“The personal and professional mobility conferred by cars has been among the most powerful social forces of the twentieth-century Western world,” noted energy polymath Vaclav Smil. Added James Flink: “The rise of the automobile industry and the socioeconomic impact of the road and the car are central to the history of the advanced capitalist countries in the twentieth century, and explain an especially large part of the history of the American people.”
Yes, hitting the open road for vacation or other sport is one of the great pastimes—and has been for generations. In a recent post on this subject commemorating the opening of the driving season, I documented how more Americans are driving more cars and more miles, putting “Peak Demand” predictions in the shade.
Academics and other intellectuals easily explain why Americans like automobility. “Cars and trucks are generally faster than alternatives because they can be parked close to where we live, work, shop, or worship; make stops along a route only when and where we want to; and take us right to the doorsteps of our destinations,” stated Joseph Bast and Jay Lehr in “The Increasing Sustainability of Cars, Trucks, and the Internal Combustion Engine.” Continuing:
Cars and trucks are generally more flexible than alternatives because we can decide at almost any time to change travel plans to pick up groceries, visit a friend, decide to arrive earlier than planned or leave later than planned, and so on. Cars and trucks provide more privacy than alternatives, which are apt to require waiting in lines and sitting with strangers whose values may be unknown and whose conversations and activities can be disturbing.
And when it comes to efficiency, cost, and emissions of criteria pollutants, the news only gets better with cars and trucks in the Age of Oil, reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The cultural phenomenon of automobility is explained in such books as The Automobile and American Culture and Republic of Drivers. What is peculiar is the Malthusian, even authoritarian, pushback to the necessity and joys of driving.
Foes of the Automobile
In The Population Bomb (1968), and elsewhere, Paul Ehrlich forwarded an “auto-control program” that, among other things, would require smaller cars, slower cars, and banning motorized camping on public land (except “for those physically unable to back-pack”).
Speed limits would be lowered. Auto vacations would be discouraged, along with three-day weekends causing “enormous jams on highways.”
In addition to gasoline taxes being raised monthly until reaching European levels, “the large automobile should disappear entirely, except for some taxis,” he states.
Elsewhere, Ehrlich (and Richard Harriman) challenge automobility by a peculiar analogy:
Cars are for transportation, and proper use of the media could once again persuade American men to get their sexual kicks out of sex (not reproduction) instead of a series of automotive sexual surrogates. Restriction of families to ownership of single small cars also would put some pressure against over-reproducers. Our stress on the world’s supply of nonrenewable resources would be greatly alleviated by limiting the fuel consumption of the cars and by designing them for recycling.
Where does such an “auto-control program” end? Ehrlich and John Holdren provide the answer in their treatise Ecoscience (p. 388) by quoting Harrison Brown’s warning of mankind “having to live in a world where his thoughts and actions are ever more strongly limited, where social organization has become all pervasive, complex, and inflexible, and where the state completely dominates the actions of the individual.” Scary….
Al Gore is another foe of automobility (for others, not his drivers). “We now know that [the automobile’s] cumulative impact on the global environment is posing a mortal threat to the security of every nation that is more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront,” he stated in Earth in the Balance. His solution? “… a coordinated global program to … completely eliminating the internal combustion engine, over, say, a twenty-five-year period .”
Bast and Lehr responded:
… Gore is wrong to call for the elimination of the internal combustion engine, and wrong again to call “absurd” our current reliance on cars and trucks. Mobility is an essential and inseparable part of almost all that we value—from close-knit families to rewarding careers, quality educations, and fulfilling recreation. Mobility truly is what makes our autonomy possible. And cars, trucks, and the internal combustion engine are worth keeping because they make automobility itself increasingly sustainable.
Beware of the foes of modernity and would-be restrictors of movement. Fear not, worry not about getting your kicks on Route 66 or wherever the open road goes. This is the natural state of affairs that will overwhelm the fringe authoritarians. Daniel Yergin noted in The Prize decades ago:
Hydrocarbon Man shows little inclination to give up his cars, his suburban home, and what he takes to be not only the conveniences but the essentials of his way of life. The peoples of the developing world give no indication that they want to deny themselves the benefits of an oil-powered economy, whatever the environmental questions. Any notion of scaling back the world’s consumption of oil will be influenced by the extraordinary population growth ahead.
What was true then is truer today.