Last night, I saw Al Gore’s new movie, An Inconvenient Truth. There is much to like in this film, not least its clear presentation of stark and convincing evidence about the reality of global warming. But, as you might guess from knowledge of its star’s balsa-wood political career, this movie is a sheep in wolf’s clothing when it comes to one of the most important, wasteful, and optional (i.e., changeable) sources of greenhouse gas emissions in today’s world: the U.S. automobile fleet.
After walking his audience (with wit and humor and real pathos no less!) through a series of horrifying pictures of melting glaciers and charts showing unprecedented leaps in both human population and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, Gore pleads with us to accept reality and remake our society, so that our children can live decently.
But when he arrives at specific recommendations for moving in this direction, Gore reverts to his old sheepishness. Cars — do they have to go? No, Mr. Gore says, all we need to do is raise our CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) miles-per-gallon regulations to match those of China, where mileage standards are presently about double those in the United States. In effect, while calling global warming a moral issue of human survival, Gore claims that truly radical reform of the U.S. transportation system is not required for long-term survival. A nation of Prius drivers, he implies, can continue merrily down our present roads.
There is certainly a long and wide pedigree for this kind of disastrous liberal practicality. Few if any car critics or environmentalists have ever done much more than suggest moving toward better cars.
But is it really true that cars are a sustainable technology? Can we really have a decent human future with Americans (and others) centering their lives around automobiles?
Consider the reasons you ought at least to doubt this familiar suggestion:
- If Al Gore became president and immediately doubled CAFE standards, would the United States still be dependent on foreign supplies of petroleum? Yes, indeed it would, and massively so. At present, two-thirds of all petroleum burned in this society is burned in the engines of our cars and trucks. In addition to this, manufacturing the intricate steel boxes we call automobiles is, even in the case of the Prius, very petroleum-intensive. So is the multi-billion-dollar task of constructing and maintaining the roads on which cars run. Additionally, largely thanks to the time-inefficiencies of our auto-centric towns and cities, the cultural trend is for everybody who can afford to do so to acquire a car for each eligible driver in the household. Thus, as the vehicle “population” continues to balloon beyond its present 220-million figure, sheer numbers of cars will wipe out much of any increase in fuel efficiency. My own analysis is that, even if the United States somehow summons the will to double and genuinely enforce its CAFE standards — something that seems to me to be not much more likely than truly radicalizing transportation politics — we would thereby probably only cut our oil thirst by about one-third. We would almost certainly still remain the world’s leading buyer and burner of crude oil.
- And, speaking of moral issues, when was the last time you heard a liberal or an environmentalist mention the profound health and welfare costs that our autos-über-alles system imposes on ordinary Americans? In the last 50 years, car crashes have killed 2.2 million residents of the United States, a figure that far exceeds all U.S. soldiers killed in war since 1776. And what about the less immediately lethal impacts of our system of mandatory automobility? Is there a connection between our rapidly worsening national obesity epidemic and the fact that we have all but surrendered the use of our own legs to the car system? Are our legal and medical systems not jam-packed with people who’ve suffered mild, medium, or severe injuries in automobile “accidents?” Don’t most of us have to work more hours in order to buy the cars and trucks that bring us all these heightened dangers? And, perhaps worst of all, aren’t our political-economic “leaders” exposing us to a host of military disasters, in order to perpetuate their auto-industrial gold-digging?
I am convinced that, taken together, these and other costs and dangers can add up to only one possible conclusion: the automobile-centered transportation order of the United States is, if the inconvenient truth be told, unsustainable and incompatible with hope for creating a decent human future. Mild reforms, such as MPG improvement, can only slightly delay the all-too-obvious disasters rooted in this insanely wasteful but highly profitable arrangement for getting around town. The sooner we perceive, describe, and move against the realities of autos-über-alles, the higher will be our chances of making the transitions Al Gore knows, at least at some levels, we need to make.
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.