I am now at mile marker 994 in my bike trip across North America, in the vicinity of Erie, PA.
In the last post, I bemoaned the circumstance in which we find ourselves at the bottom of a metaphorical hill 50 years after Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for a revolution in values, in which he challenges us to climb that hill to triumph over capitalism, militarism, and racism. In this post, I would like to discuss a symptom of that circumstance, and perhaps one of its causes. I will simultaneously vent a bit about the bane of every cyclist or pedestrian, no matter how far their journey, whether it be a few blocks, across a continent, or around the world: the private automobile. It is something years ago I thought we might have made obsolete by now. Nope. Again, we’re still at the bottom of the hill.
To hear the roar of a couple tons of steel going past you every few seconds is nerve-racking. It makes one automatically ill-at-ease even if not consciously aware of it. On this trip, I have noticed how much more relaxed I feel when I am on a car-free path instead of the shoulder of any road, even a quiet one.
The use of the private automobile is one of those aspects of the North American lifestyle which can be difficult to talk about without spiraling into accusations and blame. This discussion is intended to come from a place of non-judgment. Though I have managed to not own a car for over 15 years, and have tried to make various other aspects of my lifestyle less impactful, my house is still made of glass. Upon deep analysis, one finds that there are few aspects of our consumer society that are not based on some profound ecological and social detriment. To be part of it all is to be part of the problem. Nevertheless, we must not let that prevent us from discussing the truth of our situation. Otherwise, if there is a way out of this predicament, which there may not be, we’ll never find it.
Now, even if my own personal habit was to speed down the highway every day in a Hummer just for the wasteful hell of it, it would not change the fundamental truth in my stating that the private automobile is one of the most socially and ecologically harmful aspects of modern industrial society. I say that to illustrate that in discussions like this one, it is vital that we separate the message from the messenger. Unfortunately, it is difficult for us humans to do that. Climate deniers seem to have quite a bit of success in negating Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth by citing various elements of his own lifestyle that are not ecologically sustainable. Ad hominem must be the fishermen’s most effective lure.
When it comes to finding fault with the private automobile, you don’t need fancy multicolored feathery flies to catch a rainbow trout, because all the fish are in a barrel. Admittedly, for lack of time, this is an off-the-cuff and inadequately referenced list of negative impacts of the automobile that I am confident can be verified if the reader chooses to do so:
- Automobile exhaust is a major source of urban air pollution.
- Dust from brakes and tires contribute to water pollution and heavy metals in the environment.
- CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles contribute to global warming.
- Emissions from the extraction of petroleum contribute to global warming.
- Emissions from the production of automobiles themselves contribute to global warming.
- The extraction, refining, and distribution of petroleum contribute regionally to air and water pollution.
- The extraction, refining, and distribution of petroleum can be linked to cancer in workers and people residing in the vicinity of where these activities take place.
- A large military budget is required to maintain the supply of foreign oil supplies. That same military also happens to be one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world.
- The automobile contributes to social isolation by encouraging a sprawling urban land use model in which people seldom walk anywhere because they must drive to reach their jobs, shopping, and entertainment. There is little opportunity or incentive to interact with neighbors or strangers while en route.
- Roads, parking lots, and driveways for automobiles create large areas of impervious surfaces that contribute to flooding and stormwater management problems in urban areas.
- Anyone who is not able to drive because they are too young, too old, too disabled, or too poor is effectively discriminated against because an automobile is required in most areas of the US in order to gain access to even one’s most basic needs.
- Dependence on the private automobile contributes to lack of exercise, which in turns leads to an increase in overweight and obesity, and the health problems related to those conditions.
- An estimated million animals (not including bugs) are killed each day by cars and trucks in the US alone.
- The number of people killed each year in the US in traffic fatalities is usually around 40,000 persons per year. Globally, the number is 1.25 million persons per year.
The last item on the list is I suppose revealing of how we think of the various perceived threats to our lives. The September 11, 2001 attacks were a dramatic event resulting in the deaths of around 3000 people. That one-time occurrence has resulted in the justification for a still on-going war effort that has cost at least a few trillion dollars. Of course, it could be that 9/11 was indeed simply a justification for military operations which would be required, as mentioned above, to keep the Middle East oil flowing to the developed world. Still, it seems like a one-time event resulting in around 3000 fatalities would demand much less of our attention and resources than 40,000 deaths that occur each year from automobiles. We are much more likely to die in an automobile accident than in a terrorist attack.
But cars, and everything surrounding them—the endless rows of big box store strip malls, the prairie palace subdivisions with the prominent three-car garages, fast food drive-ins—have become our way of life over the last 100 years. It is similar to the way the corn harvest was a way of life for the characters in the short story by Shirley Jackson, The Lottery. Like them, it seems that in order to maintain our way of life, we are willing to accept the random deaths of even our own family members. Maybe we’ll be lucky. Maybe only people in other families will draw the black dot.
The insanity of our situation is obvious if one is willing to take just a little bit of time to look into it and ponder on it. This was a mainstream discussion a few decades back. Once again, around the time leading up to the election of Ronald Reagan and most of the time ever since, the culture at-large hardly questions the enormous social and environmental costs of car-centric living. Even as the consequences of carbon pollution threaten to flood our cities and cause global crop failure and famine, car ads and the resulting new cars rolling off the dealer’s lot are everywhere to be seen. The giant houses that go with them become ever more gigantic and the plastic crap to fill them flies off the big box retail shelves faster and faster.
We are stuck. The election of Reagan, the betrayal of the working class by the Democratic Party, and the resulting take over of the Federal Government by people who are the American equivalent of the Nazis was brought about by business interests who sought to purposely roll back the New Deal and end any discussion of alternatives to the car-centric way of life in the US. Those same interests now control the news and the bombardment of advertising that Americans are exposed to each day. They have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. With the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, they can also buy all of the politicians necessary to do so.
Simultaneously, Americans who might have the electoral and financial power to change the discussion are way too comfortable in the car-centric lifestyle to take any action to change it. Some may have voted for the likes of Trump because, like Reagan, he promises to keep them gliding down the highway in their living rooms on wheels. Even progressive voters still keep buying new cars, which is basically a vote for the status quo. On top of it, people living in sprawling suburban settings, are stuck in situations in which they must have a car whether they want one or not.
As a climate activist, I get really depressed about anything short of some apocalyptic peak oil scenario bringing an end to this situation. That may happen someday but right now it looks like Americans, will keep driving cars right up to the point that climate change finally brings down industrial civilization as a whole.
I participated in the Break Free from Fossil Fuel events in May 2016 up in Anacortes, WA. It was an uplifting event. We were able to march and protest the shipment and processing of petroleum that weekend at the local refineries. Some courageous people risked arrest and many got arrested. Actions like these have resulted in the denial of new fossil fuel infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest. These are successes that should be honored and celebrated.
Still, I remember looking out on the Rosario Strait from a beach in Deception Pass State Park on that cloudy Monday morning as I left (on my bike, of course). I could see an oil tanker rolling in toward one of the Anacortes refineries. And riding my bike south alone past strip malls and morning traffic jams, it was all business-as-usual. I couldn’t help thinking that we won’t change anything unless we address the demand side of things. That means somehow changing the habits of the dominant culture.
I wish the best to you and yours in the lottery.