The China Argument and using cars less


I watched a television programme about Ms Kris Murrin, a woman who tries to persuade people to use their cars less and walk and cycle more. In the Channel 4 documentary series The Woman Who Stops Traffic, Ms Murrin encounters all sorts of arguments about why people should not give up their cars for a day, some of which are so specious that it is hard to figure out how to answer them. One argument crops up all the times when environmentalists try to persuade people to change their behaviour; I call it “the China Argument”

In yesterday’s programme Ms Murrin, when pointing out that taking a car for a mile journey was damaging to the environment, got back the full force of the China Argument. “China are going to build 500 coal power stations in the next five years – I don’t think me driving a mile is going to make any difference to global warming.”

There are lots of variations on this theme, but in essence the China argument claims that stopping environmentally bad behaviour on a small scale makes no difference unless it is also stopped on the biggest scale, and therefore small scale bad behaviour can continue. 

Of course the China Argument is flawed. If you transfer the argument to matters other than environmental ones the flaws become self evident. “In the first world, other people killed tens of millions of people. I don’t think my killing one or two people is going to make a difference to human mortality”. I can offer another suggestion. “There are hundreds of apples on the tree. I don’t think that my taking one of them will affect the owner of the orchard”. 

Some things are wrong and the fact that others are doing them is no excuse, as your head teacher may have said. Of course, the point that Ms Murrin was addressing was the use of unnecessary car travel.

It is not just about climate change, although climate change and carbon emissions are important. It is also about pollution. The town of Marlowe, like many small crowded towns, suffers from the noise and dirt that car traffic brings with it, as an unwanted by product. This causes health problems and damage to property.

We all pay for the alleviation of health problems through our taxes and property damage. We all suffer it. In the summer the Olympic Games will be held in China, in Beijing. The city may well be shrouded in particulate dust caused from polluting energy generation – I wonder if we will see clear skies in Beijing.  

As far as we can forecast China will continue to build two coal fired power stations a week mostly using low quality coal that is high in sulphur and carbon, without using appropriate smoke cleaning technologies.  The reason why China does this is not so much due to China, but due to the rest of us.

With insatiable appetites we consume cheap goods – the cheaper the better. Manufacturers have found that they can make almost everything more cheaply in China than they can in the developed world, and as consumers we want to buy stuff as cheaply as possible.  So manufacturers set up businesses in China to satisfy the developmed nations’ rapacious greed and in doing so China needs more and more energy.

We cannot blame China for reacting to our demand. And in creating the demand we in the developed world, including the person who used the China Argument to Ms Murrin, might just as well be building the power stations ourselves. We are certainly paying for them, because no man is an island and no nation exists outside this planet.

Kris Murrin, The woman who stops trafficSee also: The Woman Who Stops Traffic,

3 Responses

  1. Hi,
    Car designers are just going to have to come up with an automobile that outlasts the payments.

  2. A valid reason for not using a cars less is there is no real alternative, if yo want to pop down to your local shop, yes you should walk, but on a daily basis it is not practicle, for instance, I had to attend a meeting in Bethnal Green East London, I live in Sittingbourne, Kent, now to travel by train would of taken me just over 2 hours and cost £18, to drive from door to door would take 1hour 15 minutes and cost about £5 in fuel, it’s a no brainer really as to which mode of transport I used, until there is a real alternative to driving, then the argument for using public transport is flawed, it is expensive, unreliable and the infrastructure is not there.
    If everyone who did usually drive decided to take public transport in the name of saving the enviroment as the Government keep preaching to us, the transport system would grind to a halt, as it could not cope with the extra passengers, so again the argument for using public transport is flawed and pointless

  3. Chris
    Your journey and its cost sums up what is really wrong. I think that there is a case for public transport in cities 100% subsidised. Cars are necessary but the way many people use them is not.

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