Cars Are Killing Us

Building our societies around cars has always been a terrible and dangerous idea.

In the TV advertisement for its forthcoming 2024 Sierra EV Denali Edition 1 pickup truck, the General Motors Corporation suggests that building and buying such a machine are both, at this point in human affairs, acts of audacity. Are you willing to pony up the projected $107,000 sticker price? Bold! To do so for an electric vehicle? Downright courageous! The future is ours, we achievers and heroes!

That’s certainly the quasi-official story, and both the powers-that-be and the population of macho men willing and able to spend $107,000 on a personal-use truck are stickin’ to it.

Yet, in our era of burgeoning global ecological problems, are we really being audacious, or perhaps something else, when it comes to the great rumbling contraption that remains our epoch’s most fundamental and consequential technology—the automobile?

In the United States, where the horseless carriage has long reigned supreme and where it very conspicuously continues to do so, we simply don’t discuss this ongoing reality, despite its obvious centrality in our everyday lives, its deep significance in our most basic ideologies, and its mind-bendingly immense costs and dangers.

As to those costs and dangers, consider a few of the elementary facts that remain completely out-of-bounds in American discourse: For decades, car crashes have been the leading cause of death among American children. Meanwhile, due to the sheer layout and contours of American municipalities, ordinary people of all circumstances are forced to squander vast amounts of time and treasure acquiring, operating, and maintaining cars and trucks. And, atop and through it all, our globe-straddling, car-centered, we’re #1-insisting society drags human civilization itself on toward its potential demise. Despite the advent of EVs, the U.S. automotive fleet now stands as the nation’s number-one source of greenhouse gas emissions. And electricity-generation, the supposed (but actually unexamined) solution to this crisis, remains firmly and almost certainly unchangeably rooted in unsustainable and unscalable underlying material processes.

Despite such heart-stopping troubles, here in America we still simply look the other way and find other themes—any other themes—to discuss. It’s quite astounding, this galaxy of inattention. As our politicians and pundits meticulously avoid politicizing basic transportation policy, “highway bills” continue to pass easily, always with even more consensus and less debate than our infamous Pentagon renewals. Despite their own worsening headlines, our mass media offer us, at most, nightly traffic reports and occasional mentions of the price of gas. Even our radicals stay mum, barely mentioning the automobile, even when fighting to block pipelines and demonize fossil fuels.

What explains this roaring national silence?

I think it is a combination of several factors. First, as any competent observer would have predicted, automotive goods and services remain the biggest stars of the corporate marketing juggernaut, which in turn remains by far the largest source of media sponsorship and revenue. Woe betide the channel or website that decides to get seriously analytical about the nature and logic of cars-first transportation in American (and global) life. Second, once your society has been substantially platted and paved out for cars, all the resulting tons and miles of pavement serve, in and of themselves, as a vast psychic and geo-spatial obstacle to imagination and criticism. Built reality comes to feel like nature—given, inevitable, unalterable. Third, and perhaps most crucially, I am convinced that such car criticism as there has so far been is not only embarrassingly sporadic, but also far too conceptually and interpretively timid. The one bestseller in the whole topical history of cars in America, Ralph Nader’s 1965 (and now out-of-print) book, Unsafe at Any Speed, was, after all, merely a plea for better cars.

Shockingly, after twelve decades of utterly unchecked and all-encompassing automobilization in human history’s most powerful and consequential territorial unit, nobody from inside that place has really yet asked: What if building human societies around these admittedly audacious—and also immensely profitable—machines was always a terrible, fatally flawed idea?

This is the long-suppressed question that exposes the real chutzpah in the new GMC Denali and its uber-gaslighting promotion. Hundreds of millions of objects of the size and complexity and geographic implications of automobiles are simply not sustainable on our finite planet. Despite this increasingly undeniable truth, our prevailing institutions continue to meet the situation with only ever-bigger and more brazen shout-downs.

Will we, the great sidelined majority of modern Earthlings, somehow muster the courage and clarity—the audacity, you might even say—to start thinking, talking, and working our way out of the resulting crisis? That strikes me as a rather mountainous question.

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MICHAEL DAWSON is a writer based on Portland, Oregon, USA. He is currently working on a book titled Courting Carmageddon: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States.


MICHAEL DAWSON is a writer based on Portland, Oregon, USA. He is currently working on a book titled Courting Carmageddon: Capitalism and Transportation in the United States.

1 thought on “Cars Are Killing Us”

  1. Again in your case it is proven. Some people are educated way beyond their mental ability to acknowledge what for and why. Do you practice what you preach and walk every where or are you a mouth piece who needs attention and not practice what you preach. Take the tax payer funds from these ev bs including wind turbines and solar farms and they would no be built. Ev will destroy our electrical grid. We are not prepared for the drain.

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