From the Archives: The Moral Life of the Automobile

2010 June 8
by Ando Arike

“Mommy, how come all those birds and fish are covered with oil?”

“Well, Billy, you know how much we love to ride in our Escalade—and how much gasoline Mommy has to put in it… Imagine millions and millions of Mommies all over the country putting gas in their Escalades. Oh boy, wouldn’t that be a lot of gas?”

“But, Mommy, what do cars and gasoline have to do with birds and fish covered with oil?”

“Well, Billy, in order to make the gas to put in all those Escalades’ tanks, oilmen have to go out in boats and drill, drill, drill deep into the bottom of the ocean for oil. And you know how sometimes you have an accident and go potty in your pants? Well, sometimes oilmen have accidents, too.”

“They poop in the ocean?”

“Sort of, Billy…”

Twenty and thirty years from now, when children ask why they’ve inherited a planet whose ecosystems are failing, whose oceans are nearly devoid of life, whose climate is increasingly inhospitable to humans—will parents claim ignorance of the destruction their lifestyle was inflicting on the planet? Will mothers and fathers explain that the most affluent, enfranchised, media-connected people in history were unaware of the poisonous legacy they were leaving their children?

From the Gulf of Mexico to Alberta’s tar-sand strip-mines to the oil-ravaged Niger delta to the vast human carnage of the Iraq occupation—the U.S. Empire’s thirst for petroleum is laying waste to region after region around the globe, restrained only by the rebellion of those in its path. BP’s “Deep Horizon” gusher is only the most visible of these “disasters of extraction” to Americans—the only people who count—and is thus provoking some soul-searching and anger (i.e. calls for “boycotting BP”). But until there are real efforts to scale back our energy consumption, meaning a radical shift in our economic priorities and auto-centered way of life, all of the current talk about the disaster in the Gulf is simply white noise.

My piece below was published in our May 2006 antiwar issue–Editor.

The Moral Life of the Automobile

On February 15, 2003, when the streets of the world’s major cities overflowed with millions of protesters against the impending invasion of Iraq, the leading chant in New York was “Whose streets? OUR streets!” in defiant mockery of Mayor Bloomberg’s refusal to grant antiwar marchers a permit. For the estimated quarter-million people who converged on Manhattan that frigid Saturday, it was a fitting rallying-cry—despite police efforts to keep people on sidewalks our numbers grew so rapidly that the East Side was soon impassible to cars and trucks.  In fact, many drivers found themselves suddenly surrounded by the flood of protestors, unable to move their vehicles and yet afraid to abandon them to the crowds.

Marooned amid rivers of humanity, these cars and trucks seemed to dramatize much of what was at stake in the rush to war, and as we marched around them, I wondered if those helplessly trapped within realized their place in history.  Did they see the connections between (1) America’s Texas oilman president, (2) the coming war, and (3) the machines now holding them hostage? Did they recognize a link between their present powerlessness and the powerlessness of the Iraqi people, soon to have their cities and neighborhoods invaded and destroyed?  Between the gasoline they bought to fill their tanks and the half-century of conflict in the Middle East?  Between what vice-president Dick Cheney called “America’s non-negotiable way of life” and the mechanized death ready to rain down on Baghdad?

In hindsight, of course, there’s little to suggest that any more than a handful of Americans made these connections. If it has always been apparent that the war in Iraq was about oil, there has also been a tacit agreement to deny this, and perhaps not even think of it—a variety of what George Orwell called “doublethink.” Like a dysfunctional family, concealing some nasty secret in which all share a nervous complicity, much of the United States has preferred to ignore the violence that has accompanied our “love-affair” with the automobile.  But as in all denials of reality, eventually a price will be paid.

Road Rage/Road Kill

Dear to our civilization is the idea that technology is morally and politically “neutral,” that like simple hand tools, complex machines are merely “functional” devices over which their users have the last word.  Whether turned to purposes benevolent or malign, the machines themselves are simply extensions of their user’s desires and volition, and do nothing until we set them in motion.  As one argument in this vein goes, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”

But the analogy between simple tools and complex technologies is deceptive. Consider the absurdity of saying, for instance, that “nuclear missiles don’t kill people, people do.” The very existence of nuclear missiles presupposes (1) a powerful nation-state commanding the resources of a huge military-industrial complex; (2) a political structure in which a tiny elite can contemplate ending the lives of millions of people in an eyeblink; and (3) a morality in which Armageddon can seriously be considered as a policy option. A nuclear missile is not simply a more powerful gun.

The automobile, in a similar way, is not merely a faster means of transportation than foot, horse, or bicycle; rather, it is a form of technological “legislation” that enforces entire new norms on a society, entire new ways of life and death.  The automobile’s position of pre-eminence in the U.S required massive linkages between the state apparatus, auto manufacturers, oil companies, and the military. It also required a huge educational effort for the consumer.

Whether or not one believes, as Freud did, that the dialectic between Eros and Death is an instinctual aspect of the human psyche, “mass motorization” (as the British literature terms it) has made this dialectic its vehicle and motive power.  Few other mass‑produced commodities are so insistently linked to sex and power; few other commodities are so haunted by violent death. In the primal mythology of Autoculture, the death-behind-the-wheel of a Hollywood icon like James Dean can become a sort of visionary martyrdom—not so much a cautionary symbol but an inspiration, a cathartic attunement of desire. All along America’s highways one finds little shrines where teenagers, inspired by the example of James Dean and many others, have achieved their own high-speed Auto-Martyrdom. The science-fiction writer J.G.Ballard is only partly ironic when he observes: “It is clear that the car crash is…a fertilizing rather than a destructive experience, a liberation of sexual and machine libido… mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an erotic intensity impossible in any other form.”

The World Health Organization estimates that, globally, automobile collisions now kill 1.5 million people and injure as many as 50 million more each year. Apart from firearms and military hardware, no other technology is implicated in so much violent death and injury, and yet mass-motorization’s bloodshed proceeds with little public outcry. Imagine if air travel were to suddenly become this dangerous—nobody would continue to fly. And yet different standards seem to apply to the automobile. To make a rough comparison, the 40,000 yearly American deaths caused by car accidents—the average for the past half-century—is equivalent to several fully-laden 737s crashing with no survivors each week. The million-and-a-half worldwide deaths reported by the WHO is equivalent to six jumbo jets crashing with no survivors every day. How have we learned to tolerate this level of violence as normal—to categorize the predictable mass carnage as “accidental”? Rather than “accident,” a more honest term would be human sacrifice.

The Highway Arms-Race

On the April day in 2003 when the New York Times reported U.S. tanks rolling into Baghdad, perhaps the most telling commentary on the invasion was the lead piece in its automobile section, an article titled, “Hummer H2: An Army of One.”  Sales of more than 3,000 per month of these 11 mpg behemoths were making this civilian version of the military Humvee Detroit’s hottest SUV, and according to the Times, the patriotism inspired by Operation Iraqi Freedom was largely responsible — as one California salesman quoted bluntly put it, “Nothing screams ‘American’ like driving a Hummer.”

The previous day’s business section had also explored this patriotism in an article titled “In Their Hummers, Right Beside Uncle Sam,” which introduced Rick Schmidt, founder of the International Hummer Owners Group, otherwise known by the provocative acronym I.H.O.G. Waxing philosophic, Schmidt traced a direct link between American values and the paramilitary, gas-guzzling Hummer. “It’s a symbol of all we hold dearly,” said he, “the fact that we have the freedom of choice, the freedom of happiness, the freedom of adventure  and discovery, and the ultimate freedom of self-expression.”  In Schmidt’s view, love of country and love of motor vehicle were deeply intertwined.  “Those who deface a Hummer in word or deed,” he declared, “deface the American flag and what it stands for.”

The Hummer, of course, is but an extreme example of a style of self-expression that has inspired American motorists for more than decade.  Despite steadily rising fuel prices, urgent warnings about global warming, and increasingly vocal ridicule and contempt, SUVs and so-called light trucks now represent half of all private vehicles sold in the U.S.  How do we explain the SUVs appeal?   Is it that the glut of gargantuan cars made driving these 2-ton machines a defensive necessity?  Is the SUV’s projection of power a threat of “pre-emptive strike”?  Is the goal here to “shock and awe”?  Indeed, in collisions, SUVs and light trucks kill the occupants of midsize vehicles at more than triple the rate of other cars—size matters.  Not for nothing did Nissan name one of the largest SUVs on the market the Armada.


When the 1973 OPEC oil shocks introduced Americans to the idea of high fuel prices, gas rationing, and long lines at the pump, the overwhelming response was to buy smaller cars and cultivate the idea of conservation as a civic duty.  During the ‘70s disenchantment with Autoculture, there was talk about banning cars from metropolitan areas, about carpooling, pedestrian malls, bicycle paths, and that broader idea of “appropriate technology.”  Highway speed limits were lowered to 55. Vast numbers of consumers abandoned Detroit’s gas-guzzlers for smaller, more efficient Japanese vehicles. People erected solar panels, windmills, insulated their homes, turned thermostats down, wore sweaters. In a moment of unprecedented heresy, President Jimmy Carter warned a national TV audience against America’s materialist tendencies and urged us to learn to get by with less. E.F. Schumaker’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered rose the bestseller lists.

Today all this sounds so retro, so boring—so Sixties. What politician dares to speak seriously today about conservation, about reducing car travel, enforcing real fuel efficiency? Who cares to remember the competition to produce a 50mpg car, or when mass‑transit was an enlightened notion?

At present, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes more than a quarter of global oil production, the majority of this burned in transportation.  According to many petroleum geologists, world oil production will peak sometime between now and 2020, with the largest remaining reserves in the Middle East, where some two-thirds of the planet’s deposits are thought to lie.  Supply will then begin to decline, at the same time that demand in China, India, and other industrializing nations is rising steeply.  When George W. Bush says that we are fighting in Iraq to preserve our “sacred way of life,” in many ways it is an accurate assessment. World War III has already started.

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