Sunday, October 14, 2007

Capitalist Anarchy and the Environment

The New York Times recently published an article on Tata Motors, which is attempting to manufacture a $2,000 - $2,500 car. Several other manufacturers are also following suite.

Such a cheap car is designed to open up huge portions of the world market which previously were unable to afford an auto, in particular, masses in India and China. Undoubtably, tens, or even hundreds of millions of people throughout the region would purchase these cars within a few years of their introduction. For the automakers, this is extremely lucrative - rather than fiercely competing over the stagnant markets of North America and Europe, they can produce for a rapidly expanding market with a high growth rate. High profits will surely follow.

But aside from high profits, what will be the result? An enormous transportation catastrophe. Despite having the largest populations in the world, both China and India have scant developments in more modern public transportation.

In India nearly all city transportation is road-based, ranging from the most rudimentary forms up to bikes, motorbikes, motorcars, taxis, and buses. Trams only operate in Kolkota, the last remains of systems setup by the British and since eliminated. Subways, which are the ultimate form of transportation in dense, urban areas, exist only in four cities: Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi. While these are being expanded, and others planned, their development lags severely behind the requirements for efficient transportation in a high-population city. And there are 37 cities in India with a population over one million! China has subways or light-rail in about a dozen cities, but there are 49 cities with a population of over 1 million.

Both China and India have extensive rail networks which are heavily used for passenger travel, but these cannot cover short, inner-city transportation. These systems are being strained with traffic growth, particularly in China, with expansion struggling to keep pace. Highways in both nations are less developed but also expanding - though many India's roadways, according to the Times article, are in notoriously poor condition.

The proposal to create several cheap automobiles will result in an enormous stress on these already insufficient transportation systems. In cities, it would seem that such a huge influx of even small cars could cause absolutely massive congestion - literally millions would switch from either small or dense transportation, bikes and buses, to space inefficient automobiles. How will the roads accomodate it? Where will all of these vehicles be stored and parked?

Long and medium distance travel will inevitably switch towards road transport, away from rail, causing enormous reductions in efficiency. In both cases - urban and long-distance - cars will carry far less people, with less safety, and more energy, than social transportation. In some ways the changes would likely mirror a similar shift that occurred in North America in the mid-20th century, but this shift would encompass over one-third of the worlds population. The implications for resources, development, and the environment clearly deserve consideration and study.

Yet capitalist society, structured on the anarchy of the market, is not capable of such large scale planning. The various carmakers will simply let loose, for profit, regardless of the consequences.

The cheap price of the auto is based on not only improved technology and manufacturing but low safety standards as well.