Car Culture Can Change: An Interview With Paul Keeling

This 69-hectare swathe of forest and bogland in Eagleridge Bluffs, West Vancouver, is to be destroyed in order to create a 2.5-kilometer long four-lane stretch of highway. (Photo: Cathryn Atkinson / AFP-Getty Images)

Paul Keeling is an independent scholar and philosopher, a stay-at-home dad with daughter Louise and partner Tara in East Vancouver. Keeling is the son of climate change pioneer Charles David Keeling, who began atmospheric CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, in 1958. He met with Am Johal on Commercial Drive to talk about climate change and highway expansion.


Can you speak to the highway expansion projects in southern California where you grew up? What kind of transportation legacy did they leave?

They've really painted themselves into a corner. Right behind Del Mar, where I grew up, the Interstate 5 merges with the 805—it's referred to as "The Merge." The merge has created a huge congestion problem over the years. The freeway there is now 22 lanes! So the congestion has just shifted to the north slightly.

The irony is that the automobile promises a kind of freedom, as all the car ads will show you. I can't help but look at these lines of stopped cars and say, "there they all are, exercising their freedom! There they are expressing their 'preference' for the automobile, 'demanding' new road capacity!" It's a vicious circle. But car culture is just that, a kind of culture. It's not an inevitable fact of human life. Culture can change.

As a parent of a young child living in East Vancouver, near the site of the highway expansion, can you give your critique of the Gateway Program?

Paul Keeling. (Photo courtesy of Am Johal)

What annoys me most about plans to expand Highway 1 and twin the Port Mann Bridge is the assumption that the private automobile is what human beings prefer, in all circumstances, without qualification. The Gateway Program is very oriented toward building roads, to meet this so-called "demand." The idea is that more people are coming to the region and they'll be driving cars. But that reasoning is circular, because where people live, whether they're driving cars and how much, is largely a function of our transportation and land-use policies. The North American love affair with the car began when oil was cheap and environmental issues weren't prevalent. But fuel is getting more expensive and people are more environmentally aware. People, as citizens, will start demanding good alternatives to the automobile. But if those alternatives aren't there, then their embedded driving habits will just continue to register as "demand," in the consumer sense, for more pavement. That is how the cycle perpetuates itself. We look more and more like a species that can't get it together. Rather than using a "predict-and-provide" model, we need to envision the region we want and "back cast" to the policies that we need now to get there.

As someone with a background in philosophy, how would you characterize the bureaucratic and political inertia behind these projects and the assumptions they are based upon?

There is to be a toll on the new Port Mann Bridge run by a private toll-road corporation called Macquarie Infrastructure Group in a public-private partnership (P3). Now, tolling can be a good thing, but tolls on existing infrastructure intended to fund a comprehensive regional public transit expansion is very different from paying into a global road-building corporation which has a vested interest in traffic growth. Private toll road investment is based on the certain knowledge that new road capacity induces more and more demand. This can't be good for the environment. Also, a P3 contract will mean a very long-term commitment to the use of cars and trucks on the lower mainland while the region waits for Macquarie to get their return on their investment. I don't think this is what the public wants. We need to work faster. The process is perverse.

One of the assumptions of regional growth is population expansion. In some sense, unless there is a fundamental shift in how we address the growth of population, it's difficult to view the sustainability debate in a straightforward, honest way. Is there an alternative?

According to Metro Vancouver, the region is expected to grow by about 820,000 people over the next 25 years, based on trends from the past. Basically, this is the "you can't stop progress" mantra.

But we could ask, what would the population increase be if we didn't prepare for this onslaught? Or, on the other hand, what if we planned for 1.5 million more people, paving the whole green zone in the process? Of course, the "trends" of the past would be broken.

This predict-and-provide form of "planning" excludes any envisioning of the future, and assumes that we lack free will. Our response to growth challenges, whether traffic or population, is a choice, subject to deliberate policy. The provincial government isn't listening to the local municipalities, it's listening to Macquarie instead.

Given the fact that your background is from a family of climate change pioneers like your father and your brother, you've been around this debate since you were young. Do we have to wait for a major disaster to have the kind of cultural change as a society that's necessary to change how we function as a civilization and the basic assumptions it's based upon?

When I was growing up in the 1970's, global warming was dinner conversation in our home. It was known that carbon dioxide was increasing. But the potential affects were largely conjectural. Global warming was a known theoretical concept, but there wasn't evidence of the impact of climate change until much later. It's a new situation, that aspect of it.

My reaction to what was happening in southern California, the effects that car culture was having on land use in the area, had nothing to do with climate change per se. There were the social effects, what James Howard Kunstler calls the "geography of nowhere," the homogenization of our landscapes, the profligate waste of space and resources, oil… Even without climate change there are still good reasons to think about how we're planning our infrastructure and communities.

Governments have attempted to initiate some sorts of policies like carbon taxes, cap and trade, policies that don't have a class analysis built in to them. But a more sensitive topic is population expansion—which will reach eight or nine billion in our lifetime. It requires a whole different way of looking at birth control or a social and cultural shift of having children and the numbers of children from a sociological and psychological point of view.

I agree that it's worth looking at the question. There needs to be a kind of normative appeal to having smaller families across the board, and, of course, we need to deal with poverty and education in the worse off parts of the world. There's a whole social and political context that needs to be there. We can't just start dictating to people that they have less children.

Anything else?

There is some risk that concerns about climate change might eclipse other important issues. It needs to be addressed, but environmental issues are not synonymous with "climate change."

There are issues of how we use the resources of the planet. Even if we bring our carbon footprint down, it's not as if there's no longer any questions about how human beings occupy their habitat. While addressing climate change we need to talk about how we use the earth, how we regard the earth, what our relationship to it is supposed to look like. Climate change tells us loud and clear that we aren't facing these questions.