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The Coming Demise Of Car Culture


Kingsley Dennis and John Urry, After the Car. Polity 2009.

 

In Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time, there is a passage where people from a future utopia go back in time to marvel at 20th century car madness: "The whole society was built around them, they paved over the earth for them to run on and sit on right in the middle of where they lived! Everyone had to have one. And they all set out in their private autocar to go someplace at the same time and got stuck in jams and breathed poison and got sick. Yet people loved their autocars like family. They drove fast in them till they wore out and ran into each other and got broken and burned and mangled and still they would rather drive in their autocars than do anything!"

 

People addicted to driving cannot imagine life without their car. It gives them a sense of freedom. In their interesting and useful book British researchers Kingsley Dennis and John Urry write that "the car system is a way of life, an entire culture". (p. 59) And: "Few, if any, societies have been able to escape its awesome dominance." (p. 47)

 

The writers chart ways how to start weakening the addiction to private cars. " … we examine the potential of system change. Is there a new model that could develop here? Could the car system come to be replaced with a ‘new model’ or system?" (p. 9) Many phenomena in present societies make their quest not only commendable but urgent. We are living in a period of climate change and peak oil. The probable dramatic rise in oil prices will pretty soon concentrate people’s minds when it comes to getting to places. The car culture may collapse as a result of its inherent impossibility under near-future conditions.

 

Part of this impossibility has to do with climate change and its approaching destabilizing effects. In the Mecca of car culture, the US, "60 per cent of all US carbon dioxide emissions are emitted by motor vehicles. The US, with 5 per cent of the world’s population, has 30 per cent of the world’s cars and produces an extraordinary 45 per cent of the world’s car-derived CO2 emissions." Transport is the second fastest growing source of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions and current figure is expected to double by 2050. (p. 10)

 

People may be vaguely aware that as the culture based on cars and oil has reached its peak, energy wars are already a reality. Major nations want to make sure that they get the most of diminishing resources. Their politicians may talk about "exporting democracy" and "defending human rights". The dreadful human tragedies experienced in Afghanistan and Iraq show all this to be moonshine. It is not a coincidence that these wars take place in and around major energy sources and routes. Dennis and Urry wryly state that the freedoms the US claims to be defending in the world are in reality freedom of US citizens to drive. (p. 18)

 

The history of the car culture is instructive. After an initial enthusiasm for electric cars around 1900, the petrol-fuelled internal combustion engines in the end won the competition, mainly by American efforts, and not least by rapid emergence of cheap oil. The First World War finally killed off the electric car. Dennis and Urry write: "The internal combustion engine was crucial to the mechanizing of warfare, where speed, durability, and power on a battlefield were central to new forms of warfare." (p. 33)

 

During the following decades car and oil industries joined forces to eliminate more collective forms of transport, especially streetcars: "This conspiracy helped the car rapidly to become a consumer good owned and driven by private individuals (mainly men), offering utopian notions of progress." (p. 35)

 

Philosophers have marvelled at the ease with which societies accept the daily carnage on roads, although the death toll is far higher than those caused by headline-grabbing terrorist attacks. The statistics which Dennis and Urry cite are frightening: "Worldwide, cars generate 1.2 million deaths and 20-50 million injuries a year, many involving people who are not car drivers. The estimated total cost is $518 billion." The writers comment: "Modern roads are the ‘killing fields’ of contemporary societies. Crashes have become normal and predictable, typically referred to as ‘accidents’, aberrations rather than ‘normal’ features of the system." (p. 38)

 

Private car use may not disappear completely. Dennis and Urry chart developments in car manufacturing from less polluting vehicle systems and micro-cars to smart vehicles and communication systems between cars, roads and environments. They also explain longer term collision avoidance systems. They tell us about car-sharing, cooperative car clubs and smart car-hire schemes. Vehicles may be less privately owned, etc.

 

In the most challenging parts of their book, Dennis and Urry consider possible future developments. They all will be partly results of communities’ choices but mostly driven by dramatic changes which will cause the collapse of global and local life styles as we know them. There are frightening possibilities of chaos and violence, climatic genocide and forced migration of millions of people.

 

The most benign future would look something like post-oil localism where long-distance travelling is rare. Dennis and Urry, however, leave us with some worrying thoughts: "How the issue of personal mobility is dealt with will in part determine whether and how people live their lives down the line, in small-scale localism, in Hobbesian war of all against all, or Orwellian systems of digital surveillance. The twentieth century’s free lunch has resulted, after a decade of global optimism in the 1990s, in some hugely bleak dilemmas for the twenty-first century. There are, we might suggest, no good outcomes after the car. It and its high-carbon friends would seem to have done their best to leave little standing even as they themselves may disappear from view." (p. 164)

 

In spite of such a pessimistic conclusion, Dennis and Urry offer a lot of food for thought. Clearly, today’s socialists and ecologists have some urgent thinking to do. In view of the possibly hugely dangerous developments, some localist solutions may seem cosy scenarios, but they are at least something to think about: "The ‘Transition Town’ initiative provides an inspiring model for local citizens to engage with their urban environment, including the requirement for low carbon mobility involving increased walking, cycling, and public transport." (p. 122)

 

 

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