Driving Deterioration. How the car culture contributes to escalating human misery
Author: Brett Sheppard
Originally published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 03/18/2004
Sara Brown, a physician assistant who doubles as cheerleader for the National Football League Charlotte Panthers states in her personal profile that the one thing she could not live without is her car. Most likely not given the amount of consideration some would say a question with such implication merits, it may be unfair to interpret the response as suggesting that her car supersedes other life essentials such as love, friends, or water. Conceding that it would not be an uncommon response in the United States today, however, sheds some light on exactly what is considered important throughout the population.
Americans love their cars. They love every aspect of the promise a car holds: making possible traveling long distances in a relatively short period; a latent force of rapid escape from any situation; a compartmentalized personal safe haven. The automobile has sparked a culture that is all about driving – from taking a cruise to get away from it all, to the drive-in, drive-thru, and drive-up modality, to cult literary classics such as On the Road and a large chunk of Hollywood productions including Smokey and the Bandit, Natural Born Killers, and The Blues Brothers, all made by and on the highways and by-ways of the United States. Many American rock stars have defined their image by their “ride”, writing glowing tributes to that shiny piece of metal. It’s often joked that Bruce Springsteen has never written a song without parking a car in the lyrics. Though a relatively young technology, asking most Americans to envision a United States society devoid of the automobile would bring stuttering stares, confusion, and an unwillingness to do so. Cars are so insinuated into how United States citizens see and define themselves that their profusion is oft equated with what constitutes the good things in life. In viewing the unprecedented provision of never-before-dreamt-of levels of personal mobility and its heavy-handed influence in pop culture alongside the millions of jobs the automobile industry provides, one imagines that only a malignant member of society could dare speak a negative word against this dream come true.
Now consider that this same dream invention in the last 100 years has been responsible for turning an area of natural landscape in the U.S. the size of Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania into concrete or asphalt. Consider that it has been directly responsible for injuring 250 million, nearly equivalent to the current population of the U.S., and killing more than have died in all the wars in which the country has fought. Consider that the widespread use of this same contraption burns 8 million barrels of oil daily, making the U.S. increasingly dependent on and entangled with a severely unstable world region. Consider that it kills one million wild animals every week.[vi] The automobile continues to be responsible for myriad negative effects that, when assessed rationally, far outweigh the benefits. It has been heavily complicit in dragging down the livelihood of the average American.
As much as the U.S. receives just criticism for its controlling actions in parts of the ‘lesser-developed’ world, it receives much less for a tragic downward spiral of life it has cultivated within its own borders. This violence may be less direct, but is certainly no less sinister. Indeed, some would argue that it is more so, hiding behind an unflinching positivism and labeling of the lifestyle as the “American Dream”. Many factors in the modern American society have a hand in this charade. One of the largest and most deeply entrenched is the automobile industry, the inbred love of cars, and the equating of vehicles with personal freedom.
Culture is defined as “the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.” This exploration demonstrates how the culture of cars is playing a role in decreasing the level of contentment and joy in American life. Because cars are so ingrained in the American way, people are unable to see the social deterioration resulting from all that goes along with massive car use.
The car culture can and should be seen as a form of structural violence. Though defining it as such may seem a stretch upon first glance, the reader will be exposed to a plentitude of information and a solid argument to shed light on how this mode of transport, which contained such promise and opened up all of America to many citizens, has outgrown this promise and now contributes to a lifestyle in the U.S. that is anything but peaceful. At the same time, these very Americans being dragged down are blind to the auto’s dark side, and would heartily defend their right to this as the best means of transportation as they would their Constitution as the best set of principles to define a nation-state.