The Post-Car Culture

Why the passing of another Golden age is thinkable


"The worst mistake in modern civilization is allowing excess automobile horsepower.... That is, we run cars and build throughways instead of asking what is the most appropriate transportation to make an optimal fit of people and environment." —H.T. Odum interview, 2001



The Golden age of bicycles, 1880-1915, passed as cars came to dominate wheeled transportation. The Golden age of cars too shall pass away, as will the cheap fuel that powers them. They will again become toys of the rich....

But surely, while fossil-fueled cars may pass away, they will merely come to be powered by alternative fuels such as electric or hydrogen, and the Car Culture will go on and on....

These two possible futures will depend on whether energy becomes more or less abundant. Less energy means the end of life as most now know it. Less, however, may be the future most devoutly to be wished for. Technological optimists question only what source of power will provide energy so abundant it will be "too cheap to meter:" nuclear, geothermal, fusion, solar, wind, hydro, tidal, wave, biofuel, zero-point, Dilithium crystals, a Dyson sphere, or some combination of all. The often unstated thought is: "so that exponential growth can continue forever."

Electric and hydrogen are forms of fuel, not ultimate sources. Electric can be stored in capacitors or batteries, and transported by wire, while hydrogen can be stored as a compressed gas and transported by pipe, yet neither makes itself. There are other forms of fuel, but only two sources: fusion and fission (other than prehistorical ones which includes geothermal, tidal, as well as fossil biofuels). Fission reactors have occurred naturally in Earth's crust in its early history, and occurs today in nuclear reactors where it is turned into heat/steam/electric power, which in turn could be turned into hydrogen and other fuels.

Fusion is the source of all other fuels, including fossil ones. The sun is a fusion reactor and is the source of wind, hydroelectric, wave, biofuels, and solar electric. Fission power is a proven source, fusion power, apart from in the sun, is not.

So it comes down to nuclear fission power plants or solar fusion as Earth-based fusion is merely another oversold want. If nuclear fission were used to fuel continued exponential growth, the world's uranium supplies won't last, and the Nuclear Age will be shorter than the Fossil Fuel Age. The certainty that technologists will create fusion reactors on Earth is a hope, a prospect, and for many a faith-based belief. Creating a fusion reactor on Earth is not needed as we have a fusion reactor 93 million miles away that has been supporting life on Earth for a few billion years and is good for a few 100's of millions of years to come. But no one owns it.

The Car Culture is one expression of the over-arching Growth Culture. The first cars were electric, but newly discovered petroleum reserves were there for the taking, so something that guzzled it was needed, and Ford had a better (for Rockefeller) idea, so Ford it was. Mass production began in 1913 and cars overpowered bicycles within a few years. The work day was reduced to 8 hours so three shifts could work around the clock.

The streets of the city once looked like:

walkers

,,,,a human place, a meeting place, a playground for children.

But to make them look like:

car city

...the well moneyed had to remove the people from their (the rich and growing middle class car owner's) streets, which, for some reason, the majority opposed. In 1921 over a thousand children in New York City, about 20 a week, were killed by cars. By 1925, in cities with populations over 25,000, cars were killing two-thirds of those who happened to die from all causes. Today cars remain the leading cause of death in America of those between ages 3 and 34, and the indirect cause for those over 34 secondary to activity intolerance. But unlike today, people in the early twentieth century were outraged, were mad as hell, and weren't going to take it anymore. Up until 1923, newspapers reflected their readership, and editors and letters to the editors squarely blamed motorists for the carnage.

The motorists, the wealthy and wouldbe rich, had to act fast. They managed, using the(ir) media, lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians, to claim that the carnage was the fault of pedestrians who didn't know they shouldn't step into the street. They relentlessly promoted the claim that only idiotic country hayseeds (jays: empty-headed rural bluejay-like chatterboxes) would step into traffic. A lie told often enough, as usual, became the putative truth. They managed to criminalize what had been the norm, what the majority favored, and lobbied for laws against "jaywalking." By the end of 1924 newspapers had come to champion the deeply held concerns of their advertisers by squarely blaming the carnage on walkers. By 1927, the conquest of the streets in all major cities had been achieved. Government of the money, by the money, and for the moneyed had prevailed.

Early shopping centers were made without sidewalk or bicycle access. But elsewhere pedestrians were allowed a narrow strip between buildings and parked cars since all businesses were not drive-ins or drive-throughs. Drivers still walked from their garage into their suburban home, accessible only by car, and from their car to place of work or place of shopping, so sidewalks had their use. Bicyclists were allowed to fend for themselves. The Car Culture had cometh.

The Car Culture was manufactured by the Growth Culture's advocates who profited all the way to the bank by promoting consumerism, the consumer way of life, and the more-is-better consumer society. "Labor saving" became the oft repeated mantra, which, translated, means "movement saving" activity intolerance. The thought that the passing of the Car Culture is unthinkable is also manufactured, as are its consumers (formerly known as citizens) collective inability to consider limits to growth. The real problem is not finding alternative fuels, even given that the failure to do so will put an end to growth and to the Growth Culture. The ultimate unthinkability is that we might find alternatives to cheap fossil fuel (e.g. fusion, or worse, everything else) and that exponential growth will continue until the entire surface of the planet and all crustal resources have been consumed. The concern is not that the Car/Growth Culture might end, but that it won't pass soon enough. We of the Anthropocene will have an era named after us, but an era that may be defined by they who are presiding over the greatest mass extinction since the late Cretaceous.

A Post-Car Culture will have another name and will say "no" to maximizing growth, consumption, speed, and the high-powered life. Thoughts of "MORE!" will be replaced by thoughts of "enough"'. Unlike growthers, "enoughers" will try to know their wants from their needs, and focus on their needs (as in actual needs) as distinct from manufactured wants they are incessantly told they need. Doing so is an act of revolution, an act of rightness. The collaspe of the Car/Growth Culture will be the falling in of a rotten door, a clearing the way for a functional life. As Gandhi noted, “The world has enough for everyone's need, but not enough for everyone's greed.” For "greed" read "wants" and for "everyone's" read "a limited number of people's," and you'll have a basic grasp of reality.

The car culture is still alive and well in the United States. The average American spends on average 4.4 hours of their sixteen waking hours on the road or working to pay for car elated expenses. They average 20.5 miles a day to go 4.7 mph factoring the time spent working for the car (therefore bicycles are faster than cars). A quarter of their so called life is all about the car. Sales figures from 2014 showed the addition of 198,000 new e-bikes were dwarfed by the 16,000,000 new cars that hit the streets rocking and rolling during that same period.

There are many futures; pick one.