September 22, 1991

Richard Register, President

Urban Ecology

P.O. Box 10144

Berkeley, California 94709

Re: Equity -- Environmental vs. Human

Dear Richard:

Arguments about equity threaten to split, and hence weaken, the environmental community. We need to resolve this debate.

First, we need to establish the principle that the natural environment must take priority over human concerns. Plants and animals obviously cannot protect themselves from human-created threats. Air pollution, water pollution, radiation, desertification, habitat destruction and fragmentation, global warming, and ozone depletion are just a few examples of the human-created conditions that threaten the natural environment. No life, human or otherwise, can survive on the Earth if we allow these conditions to continue. Protecting the environment is plainly a matter of self-interest.

Just as our own illness makes all other concerns suddenly of secondary importance, illness of the Earth makes all other human concerns, including liberal politics, trivial. Such priorities are not just matters of personal preference, but of scientific reality. To give another example, in emergency medicine, the priorities are labelled ABC: airway, breathing, and then circulation. As an EMT, I was trained to ignore an accident victim's bleeding, until I had made sure that he/she had an adequate airway and was breathing, since lack of oxygen will kill the brain in only 4-6 minutes, whereas bleeding takes much longer to have the same effect.

So now what do we say to those who insist that increasing the cost of automobile use will hurt the poor?

(1) As I explained above, protection of the environment, for valid scientific reasons, must take precedence over political (or even human welfare) concerns.

(2) Why don't we hear complaints that high costs unfairly prevent the poor from enjoying caviar or commuting by helicopter? First of all, there is theoretically no barrier preventing an enterprising poor person from catching his/her own sturgeon or even building a helicopter from junk parts. But more importantly, neither caviar nor helicopter-commuting are essential to a decent life. Travel, on the other hand is essential.

(3) But is automobile use essential? If it is, then we will all perish 30-40 years from now, when the oil runs out and there is no longer enough surplus energy to waste it on "asphalt sailing". I don't think it is essential. According to a recent S.F. Chronicle poll, only 10% of Bay Area residents have no access to public transit. I would suspect that most of those are within bicycling distance of transit lines. It is true that many people live in the hills or in other places where transit use is inconvenient. But I doubt that very many of those people are poor.

(4) Even for those who live in auto-dependent areas, we mustn't forget that they chose to live there! Just like the people who choose to live in flood plains or landslide-prone areas or forest-fire-prone areas, and then demand that the government rescue them when the inevitable disaster happens, I think we can reasonably ask them to solve their own problem.

(5) According to the 1990 Census, the poor own far fewer cars than other people. They also live predominantly in areas well served by public transit. Areas that are not transit accessible are usually the higher-priced hilly or close-to-nature areas where the wealthy want to live.

(6) What if the poor are "forced" (by high auto costs) to use public transit? Is that so bad? For short trips, bicycles are viable, and much cheaper, obviously, than the automobile. For longer trips, where a bicycle is less viable, public transit is always cheaper than the automobile. For example, by transit, my 20-mile commute costs $4.05 round trip. Using the IRS figure of $.33/mile, the automobile cost would be $13.33 round trip. Of course, that $.33 is grossly underestimated. Several years ago, Herz estimated auto costs at $.64/mile. They are undoubtedly much higher today. So what is so bad about forcing the poor to save money?

(7) The poor probably pay less for their cars than others, by not having insurance and not having driver's licenses. But do we want to encourage this? It has been estimated that 1/4 of the drivers on the road are there illegally. From one point of view, they alone are responsible for all the billions of dollars we are spending to expand our highway system!

Why do the poor choose to use automobiles, if they are so costly? Probably for the same reason a lot of not-so-poor use them: they see the rich doing it, and want to be like them, just as Third World countries follow in the developmental path of the First World countries, even when the results are undesirable.

Let's give our liberal consciences a rest, and get our priorities back in order, before we tear the environmental movement in half!



Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.