Why Capitalists Love Cars

As I argue in the book I’m writing, contrary to long-prevailing indoctrination, it is capitalists, not commoners who are hopelessly in love with automobiles.

If you click either here or on the tentacled graphic at left, you will open a pdf file that shows you the material basis for corporate capitalists’ car addiction.

What a great racket!  Two of these commodity super-heaps for each household, sitting unused 90 percent of the time, and needing replacement (what machine of such Byzantine complexity wouldn’t?) every 7-to-10 years!  Cha-ching!

This diagram also shows why it’s the height of naiveté to entertain pipe-dreams about “green cars.”  That sponsored hope is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

[Source: Graeme P. Maxton and John Wormald, Time for a Model Change: Re-engineering the Global Automotive Industry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.138.]

Like Water for Profits…

Here’s an excellent blog post by Adam Shake at Twilight Earth.

As I said in my reply there, this piece by Adam hits on something fundamental that our car-pushing overclass is working very hard to shield from our consciousness:

The basic fact is that energy supply is merely an aspect of physics and Earth geology. Even electric cars require a fuel source for making the electricity. Coal and uranium and the very energy-intensive materials and processes needed to build wind and solar are all finite.

The reign of automobiles is the problem, and it has no viable long-term solution, wish and dream as we might. Every day we waste on the sponsored “alt-fuel” fantasies is one more weight we are adding to the punishment we are imposing on our children and grandchildren.

And, of course, I forgot to mention there the almost-always unmentioned — the billions who need land, water, and energy now, in order to avoid starvation, the most basic diseases, and extreme misery.

[Thanks to Doug Pressman for the reference and Laura Esquivel for the title.]

U.S. Cars: Now Devouring $1.5 Trillion a Year

I’ve been busy trying to finish my book about corporate capitalism’s addiction to perpetuating cars-first transportation in the United States, no matter the cost.

As part of this work, I just updated my estimate of the annual expenditures we Americans are compelled to make on this arrangement. The number is now at $1.5 trillion dollars a year.

Here are a few thoughts on that staggering figure:

Only 7 countries on Earth have a Gross Domestic Product (i.e., an entire national economy) that exceeds $1.5 trillion per year.

The gargantuan U.S. expenditure on autos-über-alles is actually substantially lower than it properly should be, if the maintainence and construction of automotive roads and bridges were keeping pace with the technical requirements for non-worsening operation.  How extreme the shortfall in road-building might be is something to contemplate in your next traffic jam.

Note that the $1.5 billion figure excludes the indirect costs imposed by autos-über-alles: increased medical and legal expenses caused by car crashes, for example.

Overall, the vast economic wastefulness of the whole arrangement is matched by equally huge missed opportunities.  As the great Jared Diamond says:

Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Or as I myself argue in my the forthcoming book:

As our schools crumble, our library close, and tens of millions of us go without health insurance, we Americans in 2008 spent 1.5 trillion dollars buying, equipping, fixing, fueling, parking, insuring, and road-building for our cars.i What kind of Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory transportation system would we now have, had we spent on railroads, bike paths, and pedestrians-first cities even half what we’ve spent on automobiles over the last century? How nice would our towns, schools, hospitals, and insurance programs be if we could stop squandering so many resources on automotive goods and services?

$1.5 trillion, by the way, is more than 60 times the annual expenditure of SNCF, the French national railroad system, which is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and luxurious in the world.

The Biodiesel Cop-Out

As our market totalitarian society careens between serial boondoggles and disasters on its way to imperial collapse, the signs of how well-propagandized and hence ill-informed we Americans are are becoming even more flamboyant and egregious.

Consider this smug car-back I spied this morning while waiting to pick my son up from an appointment.

Beneath the “Got Hope?”/Obama sticker (good luck with that!), this tail-end sneers “Yes, it’s a diesel.” Still lower, it touts the biodiesel industry’s bogus claims that their snake-oil is “clean,” “renewable,” and “domestic.”

The truth is that biodiesel, like all other biofuels, is none of the above. More energy goes into making it than comes out as biodiesel. Making biodiesel produces huge amounts of agricultural waste products. Making biodiesel eats up valuable water and farmland.

The “domestic” claim is particularly ignorant and galling. Like hydrocarbons, food is bought and sold on world markets, so even if it were true (which it isn’t) that all biofuels used in the USA were going to be produced within the USA, that would still have immense effects on the price of food around the world, hurting the 1/2 of the human race that exists in scandalous, abject poverty today, 500+ years after the launch of the supposedly history-ending capitalist system. In fact, even at this early date in the unfolding overclass drive to keep cars-first transport alive by running scams like biofuels on the comfortably numb and under-informed, there is already a major problem in this area.

So what we see in the above photo is not a brave soul educating others, but merely somebody who’s feeling high and mighty and clean while being used as a vector of serious evil and disinformation.

The simple truth is that the corporate capitalist project of selling automobiles in perpetuity was and is a huge pipe-dream. Earth simply cannot accommodate it for much longer, whatever the fuel source. Using finite energy to move two tons of highly-processed metal and plastic for almost every mundane trip around town is like slicing bread with a chainsaw. Technology is not going to change that. Neither is pipe-dreaming.

Spaceman Gore: “Let’s Drive to the Moon!”

Albert Gore, he of the Nobel Peace Prize and the 20-room mansion and the penchant for stating ideas only when he’s far out of power, has just delivered a speech calling for radical reform of the USA’s energy infrastructure.

In “A Generational Challenge to Repower America,” Gore says:

In recent years, our politics has tended toward incremental proposals made up of small policies designed to avoid offending special interests, alternating with occasional baby steps in the right direction. Our democracy has become sclerotic at a time when these crises require boldness.

There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more – if more should be required – the future of human civilization is at stake.

[W]hen we look at [our] seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges – the economic, environmental and national security crises. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change. But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we’re holding the answer to all of them right in our hand. The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.

What if we could use fuels that are not expensive, don’t cause pollution and are abundantly available right here at home?

We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world’s energy 2
needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses.

And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.

The quickest, cheapest and best way to start using all this renewable energy is in the production of electricity. In fact, we can start right now using solar power, wind power and geothermal power to make electricity for our homes and businesses.

But to make this exciting potential a reality, and truly solve our nation’s problems, we need a new start. That’s why I’m proposing today a strategic initiative designed to free us from the crises that are holding us down and to regain control of our own destiny. It’s not the only thing we need to do. But this strategic challenge is the lynchpin of a bold new strategy needed to re-power America.

Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years.

Bravo and amen, right?

Not right: Like the rest of the phalanx of overclass power-guardians to which he still belongs, Al Gore is unwilling to expose capitalism to any question.  As a result, he actually does not mean what he says. Contrary to his own words, Gore remains utterly unwilling to permit consideration of the changes it would take to cure the disease he is trying to publicize.

Why do I say this?  Where’s the proof?

Here it is:

We could further increase the value and efficiency of a Unified National Grid by helping our struggling auto giants switch to the manufacture of plug-in electric cars. An electric vehicle fleet would sharply reduce the cost of driving a car, reduce pollution, and increase the flexibility of our electricity grid….

If you want to know the truth about gasoline prices, here it is: the exploding demand for oil, especially in places like China, is overwhelming the rate of new discoveries by so much that oil prices are almost certain to continue upward over time no matter what the oil companies promise. And politicians cannot bring gasoline prices down in the short term.

However, there actually is one extremely effective way to bring the costs of driving a car way down within a few short years. The way to bring gas prices down is to end our dependence on oil and use the renewable sources that can give us the equivalent of $1 per gallon gasoline.

In other words, cars are non-negotiable in Gore’s plan, despite the fact that they account for 70 percent of “our” addiction to petroleum.  In addition, via its encouragement of suburbs and its stimulation of greatly increased industrial production of many kinds, cars-first living also creates a huge further unnecessary drain on our existing electrical power grid.  Making cars and suburbs ain’t cheap.

Yet, Gore naturally assumes, cars-first must continue.

This non-negotiability of automobiles exists, of course, because corporate capitalism itself is not negotiable, despite its blatant non-sustainability and consequent extreme danger to the human future. The simple fact is that without the preservation of the ultra-wasteful but ultra-profitable autos-über-alles way of living in the United States, corporate capitalism would implode.  Ergo, not even Al Gore can summon the courage to say “cars must go.”

Instead of saying that, Gore says says in his speech that “people rightly complain about higher gas prices” — as if cars could ever be made ecologically and financially inexpensive.

But the basic facts are inherent in the technology and the system that forces it upon us: In order to serve as the primary mode of everyday transportation in any society, the automobile requires sprawling cities.  Sprawling cities in turn dictate long commuting distances for vehicles carrying one or a few occupants.  Long commuting distances require relatively high-speed travel, in order to get those occupants to their scattered, appointed places reasonably on time.  High speed travel in cars for one or a few occupants requires comparatively large-sized, collision-worthy vehicles.  (Glorified golf carts going 45 mph are super-extreme deathtraps.)  Comparatively large-sized, collision-worthy vehicles are inherently heavy and massively fuel-inefficient.

All in all, it’s simply an inescapable fact that building cars to carry one or a few occupants and equipping those cars with the hundreds of pounds of comforts, amusements, and safety mechanisms that make the trips bearable is also super-wasteful of energy, albeit also super-profitable for investors.  No amount of design or alternative fueling is going to change that.

Yet and still, capitalists can’t and (barring a popular uprising) won’t do without all this waste/profit.

The planet, meanwhile, can’t do with much more of it. Generating enough new electricity from wind and solar to make it all happen: a) is almost certainly impossible, and b) would eat up the entirety of the new infrastructure Gore is now proposing. Whether we burn oil to do it, or sacrifice our one-time shot at building a sustainable electric grid to it, perpetuating autos-über-alles for much longer will spell death to progressive human society.

Hence, we must transcend Al Gore and the masters he continues to serve. As Gore himself says:

If we keep going back to the same policies that have never ever worked in the past and have served only to produce the highest gasoline prices in history alongside the greatest oil company profits in history, nobody should be surprised if we get the same result over and over again. But the Congress may be poised to move in that direction anyway because some of them are being stampeded by lobbyists for special interests that know how to make the system work for them instead of the American people.

Or, properly stated:

If we keep going back to the same policies that have never ever worked in the past and have served only to produce the highest gasoline prices in history alongside the greatest oil company profits in history, nobody should be surprised if we get the same result over and over again. But the Congress may be poised to will move in that direction anyway because some all of them are being stampeded by lobbyists for special interests the capitalist class that, who know how to always make the system work for them instead of the American people.

Sunk Costs: The Broken Iron Horse, Dead and Gone

a French tgv train engine In Europe and Japan, where they have spent and do spend a fraction of what we Americans have spent and do spend on transportation, they have fantastically fast, safe, pleasurable-to-ride, energy-efficient, and generally ever-improving modern railroads. We, of course, have the intentionally starved, dilapidated national embarrassment of Amtrak, plus the fantastically expensive, wasteful, and locally and geopolitically dangerous autos-über-alles system to which the iron horse was long ago sacrificed here.

Of course, another major marker of our overclass’s extreme hostility to sane transportation priorities is the airports-and-airplanes shuffle that (kind of) fills the gaps left by our scandalous lack of modern inter-city railroads. Like the dictated-from-above cars-first arrangement it (kind of) helps to patch up, that system is not only multiply and generally inferior to the rail systems they have built in Europe and Japan, but, being based on the burning of petroleum, is also under extra-severe stress these days.

It was in this light that James Howard Kunstler’s “Daily Grunt” caught my eye today. Here’s what Kunstler reports:

Death of the Airline Industry
I knew I was in trouble when I checked in and the Northwest departure board behind the ticket desk said the 5:39PM to Minneapolis was “delayed.” That’s when you know you’re in for an evening of, at least, being lied to and fucked around. Up at the gate, they let it be known that the 5:39 would now leave at 6:08. That was cool. I had a two-hour layover in the Twin Cities for my connection to Duluth. As it happened, though, they didn’t board us until 6:00. We pushed back at 6:30, taxied out to the runway, and then sat there for another hour. About halfway through that wait, the pilot got on the PA and said they were “waiting for their numbers.” A half hour later he came back on the PA and said the plane was “over its weight limit” and we had to go back to the gate and drop some people off. Huh…? This was a small regional jet. There were 12 rows of two across, and there were a few empty seats. So, we get back to the gate and we sit there for another half hour while a technician comes on board with a clipboard and palavers with the flight crew. It’s now two hours past the original schduled departure time. So even if we left that instant, I’d miss my connection to Duluth and be stuck in the Minneapolis airport all night. As it happened, the pilot asked for 13 volunteers to get off the plane. (There was some grumbling about the obvious illogic of a plane designed with 48 seats being unable to carry 36 passengers… but let’s not even go there….) If they couldn’t get 13 volunteers, the pilot said, they’d cancel the whole flight (and then everybody would be fucked, I inferred). I got up with a bunch of other volunteers — thirteen, finally — and straggled off the plane. We hung around the gate for another hour and half waiting to get re-booked for tomorrow, and to get our gate-checked luggage back. The most amazing thing about the whole misadventure is how dim the Northwest employees acted. From the flight crew to the gate agent, nobody really seemed to know what was going on or know what they were doing. I actually don’t know if the plane ever did leave. It was still parked at the gate when I finally left the airport at 9:30. By the time I got home it was 10:00 PM. I have to get up at 3:30AM to make a 6:00AM flight tomorrow. (Sigh….)