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 life style. 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 car pool 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
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.
Our culture is deeply committed to belief in an all powerful God. Natural disasters
often challenge that faith in God’s wisdom or justice. Nonetheless, these
anxieties can be assuaged if disasters are portrayed as punishment for human
failings or if His world is viewed as something human beings can soon come to
fully understand and control. In perplexing times many are thus 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.
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 tragi-comic 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 even-handed 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 co-author, with Tom DeLuca, of Liars, Cheaters,
Evil Doers: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics
(New York University Press).