Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kaleidoscope World

If you've ever marveled at a kaleidoscope, you can't help but admire the conservatarians' ability to generate an endless, florid phantasmagoria from a few rotating fragments of ideology.

For instance, here's Iain Murray at Planet Gore:

Britblogger Guido Fawkes delights in blowing up the sacred symbols of establishment [sic]. Here he presents data that strongly suggest that one of the sacred cows of green environmentalism, mass public transport, symbolized by the train, is less “clean” in terms of emissions than the average car trip, particularly when the trains aren’t fully loaded.
I pause here not to direct your attention to Murray's claim that the "establishment" prefers trains to cars (or his curious reference to "green environmentalism," or his cute 'n' clever use of "particularly") but to draw out the suspense. You'll thank me for it later.
As Guido puts it:
Trains are heavy, get their energy inefficently down wires [!] where much of the energy is lost and are fundamentally a nineteenth century point-to-point technology belonging to a slower era. Cars are light, fuel efficient, and a liberating, flexible form of transport suited to modern life. Greens hate them so much because they are ideologically opposed to capitalist modes of consumption.
I love how Guido attacks rail travel in the name of "capitalist modes of consumption." It sounds so vigorous and au courant...until you remember the role of railroads and subways in Victorian Britain - or modern New York - and start laughing.

As for the bit about "nineteenth century point-to-point technology," it's interesting how much time the defenders of capitalism spend downplaying or dismissing its capacity for technological innovation; it's an error Marx certainly never made.

The thing is, Iain Murray would dislike mass transit even if it had a negative carbon footprint. Hell, he'd dislike it more. Listening to these people complain about the "inefficiency" of mass transit is like listening to anti-sex zealots complain about the failure rate of condoms; you can be pretty sure that their criticism is not intended to be constructive.

Incidentally, Channel 4's FactCheck has a somewhat different interpretation of the data:
Government might be better off trying to push rail travel for businessmen who would otherwise fly or drive on their own in large cars, than targeting families who would otherwise travel in full cars.

If you're a family of four this doesn't necessarily mean that driving is the greenest option. You face a choice between getting seats on a train that would be travelling anyway (thus having almost no extra impact) or putting an extra car on the road.

So, as with many of today's green dilemmas, there is no easy, hard-and-fast answer. The basic principle that trains are better than cars, and better in turn than planes, is still a useful rule of thumb.

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