It is obvious that Václav Havel had his weak moment two weeks ago. At an event in support of Bursík’s Greens he criticised car production based “only on preservation of employment” and used a surprisingly brief metaphor compared to his usual custom: “It seems slightly monstrous to me. It is as if someone said that the concentration camps have to exist since those wards and guards need some employment. It is necessary to ask about the meaning, whether we need more cars.” He received criticism from all sides and the head of the Social Democrats even wants Havel to apologise.
Czech right wing die-hard fans say that a car is an ordinary product of the market economy and that as such it is being produced in the quantity that is profitable from the long-term perspective. Therefore there is no point in saying that cars are harmful. If the citizens, as the agents of the free market, decide that the cars are in fact harmful, then the production will be restricted. Everything else would be an interference with the natural course of economy, Havel’s right wing critics think.
Theory and practice, however, are two different things. Economic crisis and large stimulation packages aimed at saving the car industry show that in this sphere it is no longer about fair market mechanisms but about an industry saved from sinking by the governmental policy. Moreover, already the entry of the foreign carmakers into the Czech Republic was accompanied by the state support in form of tax holiday and various motivation programmes.
If, then, the carmakers demand various reliefs or money to survive, the question of why we should give it to them is quite legitimate. And here we strike the root of the problem that Havel was pointing at.
Trap of environmentally friendly cars
Worldwide active English bank HSBC uses three photographs of an attractive car in one of its commercials. The pictures are identical but each comes with a different inscription. One says Freedom, the other Symbol and the third Polluter. An easily remembered advertisement thus reminds us of a well-known thing: the perception of cars has been shifting from admiration towards a more critical approach. It would probably be hard to find a more generally common and available product that managed to turn against its users so blatantly in the past years.
It goes without saying that people will continue to like cars and use them with gratefulness. For those in towns, at least, it ceases to be clear whether the cars are more of a help or a harm. This is not about cars as such but about motoring as such, from which there is no escape. It is as if rather nice relatives came to visit us all at once and would be somewhat reluctant to leave.
That is why, without any regard to how satisfied customers of carmakers we are or how keen drivers, the motoring, in its general sense, represents a serious civilisation problem due to its continuously growing proportions. Cars are responsible for many human lives, they pollute our living space with noise and stench, they constantly cut into our public space. Nobody wants to live near them. They are a serious factor in global warming.
Simultaneously, it represents a typical civilisation trap: every new technological method thanks to which we get better, cheaper and more environmentally friendly cars does not solve our problem with motoring as such, quite the contrary. For example the development of cars of the future, including those running on electricity or CNG, will bring further pressure to widen the streets and initiate extensive urban change of towns since many people will want to drive these cheap ecological cars.
We live in 21st century
Worldwide desire for individual transport is simply a disease that is consuming us slowly but surely. There are 777 cars on 1,000 people in the USA, 550 in Germany, 426 in the Czech Republic, 14 in China, 8 in India. In the meantime, we know with certainty that the worldwide expansion of car use onto the western level is ecologically unsustainable. It does not mean that the production should be banned, however, it is, to use Havel’s words, “slightly monstrous” to support this production just to keep people employed. Similarly, only someone who likes to spend his time stuck in traffic, would offer a positive answer to Havel’s question of whether “we need more cars”.
With regard to all the problems connected to it, the car symbolises the thinking of last century rather than of the one we currently live in. It would be logical to limit its use or production rather than support it.
If we are to support some production just to keep people employed, it should be the products the revenues and costs of which undoubtedly go into the 21st century. Those could be the communication technologies, but also ecology, mainly the crucial battle against the global warming. Modern technologies in energy industry, efficiency or public transport are the things moving the world ahead and also bringing many jobs.
If, therefore, the Czech politicians really want to influence the industry with regard to employment, this is where they should direct their forces. Change of economy’s orientation will not take place in one day but we could start it fast.