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An open letter to the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago
According the American Lung Association's own data, "Transportation sources contribute more than half the total amount of man-made air pollution in the United States today. Motor vehicle emissions account for approximately 77 percent of the carbon monoxide (CO), more than 35.6 percent of the volatile organic compounds (including hydrocarbons) and forty five percent of the nitrogen oxides (NOx) in our nation's air."
The ALAMC has worked very hard to ban smoking in public places in Chicago. Instead of promoting "safer" cigarettes, you understand that the greatest benefits come from quitting smoking completely. In addition, you have taken a bold stance that the rights of individuals to smoke is outweighed by the rights of people who don't smoke to breathe clean air in public places. You have also worked very hard to clean up power-plant emissions. We commend you for your hard work and dedication to improving air quality in the Chicago area.
However, when it comes to automobile emissions, you fail to take the same uncompromising position. Instead of advocating for fewer cars on the roads, you fall into the trap of so-called "green car." Unfortunately, this is just a tailpipe dream, like the mythical "safe cigarette." Every year, the automobile industry puts out a lot of marketing propaganda about how their vehicles are getting cleaner, yet our air quality continues to worsen.
If the tobacco industry put on a giant trade show to sell more cigarettes, and to glorify their deadly products, you would be on the front lines of the protest to shut them down. But at the Auto Show, you're on the inside, hob-nobbing with automobile and oil industry executives. Instead of praising the benefits of increasing funding for mass transit, encouraging walking and cycling in the city, and building human-scale developments in favor of sprawl, you are participating in an egregious display of automobile glorification, and contributing to more automobile dependency. Instead of standing up for the rights of Chicagoans who choose not to drive cars to not have to breathe second-hand automobile exhaust, you are helping the automobile industry put more cars on the roads.
The real problem isn't that cars are too big, or that they're using the wrong fuels; it's that there are simply too many of them being driven too many miles, for trips of which a vast majority could be either eliminated completely or replaced by transit, walking, or cycling, if we simply stopped building communities that force people to be dependent on cars (or at least make them think that they are). The root cause of this problem is that we, as a society and a culture, are addicted to private automobiles and hypermobility.
Alternative fuels will do nothing to stop this downward spiral, this negative feedback loop, of more cars, more car-centric infrastructure, and still more cars. In fact, even if they do succeed in providing a viable alternative to oil, they will only make the problem worse by removing one of the few negative pressures working against automobile dependency, which is relatively high gas prices. History shows that when gasoline gets cheaper, people will simply drive more.
And in the long run, we'll pave over more of our land for roads and parking lots, consume more energy to move everyone and everything around in car-clogged cities and suburbs, use more energy to build the cars in the first place, create more air pollution, and see more people killed and maimed in automobile crashes (which are already the number one killer of all people between 3 and 33 years of age in this country). Welcome to the electric/biodiesel/hybrid traffic jam. Nobody really benefits from this, other than the automobile and energy industries.
And even if, by some magic, a truly clean, free energy source could be used to power private automobiles, we still don't want all those cars in Chicago, or anywhere else. We don't want to see Chicago's lakefront desecrated any longer by a superhighway, even if it's filled with "green" cars. We don't want to see more of the city's space devoted to roads and parking for cars of any type. Chicago simply doesn't need any more cars. We don't need the Auto Show to sell us more cars. And we certainly don't need the American Lung Association helping them.
Furthermore, we are dismayed when organizations like the ALAMC focus only on the pollution aspect of car culture, and not on the larger issues. The fact is that automobiles kill over half a million people worldwide every year, and over 40,000 Americans, and that automobile crashes are the number one killer of children and young people in the U.S. This inconvenient truth is as immediate and pressing as any environmental issue. The Auto Show aims to put more cars on the roads, which will undeniably result in both more overall air pollution and more crash fatalities.
If your idea of a best-case scenario is that sprawl will continue unabated, more highways will be built for more cars, and more people will become dependent on automobiles in their everyday lives, even if those cars are "green," you're suffering from a dangerous failure of imagination. Instead of putting the best minds in our country and our planet to work on coming up with amazing new technologies to allow us all to continue to bring two tons of metal with us to work every day, let's think about how we can make it possible for kids to walk or ride a bike to school again. Or at least to prevent so many of them from dying in car crashes.
The American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago should refocus its mission and take the lead in protecting the public health from the hazards of air pollution. However, you are sending the wrong message by participating in the Auto Show. There are plenty of charity events which raise money without promoting automobile usage, and the inevitable result of more air pollution and crash fatalities. We urge you to reconsider your involvement with this event in the future.