Why Driving Your Car to Work Kills You

In Beijing there is a permit lottery for eligibility to own a car. This naturally random experiment has allowed researchers to track the behavior of lottery winners and their counterparts (Science, Jan. 31, 2020, p. 503).

It turned out, lottery winners used less public transport, cycled less and walked less. Older ones had gained more weight. The adverse implications for health applied particularly to car owners in large cities.

Fewer cars on the road, almost no airplanes in the air, few trains, and fewer factories operating meant that demand for fossil fuels evaporated. The effects were evident in many smoggy cities when the air suddenly cleared. And then a startling consequence: the price of oil dropped precipitously. For the first time in history, it turned negative reaching as low as -$40 a barrel when wholesalers contractually obligated to receiving the oil from producers ran out of storage tanks and were paying to have it taken away. Why? Because lacking demand, the refineries had shut down and were no longer buying. Eventually, lockdowns will be over and fossil fuel consumption will return to the usual state of pumping record amounts of CO2 into the air.

The consequential global warming manifests in many ways. Thus the hot, arid Australian summer just past resulted in unbelievably devastating fires during the 2019-20 season. They cost the lives tragically of an unprecedented 800 million animals in New South Wales according to estimates.

Also melting ice sheets are raising ocean levels, and coastal flooding has become more common. Yes, it is a matter of millimeters and inches in our reckoning, but it is also worth remembering that 14,000 years ago the Eurasian ice sheet melted raising sea levels by some 8 meters.

Another among the worst culprits for global warming is beef. As ruminants, cows produce vast amounts of gas (methane, more potent than CO2 for warming) as they digest their feed, and it has been suggested that if cattle were a country, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The coronavirus epidemic has closed some meat processing plants. Up the line this will eventually affect the producer end of the chain, a positive for the earth although temporarily.

Salmon and the herring family increase good cholesterol and lower blood pressure while beef and pork do the reverse. Fish in general are good for us as are vegetables and fruits. That people on a Mediterranean diet (less red meat, more fish, fruits and vegetables) live longer is an established fact, yet habits die hard.

The coronavirus and the lockdown drove Earth Day celebrations to the virtual world where millions gathered. The digital landscape was filled with performances for Earth Day — teach-ins, global meets and so on. The Pope joined in with a special Earth Day catechesis dedicated to human responsibility to care for our earth. Political leaders including Senator Elizabeth Warren and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio joined in with the latter making a bold plea for leaders convening on Friday at the UN to go beyond the Paris Agreement in their ambitions. Greta Thunberg advocated a ‘real sarcastic clap’ for the corporations destroying our world, while climate warming was generally agreed to be a worse emergency than the coronavirus scare.

So, what can we do to help planet earth?

Aside from being parsimonious with meat, one can also walk or bike for short trips. Plastic bottles are an enormous waste problem. Filtered tap water costs less, is just as safe in developed countries, and avoids the plastic waste. A car carries us plus another 3000 lbs or so of its weight propelled by fossil fuel combustion, together being one of the planet’s worst polluters. Using public transit adds little more to what scheduled services already generate in pollution and adds some healthy exercise since service is seldom door to door. These simple measures are not impossible.

For an Earth Day resolution, shall we at least try to adopt the Mediterranean diet for a week? We might like it, live longer and do the earth a world of good.

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor who has, over many years, written occasionally for the print and often for online media outlets.