There’s a feeling that has been gnawing at me for a long time now.1 Each time I go to the petrol station, take out the bowser and start to fill the tank of our family car, an overwhelming sense of guilt, dread and wastefulness comes over me. I can’t stop thinking about the profligacy embedded in this routine act of daily life: the energy-intensive life cycle of extracting, refining and transporting this oil halfway across the globe; the insanity of burning it for one’s personal mobility; the perilous environmental consequences of the carbon emissions from it; and the billion or so other vehicles like mine on the roads of the world.2
Yet here I am, along with my family, locked in this toxic relationship with the bowser, and with the internal combustion engine. Once upon a time, living in the inner city of Melbourne, we survived without a car. We took public transport, or we walked. Occasionally we borrowed a car to go shopping, or to get out of town. Being a carless household was difficult, but possible, in that particular urban environment. Now we live in the wide expanses of southern California: the infamously centreless, ever-expanding suburban periphery with its endless seas of cars pulsing on its prodigious freeways, and its vast tracts of housing built on the assumption of universal car ownership. Here, trying to survive without a car would be socially suicidal; and the imagining of alternatives feels near impossible.
Our quotidian reliance on the automobile is but one example of a more generalised politics of complicity that characterises our relationship to the making of an uninhabitable earth.3 By a ‘politics of complicity’ I mean the condition of being wholly aware of one’s participation in a destructive system, knowing the seriousness of this participation, but feeling powerless to do otherwise. This condition permeates nearly every practice of contemporary life, from using electricity powered by fossil fuels to travelling on aeroplanes, consuming meat and dairy products or negotiating the layers of plastic that wrap our material lives and suffocate the food chains on which we rely. Being complicit means being called upon to perform continuous, small acts of ecological destruction in order to satisfy a basic requirement, or as a precondition for participation in social life. Yet our complicity is unevenly distributed. It can be mixed up with virtuousness, such as when a vegan purchases jackfruit ‘crab’ cakes or plant-based ‘beyond meat’ burger patties, only to discover that their food is packaged in multiple, unrecyclable layers of plastic. Or we can be subject to competing complicities: is it better for me to draft this essay on recycled paper or to plug into a computer powered by coal-fired electricity?
In searching for a way out of the debilitating malaise of the present moment, we can look usefully to the frameworks of earlier generations of radical environmental critique. Alan Roberts (1925–2017), the Australian physicist and ecological theorist in whose honour this essay is written, provided one such example in his prescient and far-reaching critique of the bases of contemporary consumerism. While several strands of Roberts’ thought are of lasting significance to our present climate emergency, it is his politicising consumption from an environmental set of principles that I have chosen to draw on in the present essay.4 In The Self-Managing Environment, a collection of essays published in 1979, Roberts combined insights from Marx and Marcuse to argue that we had entered the ‘consumerist stage’ in the history of capitalism, a period based on a ‘majority dependence of the economy on prior and intensive shaping of the mass of consumers’.5 The atomised form of social life expressed through the nuclear family had led to the proliferation of energy-intensive lifestyles based on individual household units: domestic appliances, television sets, motor cars and various other gadgetries had become falsely synonymous with the ‘good life’.6 Consumerism had soullessly but effectively reduced the individual to his or her act of purchasing on the market, in place of more satisfying forms of social exchange. Identifying the emptiness and alienation at the heart of capitalism was a familiar refrain of Marxian cultural criticism; Roberts’ great contribution was to tease out the environmental implications of late-twentieth-century capitalism’s hegemonic consumerist ethos. In his analysis, consumer society threatened the environment because of its ‘unlimited appetite—unlimited precisely because its objects are so unsatisfying’.7
Whereas Roberts came out of a theoretical tradition promoting collective forms of social life and the deconstruction of individualism, many contemporary approaches fall into the trap of ‘lifestylism’—that is, the conviction that personal agency in consumption can be the catalyst for systemic change. According to the logic of lifestylism, if a sufficient number of enlightened and conscientious consumers cease purchasing problematic products, then production will necessarily shift to accommodate demand. The faulty logic of this blind faith in the magic of market forces is revealed upon even the most cursory examination. Firstly, as Roberts recognised, in a consumer society demand is not a given: demand is created through advertising. In other words, it does not objectively relate to some pre-existing need; rather, advertising shapes and determines consumers’ perception of need so that it aligns with the interests of producers. Moreover, the very possibility of ‘conscious consumer choices’ is structured around the differential terms of social class and purchasing power.8 Lifestylism’s ideology inevitably collapses into distinction seeking: a logic that asserts, ‘I can be exonerated of our collective sins by my individual virtue’. (I performed a subtle form of this in the second paragraph of this essay by implicitly lauding our household’s temporarily car-free existence.)
However, it is not sufficient to debunk the errors of lifestylism and to recognise instead that systemic factors precondition the terms of our individual choices. The consciousness of our manipulated personal participation in civilisational annihilation demands that we engage more systematically in the creation of alternative forms of social organisation as we move to decarbonise our way of life. I have chosen in this essay to focus on automobile dependence for several reasons. Of all our toxic ‘lifestyles’, the car mediates our relationship to fossil fuels in the most naked form, as my petrol-station anxiety suggests. It is also universal, posing a challenge to rich and poor countries alike. It affects the full gamut of settlement patterns, from city to country and the many spaces in between. It is also, arguably, the issue in which questions of social justice are most entangled. In a world that has been remade for automobility, the car has been constructed, mentally and practicably, as a key to economic empowerment and the right to mobility.
It is telling that the issue that ignited the revolt of the gilets jaunes was the price of petrol. This movement has had most traction among the communities of the périphérique, the people living in the forgotten zones outside the privileged urban centres. Such classes are reliant on the car as a consequence of the progressive disinvestment in France’s once-extensive rail network over many decades.9 The case of the gilets jaunes has captured most international attention, but similar protests have erupted elsewhere in recent years. When the government of Mexico removed price controls on gasoline at the beginning of 2017, the 20-per-cent rise in costs for consumers led the opposition to call for a ‘peaceful revolution’. Protestors blockaded freeways and petrol stations across the country for several weeks before thousands were arrested.10 In January 2019 a whopping 130-per-cent increase in the price of petrol in Zimbabwe inspired a similar nationwide strike that lasted several days until it was put down. The repressive government crackdown killed at least twelve people.11 It is communities such as these, across the globe, that will be most vulnerable to price hikes and sudden precarities in the supply lines of oil in the volatile years ahead.
The term ‘automobile dependence’ was coined by Perth-based academics Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy in their landmark 1989 Cities and Automobile Dependence: An International Sourcebook. It caught on quickly among researchers in the field of transport planning, as it suggested a collective pathology requiring urgent intervention. It captured what one writer has called the ‘insanity of normality’.12 The harmful symptoms of this societal sickness have been systematically documented elsewhere.13 Without wishing to exhaustively rehash them here, the car’s ‘externalities’ include the respiratory conditions that are endemic among residents living alongside freeways; the wasteful, land-intensive patterns of development that come with planning for car dependence; and the exclusion and alienation of non-drivers in places without adequate public-transport provision.14 The path dependency of automobile dependence is most extreme in the United States, where driving is inseparable from participation in the public sphere, and the practice of citizenship.15 (To illustrate: under ‘motor voter’ legislation, citizens are eligible to register to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles when applying for a driver’s licence.)
The engineering of captive consumer economies dependent on the lifeblood of oil has occurred in the century since the First World War: a remarkably short space of civilisational time, and a blip in planetary time. First in the United States in the 1920s, then throughout most of the world in the post–Second World War period, the age of mass car consumption spread in tandem with the rise in home ownership, the electrification of cities, and the development of what Timothy Mitchell called our ‘carbon intensive lifestyles’.16 At every step of the way, the forces that engineered this great dependence—the car companies, the oil companies, the road builders, the paid lobbyists—have sought to discredit their critics, and to delay and defer action that would dent their profit margins. Employing tactics similar to those of the tobacco industry, fossil-fuel magnates have successfully contained the threat of regulation while expanding their reach into new markets of captive consumers. Their oil-stained hands have been implicated in numerous wars, coups d’état and violent occupations in petroleum-producing countries. However, the history of the automobile has not been simply a conspiracy of capital. Driving upon the monumental American freeway network stretching from coast to coast, financed by successive waves of tax dollars from the New Deal to the Reagan era, one rides on an artefact of public-minded ambition, the promise of progress, and the illusion of freedom. The automobile intoxicated the twentieth century with its seductive claims of liberation. We are all now paying the price.
The title of this essay pays homage to the 1974 cult classic that was the first feature-length film directed by Peter Weir. The Cars That Ate Paris is a searing mix of satire, black comedy and B-grade horror that still speaks to our unhealthy relationship with automobiles. The fictional ‘Paris’ is actually a small Australian country town (Sofala, New South Wales) that lures visitors with a series of signs on the highway promising work. Once they approach the town on a narrow, windy road, the unsuspecting drivers are blinded by bright lights, causing them to crash. The smashed-up cars are then towed into town, where the Parisians proceed to scavenge off the wreckage of the vehicle. If they have not been fatally maimed already, the driver and passengers are then taken to the local hospital, where a psychopathic surgeon performs ‘experiments’ that turn them into catatonic vegetables.
The film’s protagonist, Arthur Waldo, the survivor of an accident that has killed his brother, miraculously avoids this treatment when the mayor takes pity on him and adopts him into the family. Arthur is a diminished and traumatised subject who wanders the streets of Paris in a state of shock, gaslighted into believing that he has a serious psychological condition: a fear of cars. Meanwhile, in addition to Paris’ sinister organised racket, a band of hooligans driving repurposed wrecks from the town’s crash industry terrorise the townspeople with their crazed driving and prevent Arthur from leaving Paris by blocking the road out of town. After finally being brought to justice via a public burning of their cars, they return to exact revenge with their now-weaponised vehicles, covered with spikes. In the orgy of violence of the film’s climax, the hooligans gruesomely impale one of the town elders and destroy the buildings of the main street. Arthur is convinced to kill one of the hooligans by getting into the driver’s seat and reversing into him repeatedly inside a garage. Instead of recoiling in horror at his act, he declares with quiet satisfaction: ‘I can drive!’ Healed of his motorphobia, he drives out of town joyously to the soundtrack of sentimental French music as the credits roll.
The Cars That Ate Paris is a ruthless critique of the implicit violence and anxiety of the automobile age. It is a monument to the anti-consumerist spirit of the time and place in which it was made, animated by the same spirit that permeates Alan Roberts’ writing. Despite the potency of the campaigns waged in the 1970s by community activists, engaged artists and scholars, the automobile was culturally rehabilitated in the following decades.17 Before his untimely passing, the internationally renowned Melburnian transport scholar Paul Mees (1961–2013) used to joke that against all odds we had somehow learned, like Dr Strangelove, to stop worrying and love the car once more. In these crucial missed decades, the promoters of car dependency shock-absorbed their opponents’ criticisms and enacted reforms to their production processes. Improvements such as switching to unleaded petrol, increasing fuel efficiency and, most recently, developing electric engines have all promised to tame the car. They can be seen as successive chapters in the search for a technological palliative to soften the environmental impacts of car dependency but leave the basic condition intact (conveniently sidestepping its structural inequalities in social and economic terms).
The latest chapter in this ameliorative history—as seen in the reification of Tesla, and the utopian promise of the electric car more generally—is a textbook example of what Roberts called the ‘technological fix’.18 (Mees, for his part, spoke of ‘technological fetishism’.) In searching for the technological magic bullet, techno-utopians engage in wishful thinking and a singular, unilateral approach to a complex problem. Applying the sort of methodical dissection that is a characteristic feature of Roberts’ essays, one can identify at least five objections. First, in a time when we have needed collective solutions, the electric car has catered to the few, offering a way for the rich to purchase away their guilt but leaving the many behind (a classic instance of the logic of lifestylism we dissected above). Second, current production levels are nowhere near those that would be required to solve the problem on a global scale, which in the crisis of climate change is the only scale that matters (to say nothing of all the energy implications of that production). Even if one can look past their other problems, the proportion of new electric vehicles will remain infinitesimal for the foreseeable future, the time in which we must radically act.19 Third, global levels of lithium, required for electric batteries, are fast being depleted and their extraction is polluting communities that lie close to mines.20 Fourth, the electric car offers no solution for the billion cars already on the road, unless manufacturers can accept or be subsidised into converting the engines of existing vehicles. Fifth, electric vehicles use the same synthetic rubber tyres that are now believed to be the largest contributors to the scourge of microplastics in coastal waters.21
Since the international accord was signed there in 2016, ‘Paris’ has come to stand for the last remaining hope of survival in the ecological emergency that is fast bearing down on us. It was in the French capital that the reluctant ratifiers of Kyoto—notably Australia and the United States—finally committed to meaningful targets for reducing emissions. The Paris framework allows each signatory to determine emissions-reduction strategy within its national borders. So far, few of the signatories have shown the stomach to address auto dependency. Of those countries taking tentative steps, France, which began clumsily to address the problem via a fuel levy, has seen the wrath of discontented and disenfranchised motorists in the form of the gilets jaunes. Whatever criticism one might make about the effectiveness of the agreement, the subsequent coming to power of climate-change-denying leaders in Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Scott Morrison means we must fight for whatever scraps of its potential are left. There is every reason to legitimately fear that the cars of the world may eat Paris once more.
It’s 23 July 2019 and I am in the car with the kids, to whom I have yielded control of the radio dial. Against the background hum of the air-conditioning, the commercial-radio announcer declares that ‘it’s the start of a heatwave today. It’s gonna be in the 90s [Fahrenheit] in LA and the OC, up in the 100s in Inland Empire, but you’ll be much cooler in your new Jeep Wrangler! We’re giving away ten this week to lucky callers’. Meanwhile, Paris—the real city, not the fictional Australian town, nor the metonym for international coordination—is sweating through its hottest day ever recorded: 42 degrees Celsius. The time for action is long overdue.
No magic bullet will singlehandedly wean us off our dangerous dependence on the car. But we need nonetheless to break the cycle of contemptuous self-righteousness and find collective solutions. In implementing our post-petroleum future, we need to put people at the centre of planning once more, and to confront the vested interests that stand in the way. In doing so, we might try to recapture something of the spirit of the 1970s and the example of Alan Roberts. When Roberts appealed to the concept of ‘self-management’ as being necessary to confront ecological crises, he meant the meaningful control of social life by communities rather than the interests of corporations or bureaucratic managers. He recognised that the ‘massive change in popular values’ required to overcome individualised consumerism would only come about through the experience of struggle.22 As ‘consumers’ we do possess some power, but it needs to be properly politicised, and built on cross-class alliances as we imagine solutions beyond the strictures of our present automobile dependence. Instead of shifting what we buy and do as individuals, we should be taking to the streets together.
Instead of kneeling at the altar of consumerism and absolving ourselves of sin in the Tesla showroom, we need to fight for our collective right to universal mobility via high-quality public transport. It must be safe, reliable, affordable, and air-conditioned for the hot periods of the year that will now be the reality of virtually every region of the globe. Given the urgency of our crisis, we may not have the time, or the readily deployable budgets and labour power, to undertake massive-scale investments. It won’t all be high-speed rail and fancy underground trains. Much will be simple but effective thickets of on-road buses, powered from renewable sources. Cities from Curitiba to Toronto to Zurich to Kerala have shown how it can be done.
Such networks can be deployed on existing roads almost immediately, with minimal financial impost. For instance, when Melbourne held the 2006 Commonwealth Games, lanes on many of the key inner-city roads were temporarily repainted as exclusive lanes for official vehicles. It was implemented without chaos and road users adapted. It could be easily done again, this time for buses, with a particular focus on the much-neglected outer suburbs of the city. As I write this, the city of Los Angeles is considering a proposal to give over single lanes on city roads to dedicated busways.23 The plan is a decent start but should urgently be extended across the metropolis and into the contiguous suburbia of the surrounding cities. In order to wean people off the car, we must actively create incentives for public-transport use, thereby making the alternative a competitive option. Adopting the kind of ‘network planning’ advocated by Mees and others, we should design services on the basis of legibility, reliability and convenience. Expanded and interconnected public-transport networks need to meet the needs of users, not the narrow operational logic of transport bureaucracies limited in imagination.
We must demand a moratorium on the construction of all new freeways that cater only to individual motorists. On those that remain, we ought to immediately implement massive planting of vertical gardens on the columns and flyovers—as has been recently trialled in the ‘Via Verde’ project in Mexico City—to help absorb carbon dioxide and filter air pollution.24 On the same freeways, we should dedicate lanes to public transport, properly connected at crossroads to other lines. (This also has begun in Los Angeles, but all too often with poorly designed stops and interchanges that are hostile to users). We should also take advantage of previous investment in existing rail networks and continue to invest in them to make them accessible across all parts of the network. As we move to decrease our dependence on petroleum, we must acknowledge and take seriously the unequal impacts of energy transition on disadvantaged communities—the spatially isolated, transport-poor regions that will bear an uneven proportion of the rough shocks ahead.
Perhaps most important, we must transform our respective alienation—our quiet, individualised sobbing at the petrol station—into more constructive and empowering ends.
1 I thank Rachel Goldlust for reading a draft of this essay and providing me with helpful feedback.
2 ‘Number of Cars Worldwide Surpasses 1 Billion; Can The World Handle This Many Wheels?’, Huffington Post, 23 August 2011.
3 David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, New York, Tim Duggan Books, 2019.
4 I am drawing mostly on the essay ‘Consumerism and Its Needs’, in Alan Roberts, The Self-Managing Environment, London, Allison and Busby, 1979, pp. 32–50.
5 Roberts, The Self-Managing Environment, p. 34.
6 Hall Greenland, ‘Physics Teacher Became a Pioneer Ecologist’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 January 2018.
7 Roberts, The Self-Managing Environment, p. 174.
8 For probing recent critiques of neoliberal consumerist individualism, see Martin Lukacs, ‘Neoliberalism has Conned Us into Fighting Climate Change as Individuals’, The Guardian, 17 July 2017; see also Vijay Kolinjivadi, ‘Why a Hipster, Vegan, Green Tech Economy Is not Sustainable’, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.
9 Ian Klaus, ‘To Understand American Political Anger, Look to “Peripheral France”’, City Lab, 12 June 2019; Olivier Razemon, ‘La France paie cher sa dépendance à la voiture’, Le Monde, 7 December 2018.
10 Kate Linthicum, ‘Protests Erupt Across Mexico over a Sudden Spike in Gasoline Prices’, Los Angeles Times, 3 January 2017.
11 ‘Uneasy Calm in Zimbabwe Amid Stay-at-home Fuel Price Protest’, Al Jazeera, 16 January 2019.
12 John Whitelegg, ‘Editorial’, World Transport Policy and Practice, vol. 20.2/3, May 2014, special edition in honour of Paul Mees, pp. 4–5.
13 For useful introductions to the problem, see the work of Paul Mees, especially A Very Public Solution: Transport in the Dispersed City, Parkville, University of Melbourne Press, 2000, and Transport for Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age, London, Earthscan, 2010.
14 George Monbiot, ‘Cars Are Killing Us. Within 10 Years, We Must Phase Them Out’, The Guardian, 7 March 2019.
15 Gregory H. Shill, ‘Americans Shouldn’t Have to Drive, but the Law Insists on It’, The Atlantic, 9 July 2019.
16 Timothy Mitchell, ‘Carbon Democracy’, Economy and Society, 38: 3, 2009, pp. 399–432.
17 For a highly readable account of historical battles over the automobile in Melbourne, see Graeme Davison, Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered Our Cities, Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 2004.
18 Roberts, The Self-Managing Environment, p. 24.
19 In recent weeks additional reports of Tesla’s financial woes have emerged. See Russ Mitchell, ‘Tesla Loses $408 Million as Technology Chief J.B. Straubel Departs’, Los Angeles Times, 24 July 2019.
20 Monbiot, ‘Cars Are Killing Us’.
21 Rosanna Xia, ‘The Biggest Likely Source of Microplastics in California Coastal Waters? Our Car Tires’, Los Angeles Times, 2 October 2019.
22 Roberts, The Self-Managed Environment, p. 175.
23 ‘Editorial: Want a Transit System That Actually Works? Then L.A. Needs Bus-only Lanes’, Los Angeles Times, 13 July 2019.
24 Notwithstanding legitimate concerns about the intentions and implications of this project, it at least represents a low-cost, immediately deployable strategy for mitigating some of the toxic effects of existing freeways. It should be seen as part of a wider solution, not itself the sole solution. See Lisa Martine Jackson, ‘Mexico City’s Vertical Gardens: Seeds of Change or Cynical Greenwashing?’, The Guardian, 30 October 2018.