This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Auto-R/Eject: Metaphor For A Society

From December 2008:

I’ve been reading a bit about the collapse of the plans for a bail-out of the car industry in the US and how it’s imperative if all those poor workers aren’t going to have a terrible Christmas, and how all those people will starve, and so on, and so it’s imperative of the US government to bail out all the “Big Three” whose CEOs might otherwise have to, ulp, give up their private jets and their champagne. What a tragedy.

All right, this isn’t really my business, not being an American, but there are a few things I’d like to mention anyway, since apparently the impending implosion of the US stock market is driving down stocks across the world, and that has its own effect on the cloud-cuckoo-land of the Indian bourses - something which has absolutely nothing to do with me but might affect some dupes who put their money into the hands of stockbrokers and similar low-life scum.

The first thing is, how in sanity’s name does a nation that isn’t a banana republic (in the original meaning of the term) get itself to a position where the collapse of demand for a single product threatens the collapse of an already crumpling economic order?

Anyone who knows anything about cars will be aware that they aren’t, you know, the best things for Planet Earth’s health. Yes, we need transport, and it’s only common sense that transport should be as cheap and easily accessible, not to mention as environment-friendly, as possible. So a sane and healthy society should encourage public transport at all times, in preference to private transport. Certainly a sane and healthy society does not dismantle the public transport system in order to promote and raise (to the level of a religion, for all practical purposes) private transport.

Before I get any further, let me state my view of the car’s position as a basal unit of the American lifestyle. Since I am not American, and since I’ve never visited the US (nor am I ever likely to) my views are more likely than not to have serious flaws, but since I’ll be basing my arguments on these views anyway, I should lay them out for you.

In America, as far as I can see, one of the major rites of passage of life is the acquiring of a driving licence as soon as one is old enough to take the tests to acquire one. This is a somewhat odd thing because in most nations of the world those who need to learn to drive learn to drive. Nobody learns to drive as though it was as essential as knowing how to tie your shoelaces. Not that I’m saying nobody should learn to drive; I’m saying that this is an indicator of the basic problem.

Now, when everyone knows how to drive, there’s a market for cars (as there has been since the Henry Ford auto revolution) for them to drive. If everyone wants to buy a car, there is competition between car manufacturers to sell cars and therefore prices drop and, further, easy credit becomes available to tempt people to buy. Once prices fall to the level where every member of a family can have his or her own car (if only a used one) there is no incentive for maintaining public transport. Also, with the amounts of money they rake in, car manufacturers can buy serious political influence to downgrade or eliminate public transport so that everyone has to buy a car, like it or not, unless they want to remain confined to walking distance of their dwellings. (I shall be getting back to this point in just a bit.)

Also, once you eliminate or reduce public transport to the point where it serves only a small percentage of the population, you make sure that private transport becomes the main form of transport of the majority of the population. This seems a somewhat trite point until you realise that a population dependent on private transport becomes a captive market for that transport – and the ancillary services that feed it: tyre manufacturers, petrol stations, upholsterers, repairers, used car agents, wreckers, whatever. So if you eliminate cars you eliminate the livelihood of all those people – an immense industry that supplies the needs of a car-dependent lifestyle.

Then, again, public transport can supply the needs of communities. This is important to understand. Public transport cannot and does not – and is not intended to – reach out to each and every isolated house in the middle of the wilderness. Public transport can get you to small hamlets and villages, but will not get you up that dirt road fifty kilometres into the hills where your weekend getaway lies. A public-transport dependent society basically arranges itself around nodal points of communities – whether villages or metropolises. But when you have everyone owning a car, one can go where one wants, and such things as fifty-kilometre-away weekend getaways and houses in distant, isolated suburbs become possible. And when finance becomes available for that as well (without even proper credit checks) there is no pause to think before taking on that expense as well as the one on the car and the house in town.

Would a public-transport-dependent society have dropped itself into a sub-prime crisis? I somehow don’t think so.

Then, to proceed further: when everyone owns cars, the manufacturers come up against a problem. How do you sell a car to someone who already has one? How many cars can a man own, anyway? But once the manufacturers have set up the facilities to make cars, when the lines are rolling, you need to sell, don’t you? You need to pay the bills and your workers and still make a profit, not to mention pay off the politicians you control? So you have to make cars less durable (good old built-in obsolescence), or you have to brainwash the people into junking them after a couple of years, or both. In any case, what it means is that somehow you have to create demand in an economic space where there would normally be none. And this, naturally, means an enormous amount of wastage: of metal and rubber and leather to make cars, of advertising to sell them, of worn out parts to junk or recycle, and so on – all of which have both economic and environmental costs. The economic cost is obvious. As for the environmental cost, not even the most eco-friendly car can ever be a fraction as environment friendly as your average tram or trolleybus or even train – because it would take some thousands of cars to carry as many people as a single suburban commuter train does, and the train does not need immense road networks for it to travel on or gigantic parking lots, using immensely valuable urban space, for it to park on.

Then there is the social cost of car ownership. I may be a little bit wrong in this, but my theory is that people who travel under social conditions develop a closer relationship to each other than those who are isolated from each other by the four walls of a travelling metal box on wheels. Car ownership is basically a selfish action: it tells society: “I don’t give a damn about you. You go about your business your way. I’ll go about my business my way. Just stay clear of my space.” Social structures that encourage public transport are likely to be social structures with increased levels of interdependence and resilience in times of crisis.

Another aspect of the social costs of car ownership is the fact that you can’t – especially in towns – indefinitely expand road space. Sooner rather than later, a car owning society will so clog up the roads with cars that the entire purpose of car ownership is defeated because the average speed of travel falls to near walking pace. Once a person begins spending hours on the commute to work, everything suffers, from social interactions to family life to even shopping or reading. A car owning society becomes a society of isolated, harried individuals with extreme levels of stress – and without coping mechanisms because everyone else is in the same boat. And when you thought that was bad enough, remember that this is also a society where just about anyone can buy a gun. Wonderful.

The third aspect of the social cost of car ownership is that any society that becomes dependent on owning cars moves on to a point where – since everyone has a car – the focus moves to more expensive, larger, glitzier vehicles as a social status symbol, and of course, to earning enough to pay for that. The car ceases then to be a form of transport. It even ceases to become a luxury (which it still is in most parts of the world). It becomes a state of mind.

A fourth social cost of car ownership is the accident rate. More cars on the street means more accidents. More accidents means more deaths, injuries, litigation and insurance costs. (Last year alone, 130,000 Indians died on the roads. The comparative death toll in terror attacks? 500?)

There is another, and much deadlier, social cost of mass car ownership. This is the point at which social and economic costs meet. You see, mass use of cars means that one needs to have available the fuel to run them. This fuel is available in some quantities in the US, but will not last forever, and in any case there is not nearly enough to feed domestic needs and simultaneously maintain emergency stocks.  Most of the fuel has to be shipped in from halfway around the world – West Asia. This fuel is necessary for the society to keep running; this fuel is necessary at what are thought reasonable rates for the society to keep running. The only way to safeguard these supplies is to control the sources of those supplies – militarily by occupying them, politically by foisting pliant dictators (democracy might throw up a popular independent government, you see, so no democracy wanted) on them, and economically by paying off the elite and creating a slave underclass in them. This is something that arouses, naturally, resentment and makes for “terror attacks” as well as tensions with other nations who feel that they too have a right to the resources of the world.

Remember a word: globalisation. Most of the time it’s a dirty word for those of us on the left of the political and economic spectrum. But once in a while it does bring a sadistic, Schadenfreude-filled, grin to our faces. Like when Japanese car manufacturers, with their cheaper varieties and lower costs, come into the American market and further help to provide the glut that the car owning society inevitably finds itself suffering.

Now if there is a collapse of the economic bubble on which this entire car-owning society is based – if the easy credit on which this society is based breaks apart, for instance – suddenly there are vast numbers of people who can’t pay for their vacation houses, or their SUVs, and so on. They default on their loans. They put their houses on the market. Once they no longer have suburban houses or vacation homes they no longer need cars to get to them. Once they have no jobs, they don’t need cars to travel to those jobs. In fact, they try and sell their cars in order to stay alive. So the market gluts with used or hardly used vehicles. People aren’t making as much money as they used to, so nobody in his right mind buys a new car. In fact even the old cars don’t find adequate numbers of customers. So the manufacturers must cease production; even to get rid of the cars already produced is difficult enough. And in the meantime there is also no longer the same market for tyres and petrol and the rest of it – because people are driving less and people are even, horror of horrors, returning to what remains of the dismantled public transport system.

This isn’t the 19th Century any more and you really can’t force the rest of the world to buy American vehicles at gunpoint to take the pressure off the car manufacturers, in a sort of 21st Century Opium War. You also can’t overnight return to a public transport based society after systematically destroying it for a hundred years. Even if you could, the car-manufacturer-owned politicians won’t allow that. In any case, the car manufacturers are well aware that the fuel supplies will run out sooner rather than later and that they will have to invest major amounts of money into research and development of fuel efficient and non-polluting vehicles – something that will further reduce their profits.  

And so the car manufacturers demand that, in effect, they be paid not to produce cars, or the whole socio-economic structure will collapse, and take the ancillary services with them. And if that means that workers should be underpaid and unions defanged, that’s fine with them. The profit motive rules supreme.

This is where a car-owning society gets you.

I wish I could say that what I wrote above means the demise of the car, but it doesn’t really. In this country, the car population is still expanding, and without even the basic requirements of pollution control or even driver training. I know people who drive cars without knowing that a red light means stop and green means go. I am notjoking about this. And the greatest cause for air and noise pollution in Indian cities is the car, especially with the incredibly bad Indian fuel which makes a mockery of any clean engine technology. As for traffic congestion: when I was a schoolboy, it took just ten minutes to get to my old school by car or motor scooter – sometimes less. It took about 25 minutes if one walked. Today it still takes 25 minutes if one walks. But it takes about 45 minutes, at the least, if one wants to go by car. In the meantime, the buses that one could take have vanished. The public transport system in this city is extinct.

Things will definitely be worse when the new wave of ultra-cheap cars come into the market, led by the Tatter No-no (Tata Nano) – if they come on the market. With just a little bit of luck, they might not. Tata is under enormous economic pressure, and has suffered tremendous losses this year – mostly due to Mr Rotten Tatter’s own greed. With a little bit of luck the disaster of the private transport society may pass us by.

Certainly I hope so. But one can only hope.

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