Nightmares and Dreams: The Auto in American Life

By John Buell

Has the American way of life -- especially our love affair with big cars -- reached a tipping point? Our media were recently filled with images of endless gridlock as citizens evacuated Houston. We worry about paying for heating oil and transportation this winter amidst growing disruptions of the far-flung empire on which our transportation network depends. Even our President has uttered a once unthinkable thought, that we conserve and that Federal employees consider car pooling or public transit.

The good news is that for the first time in a generation, Americans are discussing the sustainability of our lifestyle. The bad news is that old habits die hard. They reflect deeply entrenched values and economic interests. External circumstances by themselves may not alter behavior.

Our society will need to do more than exhort a change of behavior. We must subject our private, auto- centered world to the same skeptical accounting conservatives demand of most government programs. We also need to counter the psychological investments Americans have made in their cars.

Environmentalists lament the unwillingness of many drivers to subject the automobile to stringent cost/benefit calculations. In a recent Toronto Globe and Mail op ed, Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford pointed out that smog in Ontario is responsible for nearly 6,000 premature deaths a year. The Midwest air that plagues Ontario flows into the Northeast corridor, causing comparable carnage. Stanford then challenges his readers with a provocative comment that would be even more telling if applied to Americans: "Imagine the hysteria if terrorists were to kill even a tiny fraction as many Canadians."

On smoggy days, Canadians are asked to carpool and take public transit. Stanford responds that even for Canadians, who live in cities more transit friendly than most US cities, "If you find it hard to breathe on smoggy days, taking the bus won't help: It'll take longer to get to work, and you' ll spend longer outside, without air conditioning, until you get there."

Stanford suggests that if we are serious about our health, we would price auto use to reflect its full social costs and perhaps even consider a more radical step: We should make all public transit free. "We already ask transit riders to 'pay': infrequent service, crowds, longer commutes. Their actions benefit us all; they shouldn't have to pay again at the token booth."

But currently we lack the will to legislate such options. Worse still, even with gas taxes that reflect the real cost of the auto and full transit funding, the transition would be slow. Autos and public transit are not simply interchangeable commodities. They also represent and express different understandings of human freedom and the good life. Despite its deficiencies and inconveniences, the private auto still represents a sense of individual autonomy, the ability to travel where and when we wish in ever more luxurious comfort.

Ours is also a culture where belief in God often means belief in an all powerful and omniscient God. That God can be exonerated for the death and destruction occasioned by "natural disasters" if these are viewed as punishment for human failings, or if His world is viewed as something human beings can come to fully understand and control.

In the face of the doubts and anxieties that death from natural disaster and gaps or limits to our knowledge evoke, many are impelled even more strongly to cling to visions of individual power and technological mastery. They are often equally driven to challenge or even vilify those whose actual or apparent lifestyle seems to question prevailing social norms, especially the quest to control nature.

Americans spend increasing hours in traffic. Nonetheless, the vision of the auto, captured in countless advertising copy shot in pristine locations and coded with subtexts of social success, have a hold on most of us even before we are old enough to own our own cars. More than most social scientists, George Bush has been smart enough to grasp this fact. His 2004 presidential campaign proudly displayed images of Bush driving an SUV as the starter of the NASCAR Daytona classic and receiving thunderous applause. The message, all the more powerful because unspoken, was fie on you weak-kneed environmentalists.

On the other hand, public transit has long been coded as a necessity for losers. Its very public nature suggests a need to interact with others across an ethnic and economic spectrum. (Even in a traffic jam, one has a degree of privacy in a car not experienced on a bus.) Others find public transit objectionable just because it aids those who are widely deemed morally deficient. Baseball fans may remember Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker's rant about the ethnic, racial and lifestyle minorities encountered on and supported by New York subways.

An effective response requires our taking lessons from Madison Avenue. We need an image of transit that emphasizes the value of free time and enhanced recreational opportunities enabled by the conservation of space and natural resources. Demands for certainty and technological control can be countered by celebrating a natural world that offers variegated and unpredictable beauty as well as hardship. Quests for social certainty can be countered by celebrating the ways cultural exchange and collaboration in the face of a death we all share broadens us all.

In a retrospective on New Orleans, Cornell West recently captured this spirit: "New Orleans has always been a city that lived on the edge. When you live so close to death, behind the levees, you live more intensely, sexually, gastronomically, psychologically. Louis Armstrong came out of that unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American civilization. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragicomic lyricism that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm."

An adequate response to the crisis of our individualistic, auto-centered life demands evenhanded accounting of its costs. It also requires a new lyricism that, marked by greater humility, celebrates the virtues of more free time, a bounteous nature and an ever pluralizing culture.

John Buell ( is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News and coauthor, with Tom DeLuca, of Liars, Cheaters, Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics [New York University Press].

From The Progressive Populist, Nov. 1, 2005

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