Tuesday, March 13, 2007

How Cars Help The Environment

Here's an interesting article that goes along with my theory that technology will be the solution to our environmental issues, and has already contributed greatly to environmental improvements, despite the blame it gets for modern day pollution. Dwight R. Lee, at TCS Daily, spends some time delving in to one of the main sources of the environmental woes of yesteryear, and concludes that one of our most prevalent current technologies, the internal combustion engine (ICE), is a Godsend when compared with the primary sources of horsepower from the past--i.e. horses, and oxen, and mules. Those of us who grew up with cars instead of wagons don't contemplate very often how much of a difference the automobile has made to the pollution levels of cities, or, I should say, we tend to think that the effect has been negative. All that car exhaust is dreadful. There used to be fresh air, by golly! We think of that pollution and forget that before the car, when folks rode into town on noble steeds, there was pollution of an entirely different sort.

Livestock flatulence, according to a report from the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization, cited by Lee, accounts for 18% of today's greenhouse gases, and all the cars, planes, trucks, trains, boats, and every other form of transportation in the world added together don't equal that level of greenhouse gas output. Livestock produce methane, too, which Lee points out is a much more potent greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide which gasoline engines emit. Greenhouse gases, as we all know, are the favorite whipping boy for those concerned about global warming, so this should make the world look more favorably on modern transportation. Gasoline engines produces less gases, and less potent gases than their animal counterparts. Score one for the ICE.

Now, if livestock flatulence produces 18% of the greenhouse gases of today, imagine what they were producing a hundred years ago, when horses filled our cities and our farms. Indeed, the general level of pollution created by a culture dependant upon animals for transport and food production, as well as food, goes beyond just dealing with the gases. The manure itself was a pollution nightmare:

Consider the effects of horse emissions in our towns and cities at the beginning of the last century. The air and water pollution from horse manure contributed to a death rate far greater than that generated by the pollution from cars and trucks. No one denies that photochemical smog from gas powered vehicles is a health risk, but it is not nearly the health risk of cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, diphtheria and malaria. These diseases killed tens of thousands of Americans in the early 20-century and these deaths began to decline as cars and trucks replaced horses and wagons.

And the improvements in the environment weren't limited to just the towns and cities. Before gasoline power arrived, beasts of burden were polluting agricultural communities along with meat producing animals such as cows, chickens and pigs. By eliminating horses, mules and oxen on farms, tractors and other types of gas-powered farm machinery greatly reduced the problem of animal waste that environmentalists, with justification, still complain about. This also eliminated the need to grow the food required by millions of farm animals. It has been estimated that it took about 93 million acres of land in 1900 to grow the food to fuel the farm animals that were soon replaced by motorized farm machinery. Much of that land has now gone back to woodlands.

Score two for the ICE. Lee isn't finished with his defense of the engine, either. He addresses one more aspect of the flap over flatulence, and how the ICE isn't getting the credit it deserves when it comes to protecting the environment:
Instead of giving credit to internal combustion for its contribution to environmental quality, the news on the harmful effects of animal flatulence has resulted in another culprit being blamed for global warming; meat eaters. According to a recent article in the "Christian Science Monitor," some environmentalists are urging people to become vegetarians to combat global warming. There is no mention that this vegetarian solution, if taken seriously, would make the internal combustion engine even more critical to environmental protection. Imagine the amount of animal manure and methane that would be produced growing all those extra vegetables without motorized farm equipment.

Score three for the ICE. Lee goes on to discuss improvements in ICE technology which are reducing transportation's pollution production all the time. He also predicts that someday a superior technology will come along to replace the combustion engine, further limiting the pollution cost of human transport. My prediction is that his prediction is correct.