But let me to qualify that just a little. I don’t mean Man’s greatest mistake ever. And I don’t count human foibles or innate weaknesses as mistakes.
What I am talking about is our ongoing rational choice, right now, to spend our physical resources, time and creative energy doing one thing rather than another.
A mistake, by this definition, must also be an opportunity. A chance to do things differently. And yes, in these terms, the increasingly universal spread of the private motor car is undoubtedly Man’s greatest mistake. And our greatest opportunity.
Oddly, part of the problem in making the case against the car is that the arguments are so numerous and diverse that they become confusing, overwhelming.
20 million deaths from road accidents in 15 years, for example; that’s more than were killed in World War One. And don’t forget the 200 million people seriously injured. The majority of them our children and youngsters. It is a truly, truly horrific mass slaughter. And entirely avoidable.
Or our lost sense of community; the constant noise and the danger from cars stops kids playing and parents chatting. Cars physically prevent communication between people. They are by far the most conspicuous symbol of wealth and so are deeply divisive.
Or the fact that these hugely expensive, high-tech assets spend 96% of the time idle and cluttering up the place. We live in rich societies, but it doesn’t feel like it because our wealth sits around, depreciating in car parks, front gardens and at the side of the road.
Or the land use – look around what used to be a green and pleasant land and you’ll see mainly tarmac.
Or the inflationary pressure on all our main commodities, including food.
Or the deaths from air pollution.
Or the oil wars.
Do you see what I mean? The car is so dominant in our economics and in our public space that we are faced with a many headed beast. It is the combination of these massive detriments that adds up to what is by far our our biggest mistake.
And other crimes could be added to the charge sheet, but the one that really sums it up for me is this: the cost to our time.
Time is our most precious personal resource. Given time, anyone can achieve anything. Cars are meant to make life faster and allow us to do more, to get more out of life. It is deeply ironic then, that cars actually suck up vast amounts of people’s time, apparently without us noticing.
It takes time to research, purchase, insure, tax, maintain, clean, fill with petrol, plan routes, drive ourselves around, find parking spaces, deal with breakdowns, accidents and tickets and generally worry about our cars. People don’t keep tabs on all this time and compare it to journey time saved, we don’t tend to think that way.
But even if we did keep careful notes and tot it up, we would still be ignoring the car’s biggest drain on our time. Because we’ve got to pay for our cars somehow and for most people that means working to earn the money. On average we spend around a quarter of our income on running a car. So we spend about 1 to 1.5 days every week working for the car. As we earn more we simply ‘upgrade’ the car. It’s amazing really, the power of marketing and peer pressure.
Now if you are a real car enthusiast, a hobbyist, it’s kind of understandable that you should devote so much of your life to your car. As for the rest of us, wouldn’t we rather save the time and work 3.5 days instead of 5? Imagine what we could do with that time. At very least, shouldn’t our society and infrastructure be arranged to give us that genuine choice?
So, by a whisker, and out of several strong contenders, that’s my personal favourite reason that the car is Man’s greatest mistake. What’s yours?