The Plug-In Drug

Here it comes, folks.  They’re beginning the serious ramp-up for selling you “hybrid” automobiles.

This sales effort is going to rely on you remaining woefully under-informed about the basic physics of cars and cars-first transportation.

They want you thinking like this:

To keep you there, they have to hide many facts, including the fact that, in this universe, nothing comes from nowhere.  Hence, having everybody frequently rolling around at high speeds in fragile metal boxes with up to 8,000 often complex parts in them is always going to be the quintessence of an unsustainable activity.

Making lithium-ion batteries, for instance, requires vast extraction of a finite natural resource, production of which starts like this:

As the corporate capitalist hybrid hype mounts, you are also going to continue to be denied access to knowledge of the fact that, even in the best-case scenario — complete fleet replacement, the cessation of aggressive driving habits, etc. — plug-in hybrid  electric vehicles (a.k.a., PHEVs) would only reduce per-vehicle petroleum use by 45% in the USA.

Meanwhile, “the long-term incremental costs of these vehicles are projected to exceed US$8,000, with near-term costs being significantly higher.”

In other words, who among us is going to be able to buy these rolling distractions-from-reality?

The Obvious (Forbidden) Answer

Yesterday, I ridiculed Obama’s ridiculous promise to waste $4 billion “helping” the mass-murdering automotive corporations.

If that’s such a bad idea, then what’s a better one?

Well, it sure ain’t rocket science:

For starters, moving toward better cars is already happening. Why in the world should the public have to pay for that, even at Obama’s pathetically paltry level?

What we need instead is to build ourselves modern intra- and inter-city railroads, and make all public transit free.

As to the money, nobody batted an eye about running the Iraq Invasion via deficit financing, and that criminality doesn’t come close to providing the macro-economic stimulus that building real railroads and funding free public transport would. Whatever deficits would be required up front would probably be gone within a few years, as a sea of good new jobs for workers added new paychecks and tax revenues.

Of course, none of this is going to happen, barring a massive democratic uprising. Corporate capitalism cannot survive without cars-first transportation in the USA. Hence, more roadkill is the only option that will be “on the table.”

Why Won’t Ralph Nader Take on Capitalism?

Ralph Nader, for whom I proudly voted in both 1996 and 2000, has been trying to get people to protest Big Oil and Wall Street. Our problem, he would have us conclude, is the price, not the supply of oil.

I’m sorry, but that’s demagogic, misleading balderdash. The price of oil is but a symptom of the real problem, which is the intractable addiction of our corporate capitalist overclass to peddling automobiles. Corporate capitalism means autos-über-alles, which means we will remain chained to increasingly expensive petroleum, the supply of which has recently passed its peak.

It saddens me to see Nader failing to live up to what is perhaps the greatest challenge of our times.  Just when we need his help in trying to open U.S. transportation policy to democratic scrutiny and control, he chooses instead to imply that, if we’d just picket a few bad apples, everything would return to the cheap-gas good old days.

Of course, this failure has deep roots in Nader’s work.  Take the case of Unsafe at Any Speed, the book that launched him to his well-deserved fame.

The book starts with Nader spotting a telling contradiction:

For over half a century the automobile has brought death, injury, and the most inestimable sorrow and deprivation to millions of people….Unlike aviation, marine, or rail transportation, the highway system can inflict tremendous casualties and property damage without in the least affecting the viability of the system. Plane crashes, for example, jeopardize the attraction of flying for potential passengers and therefore strike at the heart of the air transport economy….The situation is different on the roads.

Something quite deep must keep cars from being scandalized, right?. After all, Nader observes, if one is objective about it, “[t]he automobile tragedy is one of the most serious of these man-made assaults on the human body.”

And at the outset of Unsafe, Nader seems poised to name and explain that deep something:

A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests which ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology.

What could “the power of economic interests” be other than corporate capitalism?

Yet, despite these bold opening statements, Unsafe at Any Speed never came close to connecting the required dots. After his introduction, Nader proceeded to present 298 pages of very detailed evidence that car-making corporations most definitely do not put human safety first in designing and selling their products. But, despite his own seeming recognition of the need to do so, nowhere in Unsafe does Nader relate the scandalous engineering decisions he documents to the ordinary business motives and imperatives of corporate investors.  “Capitalism,” “class,” “investment,” “investors,” “profit,” “rich,” “wealthy” – none of these words appeared in the book’s index, and none were major conceptual elements of Nader’s renowned exposé.

Without a coherent explanation of corporate capitalism, however, Nader’s book, despite its shocking revelations, yielded a rather picayune understanding of both the depth of “the automobile tragedy” and the politics of its possible remedies.

Consider, for instance the way Nader finished this sentence:

“[T]he public has never been supplied the information nor offered the quality of competition to enable it to make effective demands through the marketplace and through government for…”

For…what? Nader did not call for a safe, non-polluting, and efficient transportation system. Instead, here’s all Nader put after that momentous “for”:

a safe, non-polluting and efficient automobile that can be produced economically.

Thus, the man who called autos-über-alles “one of the most serious of these man-made assaults on the human body” ended up limiting himself to asking for better cars!

But could any conceivable autos-über-alles system ever really be “safe, non-polluting, and efficient”? Are better cars or cheaper gas really enough to solve our mounting problems? Can anybody really understand “why the automobile has remained the only transportation vehicle to escape being called to meaningful public account” and why “America is addicted to oil” without understanding the capitalist interests and imperatives involved? I think not.

Ralph, with all due respect, it’s high time to move your thinking into the twenty-first century. We

The Rock Touches the Hard Place

Last week, the great Jared Diamond, whose Pulitzer-winning book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, is the greatest thing since Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital, published an op-ed in The New York Times. Titled “What’s Your Consumption Factor?”, the piece hits one of two very big political nails right on the head:

[W]hether we get there willingly or not, we [residents of the USA] shall soon have lower consumption rates, because our present rates are unsustainable.

Real sacrifice wouldn’t be required, however, because living standards are not tightly coupled to consumption rates. 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.

This is all very true, as far as it goes. But it only goes half-way.

What Diamond is basically saying is that, if we were to use our democracy to end the criminally insane and egregiously outdated reign of the automobile over transportation (and life in general) in the US, we could have a higher quality of life and also finally get serious about genuinely helping the world’s other people live better.

The big problem, however, is the fact that our extremely well-entrenched economic overclass is quite literally and intractably addicted to perpetuating autos-ueber-alles in America. Without the auto-industrial complex’s trillion-plus-dollars-a-year “stimulation” of a huge array of business opportunities, corporate capitalism would quickly implode into an intractable economic depression.

Meanwhile, as Diamond argues, replacing our cars with world-class railroads and towns reconstructed around rails, bikes, and human feet is not only possible and desirable. Thanks to Peak Oil, it is, as Diamond almost says directly, simply the only imaginable way forward to a decent future.

And here’s exactly where Diamond’s rock meets the still-unmentionable hard place: Both because it is certain to be managed as an urgent, profits-NOT-first public project, and because it would put an end to the vast, self-renewing flows of capitalist-friendly economic waste (and investor profit) that inhere in our existing cars-first arrangement, ending autos-ueber-alles is simply verboten as a subject of public consideration. Modern railroads and cities that favor human-muscle-powered locomotion, you see, are exactly as bad for long-term profit-making as they are healthy and vital for the welfare of ordinary Earthlings.

Hence, until we commoners learn to see the light and put our collective foot down, our economic and political overlords will continue to shove the issue of decent survival raised by Diamond down the “un-American” hole. The reason is simple and classic:

“Après moi, le déluge!” [“After me, the flood!”] is the watchword of every capitalist and every capitalist nation. Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the laborer, unless under compulsion from society. To outcries about physical and mental degradation, premature death, the torture of overwork, it answers: “Ought these to trouble us, since they increase our profits?”

Hence, if we are to do what Jared Diamond rightly says we must, we will have to conduct one hell of a fight just to get the human future onto the public agenda. History’s richest (and, thanks to the “market” structure of capitalism itself, most deniable) ruling class, armed as it is with history’s greatest mass-sedative (TV), is simply not going to permit the choice Diamond highlights to reach the public mind.

It will only do so through our own conscious and militant insistence upon it. Of necessity, a big part of this consciousness will have to be (hold onto your hats!) class consciousness. If we don’t begin to acknowledge, emphasize, publicize, and combat corporate capitalism’s addiction to selling cars, the jaws of historic defeat will finish snapping closed.

This coming struggle is not just a fight for the world’s children and grandchildren, it is, as Diamond says, a literally necessary one. Hence, as somebody on a crashing airplane once famously said, “Let’s roll!”

Manslaughter in Boston: Tragedy or Typical?

A Boston man was using his cellular phone for text messages when he drove his Ford Explorer over a 13-year-old boy. The boy was killed.

According to the Boston Globe, the texting driver, who didn’t stop at the scene, didn’t even know he’d run over a human being:

The man accused of killing a 13-year-old boy in a hit-and-run in Taunton told police he was behind the wheel typing a text message on his cellphone when he lost control of the sport utility vehicle and hit what he thought was a mailbox, a prosecutor said today in court.

Craig P. Bigos, 31, told investigators that he did not realize the SUV had struck the boy on the bicycle until he drove back down Poole Street hours later on his way to work at a restaurant, said Bristol County prosecutor Aaron T. Strojny.

Predictably, the Globe quotes a police detective as describing this equally predictable (and certainly not one-time) consequence of the commonplace co-employment of two of corporate capitalism’s core products as “a tragedy.”

It is no such thing. Tragedies strike unexpectedly out of the blue. People running kids over while texting in their SUVs is simply part-and-parcel of our way of life.

The only tragedy involved is how we have been trained to accept the waste and manslaughter involved in this typical event as normal, natural, invisible, unquestionable, just part of the background.

And, of course, one doesn’t have to wonder what the super-urgent texts were about: “Should I get tacos or pizza?” “Should we watch ‘American Idol’ or ‘Dancing With the Stars’ tonight?” “Wazzup!!!!????”

Hall of Shame: The Automobile

It would take an intentional effort to invent a mode of getting around town that is more wasteful and expensive than the personal auto.  Corporate capitalism, of course, is quite literally addicted to cars’ ongoing reign over life in the United States, for the self-same reason: their lusciously profitable wastefulness, fragility, expense, and marketability. This undiscussed institutional addiction promises genuine (and not happy) history-ending consequences, barring radical democratic rebellion in the next decade or two by still somnolent ordinary Americans — rebellion that will have to far, far transcend this kind of self-congratulating ostrich behavior:

a common conclusion...

Presently, I am completing a book on this core crisis within our culture, which is the reality I call “the consumer trap” and James Howard Kunstler calls “the long emergency.” (Note: These are one and the same disasters.) My book is forthcoming in about a year from Monthly Review Press, and will be titled Automobiles Ueber Alles: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States. Stay tuned here for more tidbits from that effort.