While it isn’t literally true that Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned (the violin wasn’t invented yet), he did build himself a glorious new palace atop the ashes. And he was one of the prime suspects in the great arson of 64 a.d. According the Roman historian Suetonius, “under cover of displeasure at the ugliness of the old buildings and the narrow, crooked streets, he set fire to the city . . . openly. . . . Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, and exulting, as he said, ‘with the beauty of the flames,’ he sang the whole time the ‘Sack of Ilium,’ in his regular stage costume.”
Today, the United States is the Empire, and we are living at the beginning of our own elite-triggered great arson: the eco-social conflagration caused by the “non-negotiable” continuation of autos-über-alles in America. And, while the flames of catastrophic climate change and permanent petro-war gather, our overclass watches from its tower, singing its own silly, irrelevant songs.
This fact slapped me again last night, while I was listening to a basketball game on AM radio. During one timeout, the station played the following ad from the U.S. Department of Energy, voiced by Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, former CEO of the Cabot Corporation, the world’s leading maker of carbon black (a major ingredient in automobile tires) and chemicals for unclogging oil-drilling pipes:
We’re all looking for ways to get more mileage from a gallon of gas.
I’m Energy Secretary Sam Bodman with steps you can take to save money by getting the most out of every gallon of gas you buy.
First, keeping your car tuned and in proper working condition can improve gas mileage by up to 40 percent.
Replacing your air filter and keeping tires properly inflated improves fuel efficiency.
Also, avoid idling your car. Running your engine when you aren’t moving wastes gas and money.
Obey the speed limit — speeding reduces fuel mileage by up to 23 percent. Your gas mileage decreases rapidly once you get above 60 miles per hour.
You have the power to make a difference. By taking these steps, you can save money and help our nation reduce its energy use.
For more tips on saving money at the gas pump, please visit our website at www.energy.gov or call toll free at 1-877-337-3463.
This Powerful Savings message was provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Alliance to Save Energy.”
Yes, friends, the official response to the coming of Carmageddon is to check your tires and to drive at a speed that’s below the posted speed limit on most freeways in the land!
Our real need, of course, is to do something that, if the truth be told, has never before been done: expose our transportation policies to democratic scrutiny and action. The cold, hard truth is that, if we don’t do this, we are highly likely to pay very, very, very dearly. This is because the automobile, if the truth again be told, is the ultimate capitalist product, and like the dream of endlessly expanding profit-making it serves, it is simply insanely wasteful and unsustainable.
Michael Dawson works for pay as a paralegal and sociology teacher in Portland, Oregon. He is presently writing a book, Automobiles Ueber Alles: Corporate Capitalism and Transportation in America, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press.