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Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives
“Once upon a time, the American met the automobile and fell in love,” wrote John Keats in his 1964 critique of car culture, The Insolent Chariots. “Unfortunately, this led him into matrimony, and so he did not live happily ever after.”
Nearly a half-century after Keats wrote this (given the era, I’ll overlook the gender bias in his wording), and more than a hundred years since the advent of cars, we’re still not at happily ever after. In fact, the car continues to pose big economic, health, safety and social problems, as deftly detailed by Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez in Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on our Lives.
Carjacked joins a hefty body of literature critiquing our automotive transportation system, including my own work Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair with the Automobile, released in 2000. Do we need another critique of car culture? My answer is a resounding yes. While such books all tell us about the problems cars cause and about better, greener, more economical and socially just approaches to transportation, what they say gets swamped by the ongoing tsunami of marketing messages that coax us to embrace automobiles. As the authors of Carjacked write, this relentless marketing leads us to “take the car for granted as a social good, which renders it nearly invisible as the source of a range of problems.”
Like most car critiques,Carjacked exposes the massive costs cars impose on society, in everything from dollars to deaths. But it also explores new territory by grounding its stories and analysis in anthropological interviews with American drivers, people who eagerly shared “delights, frustrations, and tragedies resulting from the car system.”
Spurred by the loss of close friends and relatives in car crashes, the authors wrote this book to explore the contradictions inherent in car culture. “Once we had asked how something that we relied on so much could cause so much pain,” they write, “we also found ourselves wondering how something so terribly dangerous could bring us such tremendous pleasure.” So the two of them – Catherine an anthropologist from Brown University, and Anne a businessperson with extensive marketing experience – decided to research “how Americans live with the car on a day-to-day basis – how it structures their lives and how they feel about it.”
The result is a book whose gist can be summed up with one look at its brilliant cover, silhouetting a man bowed under the weight of the car he carries on his shoulders. Look past the cover, and you’ll find the stories and analysis that point out what a burden to us the car has really become.
After a chapter summing up conditions that make us the “United States of Automobiles,” home to more vehicles than licensed drivers, Carjacked examines our automotive illusions. Chapter Two, “Dream Car,” looks at movies and marketing, branding and beliefs, and how they shape an automobile mythology that largely obscures the costs and problems that come with basing transportation so heavily on cars. The book then goes on to take an in-depth look at the realities of car culture:
• how aggressively cars are marketed and sold, with $18 billion per year spent by automakers on ads mostly for TV, “ making it impossible to channel surf without landing on an ad for a car, SUV, or truck.”
• manipulation of consumers in the process of the car purchase itself: “Dealer tactics that are not simply unethical but baldly illegal are unfortunately not rare.”
• how the dollar price we pay is actually much more than we realize: by 2003, car transport “swallowed one in five dollars spent” by American households.
• how cars contribute to social and economic inequality: “The automobile has largely cemented and accentuated class and race divisions in America.”
• the factors that encourage us to drive more and more: at just 16 percent of car trips, “commuting isn’t the main culprit. …. The numbers of other types of trips have exploded.”
• how cars sicken us and our environment: cancer risks increase “within 150 to 500 yards of major roads, although some studies find these cancer corridors can be as wide as a mile on either side.”
• how – and how much – automobiles kill and maim: “The advent of SUVs has made America less safe. But even if all of our SUVs magically disappeared, cars would still be the deadliest factor in most of our environments.”
Since writing Divorce Your Car!, I’ve hoped we would reach a tipping point at which enough people would see the ways car problems outweigh their benefits that we would renegotiate the love affair. Like a kid on a car trip, I’ve been wondering, “Are we there yet?” And in fact, the authors of Carjacked think we are. The book identifies 2008 as a tipping point in our car culture. That year, gas prices shot over $4 per gallon, and it was the beginning of the end for the Hummer. Small car sales overtook SUVs. Not only gas prices but also widespread financial collapse pulled the already ailing auto companies into bailout territory. Conditions are thus ripe, Lutz and Lutz Fernandez believe, for a real change in our relationship with cars.
The book concludes with a chapter advocating a two-fold approach to fostering that change, first by reducing our individual car dependence, and second, by increasing our collective alternatives, primarily transit. “Our prescription does not require us to give up the real freedom that cars can provide,” the authors write. “It does, however, point us toward a healthier, more balanced car culture that minimizes the manifold prices we pay for this freedom.”
By tallying the costs of car culture and suggesting constructive ways to become less car-dependent, Carjacked can help us first to see and then to move out from under the burdens imposed by car culture.