Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay
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