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Evolution and extinction

A complex, organic system must adapt to meet changing situations and needs--in prehistoric times and today.

Daniel Caton

Special to The Observer

Published: Tuesday, April 7, 1998


The dinosaurs lumbered daily along their paths, unaware of the doom before them. Their glossy fins and sleek, massive surfaces were pelted by rain and stung by an atmosphere growing increasingly acidic. They could not know what was in store.

Their food supply was growing short; indeed they lined up at feeding time for a chance at scarce resources. They were clearly a creature evolutionally unprepared for the sudden change of conditions.

It was, after all, 25 ago and fuel was in short supply for a fleet of big, thirsty American cars.

It seems that every week there is yet another story on the increasing traffic, pollution, and expenses associated with solo travel to and from work by car. Groups tout the virtues of mass transportation but rarely seem to come to a local solution. Trolley cars and fast Swedish trains are trotted out for inspection, touches of nostalgia and glimpses of the future. Improved buses, light rail, HOV lanes–whatever.

And, there is gnashing of teeth over the role of suburbs and cities. The future of each is unclear–will city centers be part of the future? Will Charlotte thrive and grow or join others in a decline marked only by spurts of effort to reverse some possibly inevitable extinction?

We live in a fantastic, organic economic system that operates on the same rules as biological evolution and self-interest. The rules of Charles Darwin and Adam Smith are much the same: in a system with the appropriate feedbacks the creatures will evolve to meet the conditions, and in the end, we will be best served by the individuals striving toward their own goals.

In this light, cars are tremendously successful creatures. No matter how you feel about them, they continue to evolve with changes in conditions, whether real or imagined. Short-term fuel shortages or imposed economy standards. Behemoths were replaced by econoboxes that were replaced by minivans that are being replaced by sport utility vehicles. And, suburbs are their habitat of choice while city centers barely survive. The twain have to meet via concrete.

A critical element in this ecosystem is the customer, since manufacturers and homebuilders are going to build what sells. People continue to want to drive–I can only assume they do not want to live up/downtown. If they did, our businessmen would build the urban housing and shops for them--there are few untapped real markets of this order of magnitude. And, if we really wanted to ride trains, we would be up in arms at council meetings demanding more public transportation. It's not happening.

The reason we tolerate this frustrating but apparently natural system is not understood. Maybe it is for the thrill (and indeed, rage) of the drive, the most dangerous thing we do every day. Perhaps a joust with traffic satisfies some hormonal, primeval urge we do not yet understand but our evolved brain remembers. It could be that our placid, benign life needs some excitement.

In any case, we must face the situation–cars and ‘burbs are here to stay. We need to stop trying to force this natural system into something that is not its normal mode. If there are pollution problems we should not waste time trying to get drivers out of their cars but insist that cleaner engines and better highways are designed. Perhaps increased funding for the basic engineering research is needed, a small price to pay to keep enjoying our cars.

In the long run, there's only so much oil anyway–if civilization survives another 10,000 years, the fossil fuel era will likely have been only a couple of percent of that time. Eventually there will be no more dinosaurs to burn, and we will have to devise new fuel systems for all of our energy needs. And, you can bet they'll be in cars.

The real dinosaurs, lacking self awareness and intelligence, did not have a chance to prevent their demise. Neither did the iron variety. Nature re-engineered four-footed creatures and Detroit continually does the same for those with tires. In each case the system evolves to meet the needs.

Perhaps businessmen, political leaders, city planners, and transportation officials should take a sabbatical to study some concepts of evolution. I don't mean for a grasp of phyla but a glimpse of philosophy--come to understand the principles and apply them to the complex, organic system of community and transportation. Heck, one of them might win a Nobel in economics.

At least, they might learn to not fight the system.

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