Stop Signs book cover
Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay, 2011, RED Publishing and Fernwood Publishing, 259pp, $19.95.

Are you a hypocrite if you criticize personal cars but yet own your own car? Do you have to achieve total transportation purity — relying only on transit, bicycling or hoofing it — to earn the right to open your mouth on all the problems that the automotive industrial complex has caused, from accident deaths and suburban sprawl to climate change and oil wars?

Thank goodness, no.

“There’s no contradiction between driving and opposing private automobility,” write Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler in Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. “Most North Americans live on a landscape dominated by cars and to change this we need systemic transformations, not individual purity.”

Honk if you hate cars

It’s an obvious point but one worth stating: since most able-bodied US and Canadian adults are licensed drivers, any revolt against today’s all-pervasive North American car culture will have to include many car drivers in their roles not only as voters or shoppers but also as activists. Mugyenyi and Engler imagine, for example, “a suburban protest with hundreds of cars rolling slowly along — demonstrating, if you like — to demand greater rail or bus service.”

Dethroning King Car will take a truly gargantuan effort, given the hypnotic appeal of car culture over our hearts and minds as well as the formidable influence of Detroit, Big Oil and allied industries in Washington. It is an effort comparable to the abolition of slavery, according to the authors, who are anti-car activists living in Montreal.

Industrial humans have become Homo Automotivis. We worship our cars the way previous civilizations worshiped Baal or Odin. And over a century we have refashioned both our physical world and our economy so that we can’t live without cars. Most of us require a car to work. And all of us rely on cars to keep the economy going, whether we like it or not.

That’s why, even more than nuclear weapons and nuclear power, weaponized Ebola or the Eurovision Song Contest (Azerbaijan won this year!), the personal car may be the most dangerous invention in human history.

Just like doobies, they make you hungry for pizza

Cars are the ultimate gateway drug to the obscene levels of status-driven consumption that have sent industrial society into economic collapse and the world into ecological overshoot, helping give us the debt crisis, oil wars and climate change. And that’s just for starters.

If there are cars, then business can crank up car dealers, repair shops, gas stations and places that sell fuzzy dice for your rear view mirror. Then, government must build city streets, rural roads and interstate highways while staffing DMVs, police forces and traffic courts. Not to mention turning the military into an oil protection force, as General Smedley Butler explained in the 1930s.

Indeed, in tough times, there’s no stimulus that governments love better than building roads as a way to put people back to work, and Detroit receives more subsidies than any other industry in the US (Big Oil is #2).

Meantime, as a car driver you can buy a heck of a lot more stuff than you can if you’re carrying bags on the subway or fitting a couple of panniers onto a bicycle. Of course, you can drive your Prius to IKEA. But first things first: just by driving at all, you can trade your tiny city apartment for a big house in the suburbs with plenty of space to fill with furniture, appliances and kids — who in turn, will want their own stuff and thus give you an excuse to take even more trips to IKEA.

And once you buy too much stuff to fit into your 5,000-square-foot ranch house or your three-car garage, you can drive over to your self-storage unit, thus supporting one of the fastest-growing industries in America.

So, there would probably be no better way to slow consumption, and thus gain some hope to head off catastrophic climate disruption and keep society from running off the cliff of peak oil, than putting the breaks on car culture immediately. Mugyenyi and Engler join the many authors of anti-car books who put forth many worthy policy ideas to clear the road. Some of theirs include taxing driving to support transit and limiting car ads.

I was so glad to see that they didn’t push the false solutions of electric cars, hydrogen cars, solar cars or any of the myriad quick fixes that the industry wants us to believe will make cars less harmful to humans. Even the cleanest car still requires resources to build and run, still creates dangerous waste and, worst of all, still serves as the linchpin of the consumer society.

Don’t be such a downer

The authors believe that activists can create a successful anti-car movement by skipping over what a bummer it will be to give up your Camaro and instead just talking up how great life would be without everybody else’s Camrys or Cadillacs stinking up the place.

“The anti-car movement need not focus on personal sacrifice. Let’s emphasize the positive,” such as how we’ll be healthier and have less debt or how kids can play in the streets again, the authors write.

But will such little niceties really be motivating enough for drivers, suburban homeowners and IKEA shoppers to give up the only lifestyle that most of them have ever known?

For my money, to get people to demand change on such a large scale, they’re going to need a pretty strong motivation. As any salesman can tell you, fear of loss is a much stronger motivator than hope of gain. And considering what’s at stake at this point — the survival of human civilization — a healthy sense of fear and urgency is also a more realistic reaction than warm-fuzzies about a higher quality of life.

Speaking of fear, the authors don’t have much faith in peak oil as a motivator because they think that industrial capitalism is resilient enough to continue its endless quest for profit even after oil peaks, by squeezing out tar sands, shale oil, GMO ethanol, deepwater oil and liquified coal. “From a human survival perspective, the planet has too many fossil fuels, not too few.”

Peak oil vs. the profit motive

Mugyenyi and Engler say that peak oilers don’t give this industry, which secretly bought up and dismantled viable urban streetcar lines during the first half of the twentieth century to deny the public any option but personal cars, enough credit for evil genius. But I think it’s the other way around. The authors give industry too much credit for being able to continue to run an oil-sucking enterprise like global auto manufacturing on junk fossil fuels.

Peak oilers understand that it’s not just about energy, but net energy. And until environmentalists can get the difference between 1) easy crude oil from West Texas or Saudi Arabia that gave us a fantastic return (or EROEI) of 30x or higher in the old days and 2) today’s junk oil from tar sands or deepwater drilling with a crappy return of 5x or lower, then these environmentalists will continue to lack respect for peak oil’s potential to bring global industrial civilization to a screeching halt.

Not to say that peak oil should be an excuse for complacency. We’ll certainly fry if we just sit around waiting for the oil crash to stop climate change and ecological overshoot on its own. But, when it comes to a conundrum as big as personal cars, activists are going to need to go negative to wake up drivers and suburban homeowners from their century-long trance.

Going negative here means talking about how peak oil will take personal cars off the road. It means telling the public the bad news that there just aren’t enough resources to run America’s car culture any longer.

And if you’re going to lead with the bad news, then maybe peak oil is a better angle than climate change.

“People are naturally much more responsive to finite resources than they are to climate change,” uber-wealthy, eco-savvy Boston asset manager Jeremy Grantham told the New York Times recently. “Global warming is bad news. Finite resources is investment advice….Americans are just about the worst at dealing with long-term problems, down there with Uzbekistan, but they respond to a market signal better than almost anyone. They roll the dice bigger and quicker than most.”

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice