- Co-published with: RED Publishing
- Paperback ISBN: 9781552663844
- Paperback Price: $19.95 CAD
- Publication Date: Apr 2011
- Rights: World
- Pages: 264
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Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay
In North America, human beings have become enthralled by the automobile: A quarter of our working lives are spent paying for them; communities fight each other for the right to build more of them; our cities have been torn down, remade and planned with their needs as the overriding concern; wars are fought to keep their fuel tanks filled; songs are written to praise them; cathedrals are built to worship them. In Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay, authors Yves Engler and Bianca Mugyenyi argue that the automobile’s ascendance is inextricably linked to capitalism and involved corporate malfeasance, political intrigue, backroom payoffs, media manipulation, racism, academic corruption, third world coups, secret armies, environmental destruction and war. When we challenge the domination of cars, we also challenge capitalism. An anti-car, road-trip story, Stop Signs is a unique must-read for all those who wish to escape the clutches of auto insanity.
“Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler’s Stop Signs is at one and the same time an entertaining, fact-filled anthropological tour of the land of Homo Automomotivis, and the first all-out global ecological critique of the American automobile addiction.”
—John Bellamy Foster, co-author, The Ecological Rift
“With wit and originality, Mugyenyi and Engler weave travel tales into a convincing argument against the auto economy, culminating with a fresh call to leave car culture behind.”-Katie Alvord, author of Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile
“This book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the impact of the private automobile on our urban transportation options.”
—David Cadman, Vancouver city councilor, International President ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability
”You come away shaken, but ready to roll up your sleeves and to contribute, however modestly, to constructing a new world in the 21st century.”
—Richard Bergeron, Montreal city councilor, urban planner and author
“Probably the most comprehensive assessment of the power of the automobile... Stop Signs is a powerful tool for raising awareness of the multiple and self-reinforcing ways automotivism dominates us.”
”A stocking stuffer that might possibly reform, or more likely honk off, your favorite gas-guzzling SUV owner.”
“Stop Signs takes the myriad problems associated with a world obsessed with cars and wraps them up in a concise, compelling, and at times even funny, plea to quit the automobile.”
Freedom from Cars or Freedom for Cars — Ft. Lauderdale • Driven Round the Bend — St. Louis • Vehicular Homicide — Chicago • Vroom, Vroom, Cough, Cough — El Paso • Cars Make You Fat — San Antonio • Good-bye, Downtown — Mobile • Billboards — Everywhere • Parking Is a Losing Game — Atlantic City • People Are Obstacles to Progress — Atlanta • Auto-Eroticism — Miami • The State Religion — Salt Lake City • Behind the Wheel It’s Me, Myself and I— Portland • Fueling the Fire — Baton Rouge • Driving Global Warming — New Orleans • An Insatiable Thirst for Land — Phoenix • Tankers,Transit and Terror — New York • Inefficiency Pays — Flagstaff • An Industry’s Power • If You Take on the Car, you Take on Its Friends • Self-Interest, Bullying and a Willingness to Break the Law • If You Can’t Find a Market, Create One • Control the Message • Teach Your Children Well • Senator, I’d Like to Take You for a Ride • Public Subsidies for Private Gain • Spinning the Keynesian Wheel • Conclusion — Capitalism and Cars Will Drive Us to Extinction • Bibliography
About the Authors
Former Vice President of the Concordia Student Union, Yves Engler has been dubbed “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” (Briarpatch), “in the mould of I.F. Stone” (Globe and Mail), “ever-insightful” (rabble.ca) and a “Leftist gadfly” (Ottawa Citizen). His six books have been praised by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, William Blum, Rick Salutin and many others.
”Yves became a foreign-policy expert by working as a night doorman in Montreal...He’s in the mould of I. F. Stone, who wasted no time with politicians, who all have an agenda, but went instead straight to the public record.”
- Rick Salutin, Globe and Mail
Bianca Mugyenyi was born in Uganda in 1980 and came to Canada as a child. Mugyenyi spent parts of her youth in Swaziland, Kenya and England. She is coordinator of Concordia’s Gender Advocacy Centre and was the Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students (Quebec).
Signs of the times
Are you looking for a stocking stuffer that might possibly reform, or more likely honk off, your favorite gas-guzzling SUV owner? Consider “Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay” (fernwoodpublishing.ca).
In “Stop Signs,” authors Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler take a carless road trip across North America. They attempt to expose the dominance of the automobile in society and its alleged connection to corporate malfeasance and politically inspired payoffs — even to racism, Third World coups, environmental disasters and war.
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the first stop in the book, the authors exit a motor coach to find an environment that has good weather for pedestrians yet is almost devoid of sidewalks. People passing by in cars looked at them as if they were crazy to try to cross the road on foot. It was there that Mugyenyi and Engler discovered a species unknown to them, “Homo Automotivis.”
Upon arriving in Chicago, Mugyenyi was happy to find an abundance of sidewalks in a seemingly pro-pedestrian, transit-rich metropolis. Then she tried crossing the street.
”In the past, my presence in the middle of the road always managed to convince drivers to stop. (I mean, they have to stop, don’t they?)” she wrote. “Not in Chicago. When the light changed, there was no hesitation. Cars ripped past in both directions. I stood absolutely still, a human traffic cone.”-Jon Hilkevitch, Chicago Tribune, 2011
Ever since its inception, the car has been admired as the pinnacle of modern progress, as well as independence and adulthood. In the United States alone, there are 246 million registered cars with 210 million licensed drivers behind their wheels.
In Stop Signs, by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, individuals who cannot exist without their four-wheeled machinery, are labeled homo automotivis and come under scrutiny. Divided in to two parts, Stop Signs juxtaposes personal travel anecdotes from the authors’ car-less journey around America (and the challenges arising from this vehicle-less state) with a thorough and intersectional analysis of the automobile’s damaging influence on various spheres of life.
In the authors’ view, the car is responsible not only for crimes of environmental damage, but also for causing racial disputes, capitalist greed, and even the oversimplified nature of modern art. (“Lone circles and black squares as art? Blame the car.”) Some of the negative outcomes of the car are familiar, such as the destruction of the natural environment through oil industry activity, road construction, and carbon emissions. Other startling and more insidious consequences of cars and the urban development surrounding them are highlighted, such as the destruction of ethnic communities by highway construction that cuts through them (Atlanta, Georgia) or by suburban sprawl that drives out local businesses.
The book’s major strength is the authors’ ability to demonstrate the domino effect of the auto industry’s negative influences, which reach far beyond individual health concerns to the lack of political action that breeds exploitative capitalist entities like Wal-Mart. Mugyenyi and Engler argue that Wal-Mart’s success came from the well-paved highway system: with “moving goods literally stored on the roads, wholesale costs are socialized. Instead of individual corporations, society pays.”
The authors’ resolution to achieve a carless state is truly radical and without compromise. Rather than encouraging the many passive forms of car resistance that focus on individual abstention rather than systemic change, Mugyenyi and Engler urge readers to consider how government and labour systems must change in order to achieve a true pedestrian utopia.
The reading experience is not always a smooth one. For most of the book, the authors discuss their findings, relegating their travel experiences to the first few paragraphs of each chapter. The switch between the “subjective” travel account and the “objective” fact is often abrupt.
Though Mugyenyi and Engler effectively use sources already published to make their point, the absence of first-hand conversation with at least some of the activists they quote seems like a missed opportunity for original and updated information. Furthermore, the lack of copy-editing produces glaring spelling errors that are distracting at times (“MacDonald’s” and “McDonald’s” on the same page, as well as “Wall Mart” and “Wal-Mart”).
Minor errors aside, Engler and Mugyenyi’s activist backgrounds give the book its unique and impassioned tone, whether they are juggling the personal account of getting around the United States on Greyhound buses or synthesizing all existing facts about the automobile industry. The result is a smart and expansive critique of car-dependent North America that is convincing and frightening. This book is an eye-opener for everyone – from the stubborn car-lover to the anti-car activist who wants to brush up on the facts. – Rosel Kim, Montreal Review of Books, 2011
Stop Signs is probably the most comprehensive assessment of the power of the automobile I’ve yet read. It’s a history lesson on the car, and its rapid evolution and a field guide to Homo Automotivus. As the subtitle suggests, it focuses on the economic, social and environmental, but also neatly summarises topics like health, psychology, race, advertising and planning. It looks at the environment in which the car has flourished most, the United States, where it dominates the landscape.
All these are contained in the deceptively lightweight format of a whistle stop tour, to borrow a term from an age when the car was not so dominant. The book takes us on a long, tour of major U.S. cities by long distance bus. Thus, the book sounds like a travelogue of the key economic, social and environmental issues around automotivism.
Each of the discussions comes up naturally through observations recorded in each of the cities visited. It seems pretty clear the authors changed the sequence of cities so that the issues looked at unfold more naturally. And the resulting whole works well. They start with the health effects (respiratory illness in El Paso, obesity and Alzheimer’s in San Antonio), explore the social (race in Atlanta, religion in Salt Lake City, psychology in Miami) and progress to the economic, industrial and political aspects (all points of the compass).
Chapters are generally short, so as each issue rolled by, I wanted to know more rather than feeling overwhelmed. Thankfully, the copious references provide a comprehensive bibliography on all the issues touched on, which is particularly useful for non-US readers.
What these postcards from the edgelands also tell us is that experiencing US cities from the carless perspective is a novelty for the generally affluent, book-reading and -writing articulate middle class, but a familiar world for the generally voiceless, lower class. The Montreal-based authors are right to compare themselves with zoologists on safari. The species they are in search of are homo automotivus and the car itself. Their most useful guides are those who live close to the heart of darkness, in parallel with the “success” story that is modern homo automotivus, but don’t or can’t live that dream. One such witness is the security guard the authors meet in Baton Rouge, who is worried about severe local oil industry pollution poisoning his son.
“Automobiles proved a perfect vehicle – for making money, if not for getting people from A to B.”
Focussing on the core US habitat of the beast does not, though, mean an insular standpoint. The authors also give us more postcards from around the world, vividly setting out the consequences of the sheer demand for cars and unbridled economic growth: degradation and suppression in Amazonia and the Niger delta; war in Iraq, and so on.
And the book unpacks the “economic”: the auto came in the right (wrong) place at the right (wrong) time, a consumer product that could be mass-produced for a vast, newly “secured” country, rich in natural and human resources and in need of transport. Automobiles proved a perfect vehicle – for making money, if not for getting people from A to B. Investors loved the returns on capital: extracting the relatively low value of raw materials (oil, iron, rubber, hides and an increasing list of more exotic ingredients) with cheap labour, increasing the value by processing those, assembling them into the number one consumer product of all time, almost universally coveted and with a very high cash value. Money could be made at all stages of the process. And that outweighed its relative inefficiency as a means of transport, as a piece of engineering, let alone in environmental terms. In fact its neediness has been the source of its attraction to investors. It needed all kinds of support and the adaptation of its environment to sustain it. And all of this meant more opportunities to profit.
Over more than a century US society has seen progressive domination by the car. This meant action on all fronts: advertising was just the “official wing”. The “provisionals” included influencing educationalists and the press, lobbying legislators. Buying out, undercutting and trashing the perceived opposition, in particular rail, tram and trolley were normal operational practice. Mostly (but not exclusively) this was conducted by individual companies and cartels pursuing “legitimate” business interests, by legal means. The net effect is of a conspiracy prepared to go to any length to protect its needy mutant creation.
It would be charitable to describe the relentless pursuit of the car’s interests as “amoral”. Not just car manufacturers, not just all those supplying raw materials and parts, plus the road builders, bankers, insurers, property developers, planners and architects, the bulk of the US economy has come to see the car’s welfare as synonymous with the country’s. In some ways it’s most scary that the car has managed to achieve its stranglehold on the USA largely within the law. US democracy just wasn’t strong enough to cope with the onslaught. Free market parasites ran wild in the candy store and have gorged themselves.
“The model of suburbanism and commuting the car encouraged has effectively incapacitated community activity.”
This is not just a story of plunder. While the car’s agents had to exercise control to achieve their dominance and profits, what they developed is a tool for yet more social control. The authors cite a number of instances of this in the natural history of car culture: a working class up to their eyes in debt from the early years of the twentieth century would be reluctant to risk losing pay by striking. Freeways were driven across urban neighbourhoods to disrupt poor, black communities and to limit their expansion. Most of us believe in cars as symbols of success, superiority, virility, freedom, safety and style. The model of suburbanism and commuting the car encouraged has effectively incapacitated community activity.
Stop Signs is just that – showing us signs that mean we have to stop. It’s not, though, a recipe for action. The last chapter sketches out some of the alternatives to and critiques of automotivism that are gaining ground, including some revivals of public transport in North America and further afield. Many of these will be familiar to carbusters. Perhaps most significantly, the authors detect some shift in the automotive mentality. We seem to be less enchanted by the lump of metal. Or some of us do. They don’t argue for a purist approach. We have to seek allies among the sceptical, disillusioned car users.
Stop Signs is a powerful tool for raising awareness of the multiple and self-reinforcing ways automotivism dominates us. But the question remains: what do we do about it?
— Roger Bysouth, Carbusters.com, June 2011
Today cars are everywhere in our lives, on city streets, printed on glossy magazines pages, flickering on TV screens, referenced in pop songs and embedded in mainstream political discourse.
Unwinding the deep relationship between automobiles and North America’s lifestyle is certainly a revolutionary task, but is undoubtedly a challenge necessary to consider in the face of growing environmental catastrophe. Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism: On the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay, a recently launched book by Montreal authors Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler, is a striking attempt to deconstruct our bad romance with the automobile.
Focusing in detail on the smog-filled history of cars in North America and impacts of car culture globally, part narrative, part information-packed analysis, the book is a fascinating read with potential to revolutionize your perspective on the ever-present automobile.
”Private cars are bad for people, bad for our living spaces, bad for our health on different levels and obviously bad for the environment,” outlines co-author Yves Engler, in an interview with rabble.ca.
A narrative rooted in a non-car road-trip throughout the U.S. taken by the authors, the book advances American city by American city, chapter by chapter building an impressive argument against the mass use of private automobiles in Canada, the U.S. and globally. The book presents page after page of stinging facts, breaking-down the automobile industry to a parasitic profit-driven corporate core, obsessively driving mass automobile addiction.
Beyond an issue specific approach, Stop Signs explores the deeper political implications of car culture and the profound ways that automobiles reshape our living environments. It also moves to outline, via historical accounting, the active destruction of public transit infrastructure, specifically tramlines, by the automobile industry in the past century.
”Private cars are a social problem, destroying the human scale of our urban landscape, cars lead to louder, uglier city environments with more pollutants in the air,” explains Engler.
On urban planning Stop Signs reflects on the impacts of car culture on the cityscape in relation to political activism. The book identifies pedestrian-friendly cities, like Montreal or New York City, as conducive to grassroots political action like street protests, while highway etched American urban expanses, like Houston or Miami, as presenting urban barriers to protest culture in both distance and highway-laced urban geography.
”Where do you leaflet in the suburbs?,” questions co-author Bianca Mugyenyi, in an interview with rabble.ca, “there is a social alienation imposed by cars and highways surrounding you, a lot of freedom is taken away by cars.”
”Do we want to be spending this much time paying for cars, thinking about cars, being in cars?” continues Mugyenyi, “is it a good use of public money to be building roads, when that money could be going toward social programs or schools? Cars are bad for people and for the planet, a totally unsustainable mode of transportation that encourages an individualism, cars are bad for communities, for social movements.”
In short, Stop Signs demands our society to turnoff mass automobile dependence, laying down the reasons readers should reconsider the car and take action toward common transport alternatives.
Both an engaging and at times entertaining read Stop Signs straddles a delicate balance between presenting a well-researched challenge to car culture and an experience driven narrative written by authors travelling in America, grappling with the challenges to freedom of movement faced by car-less authors on the road in the U.S.
At a time of growing global awareness and support for climate justice, Stop Signs is a key read for anyone looking to gain knowledge and insight into the contemporary crossroads faced by societies increasingly dependant and shaped by the automobile. Although factually and footnote heavy, it’s an engaging and quick read. The travel-driven chapters create space and examples that make tangible key and often under-reported information on the destructive impacts of car culture.
As Canada debates our growing role in oil production, via the environmentally destructive tar sands in Alberta, Stop Signs is a critical critique on machines thirsting for the dirty oil that Canada produces at a massive scale. Too, the book explores the key importance of challenging the automobile as people engaged in environmental and social justice struggles.—Stefan Christoff for rabble.ca