March 18, 1995

Jane Holtz Kay

156 Milk Street

Boston, Mass. 02109

Re: Your Upcoming Book The End of the Auto Age

Dear Jane:

Thank you for your card. Your book has the potential to be one of the most important works of this century. The title is already a coup, and places you in a class with such visionaries as David Engwicht, Richard Register, and Dave Foreman. Since you say you have already written 400 pages, I may not be able to contribute much, but here are my sugggestions.

Think big! Everything is connected to everything else, and grandiose visions can be very satisfying and have a powerful effect on people's thinking, and hence on the future of the planet. In other words, your book should address all the big issues: global warming, ozone depletion, soil loss, air pollution, water pollution, the end of the oil, habitat loss, and loss of biodiversity. This is not as hard as it sounds, because roads and the automobile are the major players in all of those problems!

The automobile's effects on global warming, air and water pollution, and the end of the oil are well known, so I won't elaborate on those. Not as many people know that the biggest cause of ozone depletion in the U.S. is auto air conditioners and the CFCs that they leak. Soil loss comes from erosion (due to road building and the destructive activities that roads make possible, such as industrial-grade mining, logging, ranching, and farming) and paving over or developing valuable farmland into cities and suburbs.

The coming end of the oil supply is a great tool for accomplishing some very worthwhile goals, such as creating sustainable cities, industries, and lifestyles. The experts tell us that we have only 30-40 years' supply in the U.S., and only 50 years' supply world-wide (after which there will still be oil in the ground, but it will take more energy to extract than it will return). This means that panic will begin setting in in perhaps 20 years, and in only a few years, the wise will be planning what to do as it ends.

Every business, organization, community, and government agency should create a committee to start planning for the end of the oil. We have no time to waste, if we want to make sure that this valuable resource is used for something worthwhile, rather than simply being burned. Even if the oil supply was never exhausted, the exercise of planning how to live without it would still be very worthwhile. One example is that after the oil is gone, we won't have enough fuel left to keep very many of today's cars on the road, so we won't need all the roads that we have now.

Reducing mobility could actually enhance the economy: auto propaganda encourages people to drive to huge, distant malls containing "discount" chain stores. What they aren't told is that the cost of the drive negates any cost savings, and besides that, the purpose of a chain store is to suck all the profits out of the community and ship them to distant headquarters in Texas and other faraway places. Without the automobile, we will need to pepper every residential neighborhood with small, (hopefully) local businesses.

The easiest way to reduce auto use is to eliminate parking. Isn't it obvious that land is too valuable to be used by a single person to hold a car all day? Both the automobile and homelessness problems could be alleviated, if retired cars are given to homeless people, to use (in a legal parking space, of course) as housing.

It is high time we put an end to road construction. Worldwide! We can already get to any legitimate destination in innumerable ways. Places that can't be reached by road are better off that way. It is almost impossible to destroy the environment without roads!

Humans have serious problems, but they pale compared to what faces wildlife (I am including plants, as well as animals). Humans think we own, and have a right to dominate, every square inch of the Earth. As a direct result, wildlife is being squeezed out of its essential and preferred habitat. It is losing its preferred foods, mates, and other resources. Something like 100 species per day are becoming extinct. We believe that we have the right to eat whatever we wish; wildlife doesn't. We believe we have the right to travel wherever we wish; wildlife doesn't. Wildlife are just tools that we use and discard. Besides the obvious immorality of this situation, humans can's survive without the web of living organisms that provide us what we can't provide ourselves.

Nor would the Earth be a nice place to live without wildlife! Take your favorite location. No doubt, it is a place that is full of other species! Perhaps it is a park, or maybe a preserved bit of pristine wilderness. But I guarantee that it is not a scene of lifeless rock or water.

Although we can't live without other species, they can easily live without us. In fact, many species, such as the grizzly, won't tolerate the presence of humans. Thus, in order to preserve wildlife, we will need to create (the world's first!) habitat areas that are off-limits to humans. They should be big enough to accommodate the needs of the widest-ranging animals, and they should all be connected with each other by inviolate wildlife corridors. Ideally, these corridors should be tunnelled under, by any human facilities that need to cross them, so as not to inhibit wildlife movement.

At the very least, we should begin creating wildlife crossings of all of our roads and rail lines, at as frequent intervals as possible. Roads reduce biodiversity (leading, eventually, to local extinction) by creating physical and psychological barriers that prevent animals from reaching many potential mates, thus impoverishing their gene pool and reducing their ability to adapt to changing circumstances (such as global warming!). As many roads as possible should simply be ripped out (creating the new profession of "roadripping") and revegetated.

A couple of dangers: First, bicycles, which we once naively associated with all that is good, have recently come to be used not just to replace the automobile, but to extend our ability to get into the wilderness. People who haven't yet become aware of the danger we pose to other species (including people who think the purpose of wilderness is to have nice places to hike) don't see this as the big problem that it is. But we should know, by now, that any technology can be used for good or evil.

Second, we have gotten into the habit of thinking that once an area has been messed up, that makes it okay to mess it up some more! A University of California biologist said that, since the Berkeley waterfront is no longer good wildlife habitat, that makes it okay to bring dogs there. Others talk about "sensitive" habitat areas. Actually, every area was once a "sensitive" habitat area, and could be restored to such a state again. When we are doing what we want, we think that anything is possible. The same principle should be applied to doing what is right.

We tend to think of war as an intractable problem. But a war is basically two groups of people fighting selfishly over some resource. What if people realized that a third party, such as wildlife, is in greater danger than either of the combatants, and needs help from both of them, working together? Just as the plight of starving children brought together all kinds of people to address a common concern, I believe that wildlife are just the cause we need to distract the world from its selfish, counterproductive pursuits.

No problem should be ignored, but they do need to be put in some order of priority. Wildlife, because they can't protect themselves from us, clearly must be given the top priority. If they aren't, we simply won't have many of them anymore. I would put native cultures next. They represent a priceless reservoir of wisdom (but not infallible, since man has caused massive extinction events wherever he has moved (see The End of Evolution, by Peter Ward)). Next I would put children, the aged, and the poor. The order is arguable, but has some rational basis. For example, I believe that wildlife and wilderness are the most important tools for teaching children what life is all about and "the way things are supposed to be". Having a set of priorities can help us make decisions, e.g. whether to turn an unneeded parking lot into a homeless shelter or a wildlife preserve (I vote for the latter, because wildlife is much worse off than we are).


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.