A guy came for the car last month, so we said our farewells and waved it off. Just a generic, metallic grey, five-seater Nissan diesel, in good working order and still rust-free despite a lifetime on the coast of Wales. It was fourteen years old, eleven of those years in my possession, and we liked it very much.
Carrie, as the car was christened, arrived when the kids were small and still in the habit of attributing personhood to significant objects in their lives. For me too, Carrie was a character of sorts, and an upbeat one at that. Like a young husky: responsive, uncomplaining, and ever ready to power us wherever we wanted to go.
Time caught up with Carrie, though. Old diesel vehicles, chugging toxic particulates and nitrogen oxides into the air we all breathe – especially if we live in dense, heavily trafficked urban neighbourhoods – are being made unwelcome and phased out here in the UK. And as we know too well, every wisp of CO2 from an exhaust pipe nudges atmospheric parts-per-million and global temperatures that little bit higher, pushing the planet deeper into climate chaos.
For a long time now, like lots of other people, I’ve been edging towards alternative ways of getting around. Rather than switching to electric, though, my goal was to end the automobile relationship and go car-free. This turned out to mean overcoming plenty of car-dependent habits and commitments, and has been trickier to achieve than I imagined.
I was living in Shanghai, in 2007, when I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and realised that what troubled me most about my job at the time was the excessive amount of flying. International business-class trips accounting for tons and tons of atmospheric CO2 in my name every year. I needed and wanted to spend more time with my feet on the ground.
It took a good couple of years to step back from that role, and another two or three to transition with my family to a less carbon-intensive mode of life. We returned to the UK and settled in a small town on the Bristol Channel, where I started to enjoy roving on bike or foot wherever time and distance permitted, rather than driving. I also found I was giving more attention to getting the household recycling right and buying less plastic. Later, we began cutting back on meat consumption – another minor adjustment, arguably for the common good.
Global air passenger miles, meanwhile, were still rocketing up without me. World plastics output, and the corresponding contamination of natural systems, continued increasing, unslowed by my efforts to master the bins. Humanity’s biodiversity-decimating machinery of resource extraction carried on bulldozing habitats across ever-expanding frontiers of land and sea, no matter how I felt about that. And international CO2 emissions, net-zero declarations notwithstanding, continued ticking up year by year.
So, no illusions. Mine was a minuscule, slow-motion response to a snowballing polycrisis that demanded massive, urgent action. And what’s more, with virtually every modern-life move I made – every turn of the ignition key in particular – I was making the problem worse.
For more than a decade, then, I tried changing what I could change “sustainably” – which in practical terms meant changes compatible with sustaining my family’s social and economic circumstances. And as part of that balancing act, the car lingered on.
Even for a family on the outskirts of a city with decent public transport and where most daily business can be handled within walking distance, a car remained, weirdly, a necessity. Work and raising offspring required it, or so it seemed. And anyway, I’ve always loved cars.
Somewhere inside I still aspire to a Bullitt-era Mustang or ’72 Camaro, and to this day, at the wheel of a sensible family car cluttered with fast-food wrappers and flakes of dried mud, I get a frisson of awesomeness when the beast surges at the touch of my foot on the pedal.
Lately, though, I’ve come to despair about everything that automobiles, and the infrastructure they impose, do for the freedom of movement and wellbeing of wild animals, children, people with reduced mobility and indeed all of us. I feel bad for neighbourhoods choking under the 24-hour rumble of elevated motorways, and for rural landscapes and communities carved open by menacing speedways – roads that I happen to be gunning along.
I’ve also come to link the arrogance and entitlement fostered by driving – the way we tend to view fellow road-users as obstacles and antagonists who need to make way for our dangerous, polluting, oversized chariots – with the selfishness currently pummelling this living world in the name of progress and development.
A selfishness which the mania for resource-heavy electric vehicles simply encourages.
So finally, after much prevarication, I felt ready to stop being a “motorist”. Post-pandemic I was working largely from home, anyway, and practically everything we needed was available locally or by delivery. The kids were independently mobile, for the most part, and the car had become a costly habit more than a necessity. It was time to consciously uncouple.
This summer we indulged a final road trip, for a few days’ hiking in the Highlands, then I posted the ad to an online marketplace. A deal was struck, the car was sold, and that was that. Carrie may be missed but won’t be replaced.
Some chores take a little longer to handle now. For occasional journeys around town or further afield, we’re going to need lifts from friends and neighbours, if not taxis and rentals. For other trips there’ll be bikes, buses and trains, when our own two feet aren’t up to it. I’ll have to turn down some in-person jobs and further trim my outgoings, but there’ll be one less drain on the family finances.
More importantly, though, there will be one less increment of direct harm that we do, daily, to this dear Earth. And that, I’ve come to believe, is the thing that really matters.