what the economics of transportation are going to be like by the time they are done. Why they don't use that money to create decent, affordable passenger rail service between Sudbury and Toronto instead? And I agree that the transition to no vehicle is one that is often very possible, and that it even has significant benefits, including financial ones. But how the transition will be experience is going to be really uneven, and I still think lots of folks will experience it as an addition to the already heavy burden of poverty. I think that mainstream green rhetoric that emphasizes choice and (directly or indirectly) virtue as part of shifts towards more ecologically-friendly living are likely to alienate some poor and working-class people who want to live in environmentally healthy communities as much as anyone else but who are likely to experience some of these shifts as forced upon them and who do not necessarily identify with the 'green consumerism' model that is so prevalent in the mass media. Thanks for the pointer to the Green Party policy, but I remain unconvinced that the policies of any of the mainstream parties are adequate for what we are facing, environmentally and socially.

Brian: Yeah...I agree. I keep stumbling across new articles with that kind of sentiment, and it's hard to know what to think, how to react, how to channel that information into concrete political activity. Very scary.

Toban said...

Good points.

The alternatives to cars can be improved upon, but there's no guarantee of that happening; and any transitions away from cars will entail disruptions that certainly matter -- in some cases, very much.

Your post reminded me of this one -
Different means and approaches
That post actually is just a quotation from someone else's online writing.

When I looked it up I came across this one too -
“Demand destruction”
It's very relevant here. It's consistent with what you're saying.

The link before it is more of a supplement here. I think it's important to point out -- as the writing at the first link does -- that people are more attached to cars than they have to be; people get too caught up in thinking and acting as though cars are the only way. In this part of the world, the alternatives are crappy right now, but that doesn't have to be the case always and forever.

I'll also add that I think that most arguments against cars aren't green arguments. Here are a few posts (which I've recently put up over at my place) that are about other grounds for rejecting cars -

(By the way, I didn't start this comment with the intention of linking to any of my blog posts -- let alone five of them.)

Toban said...

On a note so related note, a great person from a Sudbury anti-pollution activist group came out here to present at an event last summer. They do a lot of performance (i.e. artistic) work, and it seems that they focus on connections between poverty and exposure to pollution.

(I'm almost certain that she was from Sudbury.)

Scott said...

Hi Toban!

Thanks for stopping by, and for all of those links. I hope it's clear from my post that I am not in any way taking a pro-car position. And I do appreciate that attachment to the car is, at least in some situations and for some people, about things other than material necessity. But I don't know that the answer is necessarily to come up with more and more diverse reasons to be anti-car. Rather, I think the key is to figure out ways of talking about and acting on these issues that understand them as about justice and liberation in radical ways. The only way the shifts in our communities resulting from peak oil and the current financial crisis won't be channeled in ways that hit working-class and poor people, especially women and men of colour and white women, the hardest will be through organizing that centres those experiences of the shifts. The intended takeaway message of the post, I guess, is a bit of a push to those with mainstream green politics to start doing some of that work.

Hmmm...from Sudbury? Sounds like they were from Myths & Mirrors, an awesome group that organizes through community arts projects. Their focus these days is on mining and the impacts that has on poor and working-class communities. If it was indeed someone from M&M, it was probably Tanya or Laurie...they definitely do great work!

Toban said...

> I hope it's clear from my post
> that I am not in any way taking
> a pro-car position.

That was clear to me after I had reached a certain point in your post.

Basically, I agree with everything you've said; I just was trying to build on your points (in which you already had raised important issues).


> Sounds like they were from Myths
> & Mirrors, an awesome group that > organizes through community arts > projects.

Sounds like them.

I found the presentation inspiring. At the time I meant to e-mail to say that, but I didn't end up following up on those intentions.

Back then I think they had more material on the web. I see next to nothing now (after 2-3 min. of searching, mind you).

Red Jenny said...

This is a good post, and I appreciate the reminder. Many many people living on or near the margins of poverty line will end up below it because of high gas prices.

Unfortunately, as Naomi Klein has pointed out, their desperation is being exploited by politicians and corporations. She uses the example of the propaganda for offshore drilling ("if we drill offshore, you will pay less at the pump" - which is false of course). People are receptive because they aren't being supported and given meaningful alternatives (imagine if the govt was to say: "we have a transportation crisis; we are going to increase subsidies of public transportation").

Scott said...

Hey Jenny...yeah, that's definitely true. It is very consistent with how elites have always sought to channel dissatisfaction and desperation and anger that really by rights should be aimed straight at them by substituting some other target -- some supposedly evil Other, often -- which ends up enhancing elite power over the rest of us. Which is why I think it is key that people organizing around mainstream green goals take a careful look at how they are doing what they do, to make sure they aren't laying the groundwork for the false and unnecessary "green vs. social justice" divide.

T B said...

> they aren't laying the groundwork
> for the false and unnecessary
> "green vs. social justice" divide.

For anyone reading who doesn't already know this -
There's "environmental justice" writing and activism.

Here's a Wikipedia page that touches on it -