100 years from Model T to the end of Ford cars—but is it the end of the world?


As I write this I don’t have Internet service. So I’m winging it. No Google or Wiki to verify any details. We’re on our own here—just like the days before we got wired in.

Which was 1993 for me. Counting on my fingers I see that I’ve been online for 25 years. Computing went hand-held wireless a little over 10 years ago with the introduction of the first iPhone, and now we find out that the carbon footprint of cell phones is now equal to the carbon produced from our cars (but don’t hold me to that, because I can’t fact check it). Given the power we feed into server arrays and microprocessors and cell towers and the billions of phones produced and billions of us online, is it any wonder?

The original iPhone, released June 29, 2007

Several decades ago I spent a year in England. It was a great experience. I bought a small car for £500 and drove across the country, mostly on narrow one-lane roads. Our house had a coin-fed meter to keep the lights on, and hot water heating system fired by a small coal furnace in the kitchen that needed filling twice a day, with trips outside to the small coal bunker behind the house with a coal pail (a “hod” I think they called it). Uh, yes, we had indoor plumbing.

What I noticed most about the country at that time was the frugality of life compared to here. People bought food in small amounts from the high street market, only enough for one day, two at most. And those cars. Tiny by comparison to our giant American gas-guzzlers. When I got home to Canada my brother picked me up in his big yellow Ford crew-cab truck, and let me drive. Its size was unforgettable, as were the other bloated vehicles sharing the road.

One would think that after a few oil crises and climate change we’d be a whole lot more conservative about our transportation. And in many ways we are. Vehicles are far more fuel efficient for their size—but rather than shrinking our vehicles we’ve managed to make them even bigger, heavier and more luxury- and gadget-laden. Leather seats, electronics, rearview cameras, power everything including sunroofs, multiple airbags, 300+ horsepower engines, the list goes on in an endless options list. Airplanes follow the same track. The engines are more fuel-efficient but the fleets are growing faster than ever—as we travel more than ever. (I won’t worry about my carbon footprint when I go on vacation or a business trip if you won’t. Or so the subconscious unthinking goes.)

Ford got my attention last year by converting all of its popular F-150 pickup trucks to aluminum bodies. I never did get the reason for it. I assumed it was for the weight reduction, which shaved about 135 kilograms off each vehicle. But have you ever thought about these pickups really? Ford, GM, Toyota, Nissan, Ram, they’re all so tall as to be practically unusable for anyone shorter than a professional basketball player. Compare them to any mid-1960’s truck. What are we thinking?

When I was born there were only 2.5 billion people on the planet. (Again, don’t hold me to that, it’s just what I remember.) Now we’re over 7 billion. Carbon is now at 411 parts per million in our atmosphere—the highest in 800,000 years, I just read. Carbon output is directly chained to two things: technological progress and population growth. Cars and computers count for a large portion of our carbon output. That’s transportation and communication.

I was thinking about what life would have been like just before the invention of the automobile. Would I be living in a one-horse family, or a two-horse family? How far would I travel every day? One thing I learned from driving across rural Maine for a few years to visit relatives was the distance between small, disappearing old communities. They were all between 8 to 12 kilometres apart. Why? Because that’s about as far as someone could travel round trip by horse and wagon in a day. Our technology limited the range of our travel.

Recalling those days in England, one of the more astonishing things I learned was how little the English travelled at that time. Many hadn’t been more than 20 kilometres from their birthplaces. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a middle class Anglo who hasn’t flown to some exotic vacation destination. World travel is no longer rare.

Just last week I read that Ford announced that would eliminating almost all cars from its lineup; only the Focus and Mustang will remain. The rest will be SUVs and trucks. Again, I’m shaking my head. What are we thinking? Bigger is still better? Oh. Right, it’s not the about planet, its about the market. As always. And life goes on…


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