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Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?

Emma Rothschild, New York Review of Books
The cataclysm of the American automobile industry has been an odd combination, so far, of immediate and historical anxieties.

… The present and impending disorder of the automobile companies is a reminder, even more than the decline of the housing and banking industries, of the desolation of the Great Depression. It is a reminder, too, of economic history, or of the rise and decline of industrial destinies. … When the listing of the “Fortune 500” began in 1955, General Motors was the largest American corporation, and it was one of the three largest, measured in revenues, every year until 2007.[

… The US has become more unequal since 1979, in income and amenities. It is less industrial, with only 9.6 percent of people employed in manufacturing in 2007, compared to 20.4 percent in 1979; more open to imports of goods and services, with imports accounting for 17.2 percent of GDP in 2007, compared to 9.9 percent in 1979; and more capitalist … The automobile industry has been one of the losers in the new American economy. US consumers spent less on new automobiles in 2007 than they spent on “brokerage charges and investment counselling”; in 1979, they had spent ten times as much.

… But the auto-industrial society, with its distinctive organization of American space, cities, highways, social entitlement, and energy use, has continued to flourish. Some 90 percent of Americans drove to work in 2007, 76 percent of them alone. Less than 5 percent went to work by public transportation. The people who used public transportation were much more likely than other Americans to be black or poor; they were more likely to be women than men; most of them lived in New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

… a bailout that includes no more than a commitment to fuel efficiency, or to electric vehicles, without increasing investment in public transportation and in the substitution of information for transportation, would be a denial of the Obama administration’s commitments to respond to climate change. For the idyll of plug-in hybrids is also the promise of a high-energy, low-carbon society, in which the auto-industrial organization of space, or of transport-intensive growth, is set in concrete for another generation, or longer. It is frightening in relation to the US, and a dystopia in relation to the world. A new, hybrid economy for the world, at present US rates of 0.8 cars and trucks per person, would include a universewide fleet of a billion hybrid vehicles in China and a further billion in India; an asphalt Asia of more than four hundred cars per square mile.

An enduring bailout, or a new deal for Detroit, would be different. It would be an investment in ending the auto-industrial society of the late twentieth century. This would involve innovation in public transportation, and in the infrastructure that would enable people to work at home or close to home. It would engage the information industries in making public transport more convenient, more enticing, and more secure.

Emma Rothschild is Director of the Joint Centre for History and Economics at King’s College, Cambridge and Harvard, and Professor of History at Harvard.
(29 January 2009)

Kunstler’s Road Trip

James Howard Kunstler, blog
… My journey continued on the Jesus-haunted blue highways, to that selfsame place, Walton County, Florida, where some of the most famous experiments in the New Urbanism were conducted beginning in the 1980s with the new town of Seaside. I had been there many times over the years, and I was called down to get a prize in the service of the movement, but it was a little disconcerting to see how the build-out had progressed.

… The New Urbanists had not set out to build monuments to Yuppie-Boomer consumerism, but a peculiar destiny shoved them into that role for a while – even while they toiled elsewhere around the nation to reform town planning laws and generally provide an antidote to the fatal cultural cancer of sprawl, that is, of a settlement pattern guaranteed to comprehensively bankrupt our society. Anyway, the collapse of the housing bubble has affected the New Urbanists’ business, too, and this may turn out to be a very good thing because they can put aside the distractions of building very grand places to sop up ill-gotten wealth and focus on the issues that Mr. Obama’s people should have been paying attention to all along, namely, how are we going to reform the way we live in this country and what will be the physical manifestation of how we live in the decades to come.

The New Urbanists have preached for years that conventional suburbia would fail America in the long run, and that we’d have to prepare for this failure by restoring traditional modes of occupying the landscape. So far, the Obama team has not been willing to identify the suburban system as the heart of our economic problem. They can’t recognize it for what it truly is: a living arrangement with no future – and an economic, ecological, and spiritual disaster. It is, of course, the primary reason why we find ourselves in the deadly predicament of importing over two-thirds of the oil we use every day.

But then, more than half the population lives the suburban way of life, with its deadly mortgage traps, its mandatory motoring, and its civic disengagements. Nobody in power dares tell the truth: that we can’t live this way anymore.

But there are scores of places like Montgomery, Alabama, and thousands of traditional main street small towns that are sitting out there waiting to be re-activated. We need to do this much more than we need to build new freeways to the beach. Suburbia is not going to be abandoned overnight (even if it fails logistically and economically !) but we have got to arrive at a consensus about rehabilitating our forsaken small cities and small towns. The New Urbanists have gathered, organized, and codified all the principle and methodology needed to carry out this campaign. This should be their moment. Mr. Obama and his team should get with the program.
(2 February 2009)

What Obama Must Do On the Road to Copenhagen

Michael Northrop and David Sassoon, Yale Environment 360
If crucial climate negotiations later this year in Copenhagen are to have any chance of success, the U.S. must take the lead. To do that, President Obama needs to act boldly in the coming months.

President Obama will face one of the most important moments of his presidency this year on Dec. 18, and he needs his entire cabinet to help him prepare for it over the next 11 months. Dec. 18 is the final day of the global climate meetings in Copenhagen, a day that will signify whether the world community has finally mustered the will to rein in soaring greenhouse gas emissions. That fixed date, combined with escalating scientific urgency and unparalleled political opportunity, make 2009 the do-or-die year for comprehensive federal climate action.

After eight years of U.S. inaction on climate change, American leadership offers the only hope of success. Even if President Obama himself decides to attend the talks — and hopefully he will — his mission will fail unless he carries with him a year’s worth of demonstrated results to lend weight and credibility to the promise he made in his inaugural address to “roll back the specter of a warming planet.” In Copenhagen, his inspiring oratory alone will not be sufficient; he must demonstrate how science has been restored “to its rightful place” in America in strong climate regulation and law.

For almost a decade, Americans have been purposefully led astray about the reality of global warming and about the positive relationship that exists between sustainable economic prosperity and environmental stewardship. The new president must use the bully pulpit of his office to provide quick and remedial education.

Michael Northrop is Program Director for Sustainable Development at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. David Sassoon runs, a Web site focused on debating and advancing solutions to global warming.
(2 February 2009)