Transportation's effect on the Environment

Scott Long

Transportation’s effect on the Environment
Methods of transportation have always occupied a certain niche in society. Beyond their obvious practical use, transports from horses to speed boats to sports cars embody the romance and intrigue of travel. However, beyond the obvious effect low fuel-efficiency standards have had on pollution in the United States and elsewhere, the environmental impacts of transportation are rarely taken into account. Advances in transportation have had two main effects on the environment. Technological advances in transportation are some of the direct reasons behind particulate emissions, global warming and other pollution problems of the industrial age. In addition, transportation has neutralized barriers to diffusion across the world, ensuring the spread of innovation, technology and disease around the world.
As transportation has become more mechanized, and as we have increased our use of fossil fuels to support that mechanization, its effects on the environment have become clear. As Al Gore pointed out, and as George W. harped on, he believes that the internal combustion engine was the worst invention humans ever made. From an environmental standpoint, he has something of a point, albeit a rather misguided one. As of yet advances of transportation have had the side effect of large amounts of pollution. I say side effects not to degrade the seriousness of the pollution that we spew out daily, but simply because I doubt very seriously whether engineers planned or were in any way aware of the possible implications their inventions would have. However that does not mitigate the damage their creations have caused. Shipbuilding in the middle ages led to the deforestation of massive amounts of Europe, Britain, and parts of the U.S. Cars, trucks and even jet skis inject massive amounts of pollution into our atmosphere. Although I admit the possibilities of this are no doubt astronomically slim, depending on the number of James Bond movies one watches, nuclear powered military transportation carries along with it the potential for not only mass destruction but mass degradation of humans and their environments as well. I point these examples out not too suggest backtracking in our methods of transportation. Reverting to less advanced methods of transportation cannot and will not solve our problems, nor is it even a viable option. Increases in efficient, reusable energy sources and methods of transportation is the key to a step forward where we can mitigate the damage our own expansion has caused.
Expansion in pollution is only the most direct environmental effect of transportation. It also has had a very strong influence on the diffusion of political power, technology and disease. As Carlo Cipolla points out in his work Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700, European colonizers relied very heavily on their advantage in sea transportation to propagate their empires. Whereas they had little military or transportation advantage on land, the sea allowed for quick transportation of goods and cannons to any position that necessitated them. This advantage of transportation technology allowed the Europeans to expand beyond the limits of their land-based transportation, mainly that both they and their enemies on the continent could use horses, and that transporting cannons across continents to bring it bear on their enemies in the Turkish vicinity was neither practical nor useful. Although European transportation gave them the advantage in expansion, it also had other advantageous effects. As Jared Diamond points out in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, isolation is the main factor behind the ability nations such as Japan and China had in terms of ignoring technological advancement. Both Japan and China are noted for the early advances they invented, such as printing, gunpowder, advanced guns and many others, and just as summarily abandoned. Their remote geographic location, with reference to Europe, and the barriers lying between them and the countries that might attempt trade, such as the Gobi Desert, Himalayas, and Indian Ocean, prevented their conservatism from harming them. However, that was before advances in transportation rendered their opinions rather moot. Matthew Perry’s forced opening of Japan to foreign trade, and the technology that Japan acquired and expanded on as a result, demonstrates both the effect advantages in transportation can have, as well as the uselessness of isolation in an age where any point on the Earth can be reached with a minimum of fuss. Perry’s fleet allowed him not only to reach Japan, but the technology his advantage in transportation allowed him to bring with him, I.E. overwhelming military force, ensured Japan could not willfully ignore the advancement of the rest of the world. Another example of transportation advantage leading to conquest or assimilation that pops to mind is the battle between the Incan emperor Atahuallpa and the conquistador Pizzaro in 1532. Pizzaro’s advantage in transportation, in horses as well as ships, allowed him to transport the technology necessary for conquest to South America. His advantage in ships shaped the future of Latin America.
Global transportation opens the door to more than technology. The diffusion of disease has also depended on the advantages transportation provides. As Europeans expanded beyond their cold dreary continent, they unfortunately brought their disease with them. Smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and the bubonic plague were all introduced from Europe to the Americas, leading to massive deaths in the native population. Even today, as the threat of Sars (severe acute respiratory syndrome) spreads rapidly from Hong Kong, it is clear that transportation has more effects beyond merely moving from place to place. Considering the effects it has had in the past and continues to have today, its importance and the emphasis we place on its efficiency and pollution can have global consequences.

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last updated 2/6/03