Car Domination

What do recent reports about the world’s soon to be third biggest killer, a  BMW driver in China killing a peasant bicyclist, a Global Witness analysis  on corruption in extractive industries and the World Bank refusing to adhere  to recommendations by its own commission have to do with each other? Car  hegemony.


A week ago Tuesday the World Health Organization launched a campaign to  combat the negative health effects of traffic crashes, which are expected to  nearly double by 2020 becoming the world’s third biggest killer. (1) Already  1.2 million people die and 50 million more are injured from car crashes  every year. (2) Pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and public transport  users are most likely to be harmed, especially in poorer countries.


China leads the way when it comes to crash deaths with more than 100,000  people dying last year alone. (3) The recent “BMW collision affair” is a  striking example of the class nature of auto related injuries in China. The  wife of an engineering tycoon, Su Xiuwen, complained that a farmer, Dai  Yiquan, scratched her $96,000 BMW with his vegetable wagon. Then “after  slapping Dai, an enraged Su climbed behind the wheel and plowed into 13  onlookers, killing the farmer’s wife,” reported Newsday. (4) The BMW driver  got off with only a two year suspended sentence, angering many.


The “BMW collision affair” highlights the rising bitterness over the growing  class divide in Chinese society where a minority of the population has  accrued the benefits from the sell off of state assets and the shift towards  capitalism. A significant manifestation of this class divide is the rising  dominance of the car at the expense of non- car transportation methods. For  non-car drivers, the vast majority, transportation is becoming more  dangerous and as cars congest routes more time consuming. Deference towards  the all mighty car, especially in some big cities, is mounting. It’s within  this context that a BMW driver feels a scratch of her car warrants a violent  reprisal. The intensifying feeling of entitlement to the road (and all  transportation routes) that Chinese car drivers seem to be displaying mimics  North America where it is understood that roads are free for cars yet public  transit users must pay and where bike paths are non-existent, however, a  bicyclist who attempts to take up a lane on the road will be viciously  harassed by car drivers.


This car hegemony has a slew of negative domestic cultural side effects such  as unpleasant cities and rising obesity. (To read a more in depth analysis:  http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2004-04/01engler.cfm) These side  effects, however, pale in comparison to the global consequences of car  dominance. Cars burn up between one-third and half of all oil consumed in  the world.  (5,6) (Led by driving, especially big cars, inclined Canadian  and U.S. residents) Oil consumption is a major contributor to global  warming. And last summer the Guardian Weekly reported “the earth is warmer  now than it has been any time in the past 2,000 years, the most  comprehensive study of climatic history has revealed. ” The climate will  continue to warm as SUV sales rise in North America and status-seeking  wealthy people in poorer countries adopt North American transportation  ideals.


In 1990 there were 1 million cars in China a number that ballooned to 10  million by mid 2003 and is expected to reach 28 million by the end of the  decade.  (7) (10 years ago gasoline for cars made up 10 percent of China’s  oil consumption. Now it’s about one-third and is expected to reach 40  percent by the end of the decade. And overall Chinese oil demand in the  first quarter of 2004 increased 18% over the first quarter of 2003)  (8,9)  By comparison in the U.S., a country a quarter the size, there are some 230  million cars and trucks. (10) Considering how far poorer countries have to  go to catch up with North American driving rates it’s not surprising that  the most dire prediction – unless you are the auto, tire, pavement, steel,  plastic, rubber, upholstery, advertising, insurance, credit, and of course  petroleum industries –sees a trebling of the number of cars in the world  from 800 million today to 2.5 billion by 2030. (11)


As a result, oil consumption, in the not too distant future, may contribute  to the destruction of vast swaths of the planet’s life forms, including  human beings. Already oil management leads to a variety of international  evils. Does anybody believe the hundreds of dead in Fallujah aren’t  connected to the desire to control Iraq’s oil fields? How about the role of  petrol dollars in the corrupt Saudi Arabian regime’s propagation of Islamic  fundamentalism?  Further, the Financial Times reports, “one argument made by  many NGOs and some academics is that extractive industries in poor countries  do more harm than good by entrenching a destructive and predatory elite.”  (12) That seems a correct assumption. Global Witness released a report 3  weeks ago that highlighted how oil has fostered corruption within the ruling  cliques in oil-rich Congo, Angola and Equatorial-Guinea. In all 3 cases  major Western oil companies are heavily involved in supporting the regimes  corrupt practices.


The evidence that oil extraction does little to alleviate poverty and is  devastating for the environment appears convincing. Not for the World Bank,  even though a WB commissioned, Extractive Industries Review, recently  recommended the WB stop financing oil and coal projects in developing  countries. The WB, according to the Financial Times, “will oppose the idea  that the Bank should phase out all oil projects within five years.” (13)  (Recent protests have successfully pressured the WB into a bit more  transparency, namely independent reviews of its procedures, however, we are  not yet strong enough to force the WB into adopting important progressive  proposals.) The WB’s reluctance to stop funding oil projects, even when its  own commission concludes there are serious environmental downsides and  little developmental benefits to these projects, should not be surprising.  It is after all an institution controlled by the leading capitalist nations  whose energy companies dominate the world’s energy markets and have plenty  of influence over the political processes. And Western oil corporations  consider WB money and approval vital for many risky oil projects in poor  countries.


Immediately after the Extractive Industries Review was leaked, oil companies  denounced its recommendations.  Also quick to act, 16 major banks  collaborated and sent a letter to WB President, James Wolfensohn, opposing  the Extractive Industries Review’s proposals. (14) Auto companies did not  get involved. There was no need for them to urge the WB to continue  subsidizing oil extraction for the benefit their sales. Other elements of  the business class – energy and finance – and the political establishment  stepped up to do the bidding for oil and ultimately the car. In the same  vein, in order to expand sales in China or the rest of the ‘developing’  world the auto sector no longer needs to buy up trolley public transport  systems and run them through the ground, as they did in dozens of North  American cities throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s.


Today Chinese politicians go out of their way to build roads and highways  and lure car manufactures to produce for the internal market. Politicians  see car expansion as part of modernization. It’s all part of today’s car  hegemony.


1. FT. Ap. 7 2004


2. FT. Ap. 7 2004


3. Australia Financial Review Ap. 8 2004


4. Newsday Ap. 6 2004


5. The Hydrogen Economy p.65


6. Le Soleil Ap. 8 2004


7. Guardian Aug 23 2003


8. Washington Post mar 8 2004


9. Le Soleil Ap 10 2004


10. NYT March 14 2004


11. Le Soleil Ap. 8 2004


12. FT Feb 26 2004


13. FT Feb 26 2004


14. FT Ap 5 2004


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