The French Car Ban and the Local Politics of Transitions

Paris’ smog problem is causing some very bold action to reduce car use. Image from The Independent.

Here’s some interesting and surprising news: Paris has banned cars. Or rather, that’s what some overly dramatic headline writers would have you believe. In reality the new policy is a restriction rather than a total ban. Cars with even and odd-numbered license plates being banned on alternating days. The law, which has been linked with a policy of free public transit is designed to combat smog, which in Paris has grown to proportions comparable with the notoriously polluted Beijing. In principle, the act of cutting Parisian car use in half should do good things for the reduction of smog, although in practice at least a few drivers are going to defy the ban.

From a transitions perspective, this development actually looks very good. While government efforts to encourage sustainable mobility typically do little more than encouraging a few promising niche developments, this takes the crucial second step of actively discouraging the dominant unsustainable system. A tax-deductible bus pass isn’t much incentive compared to a lifetime of entrenched habits based around driving, a raft of commercial, social, and economic institutions based around the assumption that most people are drivers. The problem is that any policy that actively disrupts these habits and institutions will be unpopular almost by definition, as we saw in Canada when Liberal Leader Stephane Dion tried to propose a carbon tax in an election campaign. People don’t like being forced to change, even if they agree in principle that the change would be beneficial. The fact that Paris has imposed such a disruptive policy is therefore both encouraging and intriguing.

The Parisian car restrictions appear to have gotten around this problem because they were created in response to a local crisis, namely smog, rather than a global one, namely climate change. This made the restrictions palatable to the public, who experience the unpleasant impacts of air pollution on a daily basis. This accords pretty well with some reading I’ve been doing in social movement theory, which holds that in order for the public to accept a narrative and the actions that follow from it, it must have (among other things) experiential commensurability. In other words, it must accord with the lived experience of the public. This is bad for action on climate change, because it has a very low experiential commensurability. Even if people accept the reality of man-made climate change, there is still very little opportunity for them to directly experience its consequences, which occur for the most part either far in the future or in faraway countries. This makes it very difficult to motivate for the kinds of inconveniences that the public must suffer in the transition to a more sustainable economy.

The strategic implications of this are pretty clear: Environmental activists should frame their proposals as the solutions to acute, short-term, localized environmental problems. When such problems are successfully mobilized as support for local transitions, then these can be held up as an example for the rest of the world to follow. But this raises some problems. It is possible, for example, that somebody will find an easy way to solve the short-term problems without addressing the long-term ones? What if better means of cleaning car emissions reduces the impetus to restrict cars for the sake of local air quality, while they continue to contribute to global climate change? There is, furthermore, something a little bit perverse about relying on people’s short-term suffering in order to achieve our longer-term goals. If it takes an air quality emergency to get Parisian authorities to finally put pressure on the car regime, then does that mean that climate activists should be rooting for similar crises to emerge in other cities?

So I think transition-minded environmentalists should see this situation as a bit of food for thought, both for our political strategy and for our ethical principles. We need to think hard about how local crises can be leveraged for global benefit, but we also need to think hard about what this strategy ultimately means for the soul of our movement.

Further reading:

Snow, D.A., and Bedford, R.D., “Ideology, Frame Resonance, and Participant Mobilization”. In Klandermans, B. (Ed)., International Social Movement Research Volume 1: From Structure on Action. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press. pp. 197-217

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