So one of the most remarkable and difficult decisions that I have made recently was to sell my car. Obviously, for a lot of Americans the decision to sell their car would be unconscionable. It was a difficult one for me. I loved my car. However, there comes a time when the very act of ownership becomes a reinforced complicity to a failed and rapacious big oil paradigm that is predicated on the domination and exploitation of this place we call Earth. We see it on the news everyday. Pipelines that are being built over precious National Parks, over nature refuges, and across delicate ecosystems. We see unprecedented levels of mining and drilling in some of the most beautiful places in existence. There is even litigation being argued in courts over whether or not a gas pipeline can be built under the Appalachian Trail which is held as one of the highest protected statuses by the government. Spoiler alert: it can and will be built. We witness wars, severe income inequality, and heart breaking environmental disasters like the Exxon Valdez and the worst ocean oil spill in the petroleum industry’s history, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill that happened on April 20th, 2010. All of this over the inexorable quest for oil and “natural” gas. The total estimated volume of oil spilled from the Deepwater well was almost 5 million barrels of oil(210 US gallons)approximated with plus or minus 10% uncertainty,including oil that was collected,making it the world’s largest accidental spill in the history of the world.
The effects of this spill on the wildlife, delicate riparian, and coastlines in the Gulf region will last an extremely long time. Three years after the spill baby dolphins were still dying at six times the normal rate. Not just dolphins but other marine life in the area are dying at significant higher rates and washing up on the cinereous beaches of the gulf. How could we allow this to happen? Sure BP paid a shit ton in fines over their gross negligence (18.7 billion in fines the largest ever collected), but where will it end? These disasters are mere symptoms of a much bigger problem. The demand for oil. Nobody is talking about this. Americans do not want to give up any of their conveniences. Are electric vehicles the answer?
Bloomberg published a report detailing how the boom in lithium mining is irreversibly destroying the local environment of northern Chile’s Atacama desert. Mining for lithium ,which is the crucial material in batteries for electric vehicles,means removing large amounts of water. This act of drilling depletes the water supply for locals. According to the report, the Tilopozo meadow in Chile used to be a shelter for shepherds traveling at night, yet has become barren due to lack of grass or water. One of the side effects of lithium mining is local water contamination. Not only does it take mass amounts of water to mine lithium but it also can contaminate local community water supplies. Then there are also other terrible humanitarian crisis side effects with mining precious metals for batteries such as cassiterite and gold that are used for cell phones and other electronic devices. One of the most gold rich countries is war torn East Congo. They have been engaged in a brutal conflict since 2004 called the Kivu conflict. Western countries buy from ruthless and illegal armed traders there that do all kinds of horrible and nasty things to the innocent people in those communities.
Why does this disconnect exist between our buying preferences and the environmental exploitation that it takes to provide said preferences? One word, advertising. Especially in Western societies. We have droves of online articles, Youtube videos, fanzines and literature published everyday on internet forums comparing the latest and best features of the newest gadgets. We are bombarded everyday with commercials and stock quotes on Tesla and other car manufacturers. We don’t see the constant deluge of the impacts of these gadgets and cars on the earth. We don’t see the regulations thrown away that pave the way for this complicit destruction and human savagery. Those stories aren’t as sexy and as a result are often politicized and thrown on the bottom pile of news broadcasts. Who wants to see pictures of oil covered and dying pelicans and baby dolphins all the time on the news? Unfortunately, the American automobile for better or worse, Id argue the latter, has become synonymous with the word freedom. And specifically American freedom. Car marketing execs have known this for years. The underlying patriotism of purchasing a car is no better evinced than the Chevrolet advertising slogan, “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.” Slogans and commercials like this have become the insidious and institutionalized bromide for the acquiescent car buying population.
And if any politician actually came out and said we need to reduce our automobiles and cell phones, and electronic consumption by 3/4 or more, they would be ridiculed and castigated. People would be outraged if their ability to text and drive while eating Taco Bell was taken away. Whilst everyone is only thinking about what the major news networks are selling (sensationalism) it’s business as usual for environmental plundering, indigenous people displacement, and resource hoarding. Nobody is talking about this. Pollution is the biggest threat to human’s long time survival. American fetishism with the car and all the things and culture that have come with it is one of the biggest and most exacerbating contributors of climate change and pollution.
Do you know what was the best and most recent time I had was? It was the 4 weeks immediately after the shut down was announced in my state due to the coronavirus. Suddenly the air became so clear I could see mountains that I have never seen before from my city!!! The effect of not any cars on the roads was honestly one of the best times I have had since last hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2014. Not only the smog but the sound pollution as well. Not having to hear the endless drone and incorrigible rumbles of large SUV’s, trucks, and cars was pure music to my soul. My breathing was also noticeably better. Funny if we take away work and restaurants, there really is little reason to drive a car. On my bicycle commute to work 5 days a week, I often find myself stopped and waiting for traffic. I see countless, empty cars with just a single driver and no passengers whizzing by. I look at all the metal, and oil, and excess of riches to create these oversized ways of getting to jobs. The sheer amount of empty volume and the massive momentum of these cars and truck is absurd to me. Then when you start considering the amount of material that has to be mined, the wage slave labor, the money, the votes, the commercials, the advertising, insurance, effects on environment…it all just seems absurdly inefficient. Coming from a lifestyle of only carrying the things essential for my existence on my back, I see personal cars as a gross, embarrassment of riches. Obviously there are a million reasons why people own cars and there is no way I am ever going to convince people that they aren’t necessary, but the writing is on the wall. Having lived outdoors for months at a time has given me a much different vantage point than most people will ever experience in their lives. One of the biggest hidden reasons holding people back from making a car free lifestyle change is their lack of connection to the earth. Most everybody I know and all the zombies I see have their eyes focused on the internet,sports games, video games, hulu movies, or cartoons in a pseudo reality. They stare at their phones on walks, and bike rides, in their cars, at parks. Most of them miss the wonderful dynamics even if muted in cities, that play out all around them. The playful squirrels, fighting and singing birds, and even a falling leaf to me are all more interesting to me than a text conversation or browsing the internet. If you want a true visceral experience go and live in the woods for a month. See if ANY of the pablum you were addicted to makes any sense at all to you in the wild when/if you come back.
One of the biggest obstacles in getting rid of your car is the question of mobility. However, there are increasingly more ways of commuting and getting around. Car Sharing companies are one way of negating the need for automobile ownership. There is Uber and Lyft, not to mention the bus and for some taking the train are all potential means of commuting. However the best way is to move using your own two feet. For 40% of Americans that are obese, riding or walking by means of utilizing their bipedalism, probably seems impossible. In fact let’s look at the rise of obesity in the USA. This graph was taken from VoxEU CEPR
The graph above shows spikes in obesity during the 1920’s and then again after the second world war. Since then they have only skyrocketed today in what is a health epidemic. The later spikes in the 60’s and beyond were mostly due to the rise of the fast food industry. The one before was due to the affordability of cars and Ford’s invention of the assembly line. The roaring 20’s hit and suddenly cars became vogue and people suddenly abandoned walking and bicycles in favor of style and speed. The article makes several interesting conclusions:
“The lifestyle changes of the 20th century affected the four groups under study somewhat differently. Identifying the deep causes of the long-run trends is outside of the scope of this study, but the “creeping” nature of the epidemic, as well as its persistence, does suggest that its roots are embedded deep in the social fabric and are nourished by a network of disparate slowly changing sources as the 20th-century US population responded to a vast array of irresistible and impersonal socio-economic and technological forces.
The most obviously persistent among these were:
- the major labour-saving technological changes of the 20th century,
- the industrial processing of food and with it the spread of fast-food eateries (To illustrate the spread of fast food culture, consider that White Castle, the first drive-in restaurant, was founded in 1921. McDonald started operation in the late 1940s, Kentucky Fried Chicken in 1952, Burger King in 1954, Pizza Hut in 1958, Taco Bell in 1962, and Subway in 1962.),
- the associated culture of consumption,
- the rise of an automobile-based way of life,
- the introduction of radio and television broadcasting,
- the increasing participation of women in the work force, and
- the IT revolution.”
When I think of commercials I think of propaganda. If you hear ads everyday all the time eventually it will seep into your consciousness. How many car commercials have I had to hear in my lifetime? They are so commonplace and so ubiquitous that most people couldn’t fathom a world without them. Worst yet every manufacturer has a different angle or slogan intrinsic to the car culture. Like Oakra a homeless man in Eugene said, “We can’t change things by voting, or through our buying and economic preferences. There is no such thing as a green car. They’re brown man, made in factories by wage slaves.”In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky said that the news doesn’t censor issues by telling us how to think. Rather they censor us by telling us what to think about. The car culture is the same. It is so embedded in the American consciousness that I find it eerily similar to Chomsky’s conjecture. The question is always framed as which car should you get? Can you finance it? What about insurance? Not, should the car even exist anymore in this dying world? Those are the questions that need to start being asked and thought about.
The rise of fast food has also had a very significant effect on American obesity. Who has time to cook anymore, when both parents work all day? I once had the opportunity to visit Cambodia with a friend of mine. And I remember thinking after coming back from Phnom Penh and walking into LAX airport, and not seeing any obese people at all suddenly there was obesity everywhere. The contrast shocked me. I went 2 weeks without seeing any obesity at all and then once back on American soil, everywhere. Most people in these countries don’t have personal cars, nor do they have a McDonald’s on every street corner. I remember the richness of experience that some of the friends there that hosted us and the preparation and experience of sharing homemade meals. There was no need to go out to eat. There is also very little need for them to commute to the other side of the city. So cars aren’t really needed. One of the ancillary benefits of the pandemic in my opinion has been the working from home option that more and more people have started doing. For me, working at home would be great, but then I wouldn’t have my bicycle riding and exercise integrated into my work day anymore. That is probably the biggest reasons I have been able to maintain a healthy body weight. And they are typically the best times of the day for me as well. I value the few minutes before and after work amidst the purlieu of my bike rides where I can just gaze at the clouds and watch circling birds. Crows and vultures are my favorite ones to watch. And I typically feel sorry for the hoards of carceral people stuck in their cars in the sweltering heat in a traffic jam. I see the same mother blue jay almost everyday perched on the same tree protecting her nest. If I didn’t have my nature time each day I would go insane. I am not talking expensive gym memberships I am talking about long walks, hikes, or even gardening outside. I enjoy the touch of nature. Nowadays when I hike I like grabbing leaves and feeling bark. I like smelling flowers and rubbing pine sap on myself. I am bewildered that others don’t share this need to touch and be touched by the outdoors. Until this desire becomes as potent as playing the newest playstation or watching the next episode of Dallas or Game of Thrones or whatever then our society will continue to spiral into an abyss of environmental pollution and destruction. I am just praying for another shutdown and am hoping this time that cars stay away for much longer.
One thought on “The Abolition of the Automobile”