a peek inside the fishbowl

22 Apr, 2014

Thinking about cars on Earth Day

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Yaktivism

The other night we watched a really interesting episode of Cosmos. (Have you watched this show? I just realized you can catch it online here.) It was episode seven, which was about a fellow named Clair Patterson, who took on the task of figuring out the age of the earth. During this process he had to invent the ultra “clean room” – out of necessity really –  so he could study his samples without them being contaminated by lead particles. He was able to show (a) the earth is 4.5 billion years old and (b) lead does not naturally occur at Earth’s surface and is poisonous to humans.

This is how Wikipedia summarized it: “He examined the levels of lead in the environment and in deeper parts of the oceans and Antarctic ice, showing that lead had only been brought to the surface in recent times. He would discover that the higher levels of lead were from the use of tetraethyllead in leaded gasoline, despite long-established claims by Robert A. Kehoe and others that this chemical was safe. Patterson would continue to campaign against the use of lead, ultimately resulting in government-mandated restrictions on the use of lead.”

Clair Patterson is essentially the reason why leaded gasoline was banned. ONE GUY brought about a massive change in the automotive industry and made our world a healthier place. I have to ask myself – given the huge impact of cars and driving on our collective health –  what is MY chosen car manufacturer doing to make a positive change right now?

My friend Nadine Silverthorne posted this on Facebook this morning and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it:

“Myth: we have to save the earth. Frankly, the earth doesn’t need to be saved. Nature doesn’t give a hoot if human beings are here or not. The planet has survived cataclysmic and catastrophic changes for millions upon millions of years. Over that time, it is widely believed, 99 percent of all species have come and gone while the planet has remained. Saving the environment is really about saving our environment — making it safe for ourselves, our children, and the world as we know it. If more people saw the issue as one of saving themselves, we would probably see increased motivation and commitment to actually do so.” – Robert M. Lilienfeld, management consultant and author (b. 1953) and William L. Rathje, archaeologist and author (b. 1945)

What’s the world going to look like in 50, 75, 100 years? I don’t think about it very much because it’s too depressing. It’s much easier to pretend that there’s nothing wrong.

If we lived in a different place, I’d probably opt out of car ownership. But given our lifestyle it’s just not realistic for us to dispense with our vehicle. However, looking back on our history of car ownership, there are two things we did right:

1) We made the decision to be a one-car family.
2) We bought a hybrid.

Those two things make me very happy, especially now, as we coast past gas stations currently displaying pricing in the $1.36/L range. Not only have we saved on gasoline costs (our consumption averages around 4.5 – 5.0L/100km), but the hybrid has very low emissions as well.

Our car is a Prius, but a few months ago I had the chance to drive my first electric hybrid car. Ford loaned me a Fusion for the better part of a week, and I had a bit of an epiphany about the future of driving. All car manufacturers are going to have to pull themselves up by the boot straps because this industry is not sustainable. Ford seems to be at the forefront, not just with designing/making hybrid vehicles, but by including biomaterials in the production process, using less water, and maximizing the use of recycled and recyclable content in their cars.

For example, some of the materials that go into their vehicles include corn (in the fabrics), soybeans (in foam seats and head restraints), rice hulls (a by-product of rice grain that is being used to reinforce plastic), and agricultural waste from Ontario farmers is being converted into wheat-straw based storage bins.

It begs the question, who made your car? And what is that company doing to decrease the damage they’re doing to our planet, and to us? And who’s going to be the next Clair Patterson?

4 Responses to "Thinking about cars on Earth Day"

1 | lacoop

April 22nd, 2014 at 6:04 pm


We also made the decision to be a one-car family. We also make a point of biking and walking where ever possible: cheaper, better for the planet, and we get free exercise (zero membership fees!). Plus, driving is just a pain in the butt with so much traffic and distractions.

One small point I would like to make: saving the planet is about more than us…it is about all the other species who do not have a say…we are just one species on the planet, but we treat it like it is ours alone. We must change that.

btw … the next Clair Patterson? Could be right here in Ottawa…there are many, many dedicated, hard-working scientists in the Canadian government who do their best every day, in spite of obstacles like mountains of paper and rivers of regulations, to advance the cause of a clean and safe world.

2 | andrea tomkins

April 23rd, 2014 at 9:28 am


You make a good point lacoop, we are definitely not alone on this planet! Easing our dependence on cars is a good idea for many reasons. I do wish the city of Ottawa was a little more forward-thinking about cycling and pedestrian issues though. Sigh.

3 | Laurel

April 23rd, 2014 at 7:15 pm


I appreciate that you write a lot about being kind to the world and being aware re recycling and more. It’s one of the things that draws me to your blog But I don’t think it’s doing anything wrong if one doesn’t buy a Prius or an electric hybrid. It’s just not practical for some. In some ways we would love an electric car but they still aren’t where they need to be to be practical but perhaps someday I can say that if I lived in city proper (and I mean more of a Toronto with a better public transportation system than Ottawa) I would certainly consider not even having a vehicle OR just having a small one and renting when I really needed something for trips. I have a lot of friends that do that. And, there’s virtucar and other services here and there that work well for some.

4 | andrea tomkins

April 24th, 2014 at 9:01 am


Laurel – I did not mean to suggest that everyone has to buy a hybrid, rather, that that the automotive industry is heading that way and I’m happy we decided to get ahead of the curve, especially given the high gas prices.

My experience with the electric car was an interesting one. It ran wonderfully, and I was excited about it, but there were issues i.e almost zero trunk space and recharging stations aren’t very common yet. It got me thinking. We’re at an interesting point in time. Many people are doing a little something to help the environment – recycling, composting, turning the lights off etc. – but I predict that in our lifetime we are going to be asked to do more in this area. And it’s going to hurt because it will force a lifestyle change for many people.

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