Highway to Hell

There’s been a lot of books and articles written about America’s love affair with the automobile. This is not one of those.

Most of us have heard the urban legend about how the car, oil and tire companies bought up American public transportation and junked it but I found an article entitled–Americans and Automobiles: Capitalism and Propaganda, by Larry Romanoff that goes into much more detail.

Romanoff says the cover story has always been that–“inexpensive mass transportation failed to evolve due to Americans’ individuality and desire for freedom. But this historical narrative is wrong. Today’s US ‘car culture’ was the result of a massive conspiracy contrived by the auto and oil oligarchs and, like the consumer society, imposed on an unsuspecting nation through deceit and propaganda. Most of the truth has been deleted from the historical record and replaced with a ‘feel-good’ fairytale.

…GM and its friends realised their only hope for salvation was to eliminate their one rival – mass public transit, and hatched a plan that would forever change the course of the US economy, its transportation, culture, and society itself. One hundred years ago General Motors, John Rockefeller, and a few close friends, using very large sums of money and every form of deception, coercion and intimidation short of murder, singlehandedly killed the US electric auto and train industry, buying up and destroying the rolling stock of almost 1,000 US railroads and tramways so it could sell them gasoline-engined vehicles instead, and virtually killing off mass public transit at the same time.

According to the company’s own files, GM created a special secret division charged with the task of exterminating mass transit and replacing it with gasoline-powered propulsion, eliminating all traces of electric vehicles… Most of this was done in the name of a holding company named National City Lines, which was jointly owned by GM, Standard Oil and Firestone Tire. In each case where these rail systems converted from electric to gas, they experienced a rapid and large decline in revenue, since passengers abandoned the slow and foul-smelling gasoline buses and purchased autos instead – which was part of the plan.”

In the process Americans cities and suburbs were planned to make private transportation mandatory. All for cars. Lots and lots of cars.

If you think this all happened in the past I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. As Romanoff relates, “GM and the oil companies are still trying to delay, divert and destroy electric cars and electric public transportation, even as climate change ravages America. After California passed a law mandating a percentage of new cars being electric GM and others created pressure groups to lobby against electric cars, pretending to be citizen action committees but who were financed by the auto industry. Intense and unremitting pressure was put on California to rescind its zero-emission laws until the state finally capitulated. The instant that happened, GM repossessed all its electric cars and crushed them for scrap. And so, for the second time, General Motors killed the electric car.

The long-term negative effects of this conspiracy of some of America’s most powerful and ruthless corporations are literally beyond calculation. The forced switch from environmentally-friendly public transit to the private car and diesel buses results in squandering irreplaceable petroleum resources and all the murder and mayhem which has gone to secure or steal oil around the world. Which brings us to the whole foreign policy aspect of oil and gas. The world of the car brought with it the need for worldwide control over hydrocarbons, especially after the US hit peak oil in the early 70’s. Think our worldwide complex of military bases is about freedom and democracy rather than the need to control the flow of oil and gas?

The proxy-war against Russia in Ukraine can be thought of as part of this same dynamic, even obliquely. For example, President Biden will reportedly visit Saudi Arabia with the goal of persuading Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to pump more oil to help the US alliance win its economic war against Russia. So, the US has banned Russian oil because they don’t want to give money to a “dictator”, but Biden is traveling to Saudi Arabia, governed by one of the most despotic and murderous tyrants on the planet, to grovel for oil. This is the guy who had a critical journalist–Jamal Khashoggi–kidnapped then dismembered with a bone saw, so it should be a real warm and cozy visit for the president.

These are simply immediate concerns. The real freight train bearing down on humanity is global warming, or as I refer to it–global weirding. This is why climate scientists insist that we should do everything we can to avoid tipping these critical elements on the Holocene environment in the first place: the impact of the change in the environment on the sustainability of human civilization is just too destructive—and incalculable—to contemplate.

I’m pretty sure that gas prices are a more immediate concern, judging by Biden’s trip. I also have a feeling that “drill baby drill” will be our new and improved policy going forward.

In addition to driving ourselves straight down the highway to hell there’s another moral aspect of America’s car culture that gets lost. Indeed, the design of cities and city centers we see in the US is a travesty, but few Americans are aware of this because they don’t travel abroad. They cannot imagine the ease and comfort of life in well-planned cities. When my wife and I traveled to Amsterdam pre-Covid, I was struck by how happy the people were in the bike and pedestrian friendly city. I was also struck by how unhappy Americans are. I attribute much of this dichotomy to the car culture in the US where drivers are distracted, angry and spiteful while driving. Maybe this is because of the way in which American cities developed because of the automobile, with the devastation of urban neighborhoods, the destruction of urban small business and countless other economic and sociological effects. Instead of Americans allowed to be social with their neighbors, they’re alone behind the wheel, pulling into the garage and hitting the remote.

This is one more aspect of the American Dream, that’s not to be questioned under any circumstances. And it doesn’t get more worldview-disrupting than questioning mainstream consensus reality which is what the American Dream obviously is. Because on the other side of that investigation is the realization that pretty much everything you’ve been trained to believe about your society, your nation, your government and your world, is a lie. In this case the awareness that powerful corporations, working as part of a secret conspiracy to effect sweeping changes in public life and culture, without public accountability or debate, or even awareness.

Because if the powers that be are lying about our whole freedom thing with the automobile and transportation, maybe they’re lying about other things? And if you’ve been digesting lies from the very start of your education, that means that every thing you think you know is suspect or potentially a lie, which leads to the questioning of your social and political ideology.

Maybe this is one more piece of the puzzle and a growing awareness of the duplicity. Unfortunately, awareness does not come without a cost.

As the brilliant Caitlin Johnstone says. “If you really think about what this kind of confrontation means for the individual, is it any wonder that most people fight tooth and claw against the suggestion that they should even begin to enter that investigative rabbit hole?”

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